Don't Be Hatin'
How the Internet helps us all get along ... or not
By Belinda Acosta, Fri., March 6, 2009
Walking through the Convention Center during the South by Southwest Interactive Festival in years past, it didn't take a demographer to note that the crowd was predominantly white, male, and 30-ish. Not that that's surprising. Internet and computer access largely depend on means, knowledge, and information. But if it's called the World Wide Web, one has to wonder if that world is really that worldly or wide and how broadly that Web is cast and to whom.
To address that question, the Chronicle asked participants from three panels on race and gender at this year's Fest to share their thoughts on how – or if – the Internet can foster change, work for social justice, and in short, help us all get along. Samhita Mukhopadhyay is an editor for Feministing.com and a Web manager at the Oakland, Calif.-based Center for Media Justice. Her writing focuses on transnational feminisms, race, media justice and policy, pop culture, and music. As writer and editor of Racialicious.com, Latoya Peterson provides a hip-hop feminist and anti-racist view of pop culture with a special focus on video games. An avid blogger and Twitterer, Steve Swedler is CEO of SimpleSeating.com and the "chief product guy" at Gangplank, a tech accelerator based in Chandler, Ariz. This interview occurred through shared group e-mails.
Austin Chronicle: Much is said about how the Internet is egalitarian – how it humanizes instead of segregates, how it's "colorblind" and "gender neutral." True?
Steve Swedler: I think that one of the big problems we have with the Internet are expectations. We talk about the Internet as shrinking the world and creating a global economy and community, but this is simply a dream. The number of people not on the Internet still outnumber those that are. And the number of people using the Internet for purposes of connecting with the global community is far less than people would have us believe. My supposition is that the majority of online "friendships" fall into three categories: "familiar," "validating," and "false." We seek out those types of relationships because they are safe and comfortable.
Samhita Mukhopadhyay: In my experience, I have felt that most of my online experiences are very genuine, but I think part of that is that in order to write personally about sex, gender, and class, you assume a certain level of transparency. What I write about is who I am ... so the relationships may not ever be validating and they are rarely familiar, but they are pretty real.
Latoya Peterson: I agree with Steve's original idea. The concepts he has broken down are often seen in both racial and gender analysis. People seek out conversations that are both familiar and validating to them, and tend to reject things that fall outside of those lines as false. The key to progressive activism is finding a way to reach across these boundaries and encourage people to engage with ideas outside of their comfort zones.
AC: Now that Obama has been elected, everyone is talking about race. What about class?
Peterson: Class is a very necessary dynamic to all the conversations we have about race and gender in the U.S. [In my writing] I discuss class as having a "hard" component (economic inequalities and their realities) and a "soft" component (ideas and perceptions surrounding class and class privilege). In order to generate fresh ideas and discourse, we need to be open to understanding that people are impacted differently by their life circumstances and that one issue (like class) doesn't "trump" another issue (like race).
Mukhopadhyay: I actually think a lot of writers discuss class, but the conversation gets muddled by our lack of a comprehensive narrative around class. It turns into a "you're more privileged than me" game. Within the identity politics blog world, it is very much about who has the privilege to read blogs, etc. Many of the conversations are not very productive.
Swedler: This is a very difficult question to answer because it depends on the revolution. When I speak of "revolution," I simply mean any manifestation of action in meatspace that puts people together for a common task. Some might argue that the discussion of class, in many cases, is a bigger deterrent to revolution.
AC: When discussing race in the U.S., it always comes down to black and white. When talking about race during the election, it always came down to Obama's blackness. What is not talked about as much, and what resonates for many Mexican-Americans and other Latinos is that Obama is the first (obviously) mixed-race president. That term, the very messiness of blurred lines, seems to disturb people. People like their knowledge compartmentalized. So, is there a way to make the Internet less of a seek-and-find system? Is it too linear and too text-based to be a true "public square," a tool for social justice, or a means to understand one another?
Mukhopadhyay: I think this is a really interesting question that I have been thinking about with respect, not only to my panel, but about my identity on the Internet as well. Blogging provides a tremendous amount of tools and resources for people that may not have historically been given the mic, [but] the reality is that injustice is reproducing itself online. ... I think for people like myself and Latoya and other political/cultural bloggers, who we are is what we write about and this makes any temporary relief from our lived experience next to impossible since culturally, racism and sexism and classism and homophobia are so persistent.
Peterson: The Internet is designed to be seek-and-find, but not strictly so. ... There are thousands of other detours along the way. ... I can think of many bloggers that I adore that I discovered by accident. ... I also don't think the Internet is that linear because of the nature of communication on the Internet – how our networks inform each other, interact with other networks, and cross-pollinate each other with ideas. While it can be tempting to stay in an Internet echo chamber, that takes an extraordinary amount of work to ignore all the new, incoming ideas thrusting past you.
Swedler: The Internet will never be more than the people who use it. Class, race, and gender are not things that are easily hidden online. So those that seek to cross barriers will, but those who don't, will not. ... It is convicted people who act in the real world that will bring about change. The Internet CAN be a big part of that, if we learn to use it as such.
AC: From your perspective, what is the "revolution"? What role do online communities and social networks play in it? What role do you play in it?
Peterson: All revolutions should be revolutions of thought – an ongoing evolution of ideas, the encouragement of the critical thinking process, the willingness to look past things that keep us stagnant and will allow us all to move forward. I have been re-evaluating my whole purpose for being online recently and I ultimately came to the conclusion that I want to facilitate conversations and spread information. I feel like that is the most powerful thing you can do – to provide someone with an argument or an idea they can mull over, accept or reject ... or revisit later.
Mukhopadhyay: I think a revolution can only happen with changes in mindset, yes, but also strategic campaigns using grassroots organizing models. ... But even prior to that, I think changing people's minds is important work with respect to policy change, I just don't know if blogging does that. Changing people's minds is hard and I'm not sure if it just allows people to debate and if not, reify what they believe. On the other hand, I get tons of [e-mails] from women that have never heard about the things we write about at Feministing [saying] how it truly changed their lives.
Swedler: In my opinion, the "revolution" is undefined. It is up to every individual. My revolution might be very different than yours, but online communities can only be as effective as you make them. The level of discomfort in getting up on your soapbox on Facebook or Twitter is equal to the extent you are willing to go to make a difference in your "revolution." It can be difficult to be sure, evidenced by the complete lack of McCain support on Twitter. Is it because no one on Twitter voted for him, or was it because it was too uncomfortable to speak out in the vast sea of Obama supporters?
That's Not My Name: Beating Down Online Misogyny
Sunday, March 15, 10-11am, Room 8
Can Social Media End Racism?
Sunday, March 15, 11:30am-12:30pm, Room 8
How Social Networks Are Killing the Revolution
Sunday, March 15, 5-6pm, Room 8