The whitening of social media

The U.S. Supreme Court isn’t the only place we have lately been seeing insidious forces working on an aggressive “Take Back America Plan” that puts white supremacy and other oppressive systems back in the driver’s seat.

Most obviously right now, we have the court doing away with affirmative action in higher education, legalizing discrimination against the LGBTQ community and, of course, last year deciding to reverse Roe v Wade. But the societal rollback to making whiteness (and the patriarchy, etc.) “great” again has seeped through our societal pores into other areas of life.

People who at least nominally want a fair and just society for all started to think advances that had been made in ensuring the protection of rights for marginalized groups had gone far enough and/or were set in stone. Even the people who more passionately wanted this or have been activists in many cases got complacent.

As many folks who care about marginalized people and difference and social justice assumed that the momentum of change (which had never gone as far as they had thought nor had become as entrenched as they believed) would simply continue, the people that want to go back to the “good old days” have been working hard. In fact, I dare say that the tide has shifted back toward people who are tired of talking about race, progress toward equity, and all of that. 

One of the places that is becoming most evident is in our digital spaces. Elon Musk’s purchase of Twitter has helped to fast-track—and I daresay legitimize—the idea of “taking back” the United States and other countries from progressive efforts. The social media site, which once was touted as the global town square, has become a premier gathering place for bigots and oppressors of all stripes and their bots.

While many have jumped ship for Twitter alternatives, many marginalized people and communities—including yours truly—stayed on Twitter. What is sometimes missed in the Twitter discourse lately is how Twitter gave the ability to marginalized folks to build power and voice—to organize and connect. In many ways, Twitter was the great equalizer and the launcher of many opportunities. It was the place where folks lacking in access could gain access. Where else could a Black blogger writing on race from the whitest state in America build a national following? 

While many chose to leave Twitter because of what Musk symbolizes, what is not talked about nearly enough is how most of the mass exodus came from white people. Yes, there are folks of color who decided to bounce, but I think that most of us—understanding the imperfection of life—decided that sometimes it’s better to stick with the devil you know than the one you don’t. 

People leaving for other options doesn’t seem inherently bad until you realize that almost all the Twitter alternatives that have launched are facing accusations of not being friendly to Black folks, other people of color, the LGBTQ communities, and sex workers—just to name several people in society who are fast losing rights, safety, justice, and voice. While much has been made of federation and the fediverse and Mastodon, at the end of the day many from marginalized communities have not found these spaces to be hospitable to them.

Spoutible, while a Black startup, has never quite gained the traction needed to make it a viable option to Twitter for those of us who use social media for more than just killing time and shit-talking. 

Spill is making some waves very recently, but for now at least it seems to be coming together more as a space for marginalized folks rather than as a wider social space where they are safe and welcome and can reach not just each other but also non-marginalized people.

Many people for a while now have been eagerly awaiting the launch of Twitter founder Jack Dorsey’s new site, Bluesky. That eagerness quickly soured as more folks of color received invite codes (Bluesky is still in beta and invitation only) and realized that the vibe was drier than a box of generic saltine crackers. If that wasn’t bad enough, moderation policies or lack thereof quickly created a vibe that was less than hospitable for those with a healthy dose of melanin. 

These apps often talk a mean game of inclusion but in reality, spaces that operate within the framework of cultural whiteness leave many out in the cold. Never mind that these alternatives lack the type of infrastructure to replace Twitter as a town square, thus leaving many indie creators of color like yours truly without a viable platform to promote their work. More than that, though, is the shift to conversations that—whether by design or accident—might as well say “Whites Only.” 

Which is why the entry of Meta (as the company once known simply as Facebook is now called) into Twitter-like territory with the unveiling this past week of Threads is interesting.

Unlike Mastodon, Spoutible or Bluesky, joining Threads is a streamlined process. It’s attached to your existing Instagram account (IG now being owned by Meta) and you start with a crew of folks to follow based on who you were already following on IG. The result is that this is the first Twitter competitor to quickly capture the attention of a wide range of folks and to appear truly diverse.

In the first 48 hours after its launch, reports are that 70 million people signed up. At the moment, even people who never dabbled on Twitter are enjoying it as well as those who had jumped ship from Twitter. Interestingly enough, some reviews are calling it a snooze due to IG’s posting guidelines—and of course, because it is a Meta product, there are security and privacy concerns. 

Over on Bluesky, some are declaring it a basic site, which almost makes me wonder, is that code for something? It is no secret that social media has played a major role in the last decade in the world of racial justice. After all, where would Black Lives Matter be had there ever been social media? Most likely, a small localized effort. I cannot imagine Black Lives Matter or most of the movement work of the last decade (racial or otherwise) having the reach it has without social media making it possible. 

I cannot overstate the role of social media in activist spaces or even for those whose careers started with online writing but moved into book deals. Agents and publishers pay attention to online metrics. Again, social media created access and visibility for many and when we reduce social media to just a basic communications tool or a time-suck with no analysis around race and class, we are operating from a place of privilege. For many, these spaces mean their careers, livelihood, and survival. 

Personally, there is no doubt in my mind the role social media has played in my own career trajectory. In the summer of 2013, I applied for a position that was a very long shot. In the end, I was indeed hired to serve as the third executive director at Community Change Inc. Interestingly enough, my blog’s readership and social media metrics were a tipping factor in the hiring process, as the organization wanted to expand beyond its Boston base. 

To watch the doors that have been opened to so many start to close because of racism in particular is a slap in the face, especially when so many white allies don’t seem to grasp the quieter sides of racism. Racism isn’t always overt and loud. Sometimes it is the cloak of polite exclusion. It’s the whitening of spaces that previously welcomed diversity. It’s rules that stifle people of color under the guise of “fairness.” Fairness to whom? 

What we are seeing in many digital spaces is a retrenchment. We are seeing a quiet rollback that frankly is reflective of the larger world. Equally disheartening is seeing people meekly accept this shift, just as many are accepting the larger rollbacks we see with the Supreme Court, for example. A few years ago white people en masse were proclaiming that Black Lives Matter and committing to racial justice work. Where did that energy go and why have they moved on from this and so many other areas of social justice with the work unfinished?

If this piece or this blog resonates with you, please consider a one-time “tip” or become a monthly “patron”…this space runs on love and reader support. Or consider bringing me to your organization or group.

Comments will close on this post in 60-90 days; earlier if there are spam attacks or other nonsense.