This is the first episode of Virtualgoodsdealer Interview Series, where we will be having conversations with artists, scholars, and internet personalities on their work and experiences.
In this episode, we had the privilege of speaking with Dr. Andre Brock, author of Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures and professor of Black Digital Studies at the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech. Our one-hour discussion revolved around the strange relationship between outrage and justice, and the digital manifestations of this phenomenon. An open access version of his book is available through NYU Press Open Square.
ada.wrong: I’m excited to introduce Dr. Andre Brock, author of Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures. An open access version of the book can be found on our website below courtesy of NYU Press Open Square. Andre is an interdisciplinary scholar with an M.A. in English and Rhetoric from Carnegie Mellon University and a Ph.D. in Library and Information Science from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He currently teaches at the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at Georgia Tech. We’re looking forward to learning more about his work studying Black Twitter and to hear his thoughts about outrage economy, cancel culture, and their impact on social media.
Cindie: You are the first interviewee of our new series that we’re starting. We all really love your work and we’re really excited to talk to you about it.
Andre: I’m honored to be here.
Omnia: It’s an honor to have you.
Andre: You’re making me blush. Can we move on? [laughs]
Omnia: I guess we can just jump right in.
Andre: Let’s do it!
Omnia: So today’s episode is gonna be about the outrage economy. The first thing we need to discuss when we talk about outrage is the bad faith actors. Because those are the ones who feel outrage or pretend that they feel outrage, and it’s not justified because it’s not real. So how do we engage with these people? Without feeding them?
Andre: I mean, in physical spaces we have the ability to move away from confrontations with people who are unpleasant. Online spaces don’t really give you those same freedoms, and so trying to figure out how to deal with them has been an ongoing problem since we started talking to each other on the internet. Many sites use block lists or simply word of mouth so that people know about bad actors, but the bigger question I think you’re asking is — when somebody basically invades your space, besides block and mute, how can you deal with them? And I don’t really have a good answer for that.
Omnia: Moreso than invade my space, is there anything — I mean you can block them, but is there anything we can do to take a stand to them without engaging them or without feeding them? And one thing I had was maybe go and like all the negative comments, the critical comments, without replying to them, but you’re still adding to their engagement.
Andre: The trolls’ favorite currency is engagement. So anything we do to engage them, they see it as a win. And when you’re dealing with somebody who’s operating on that base level, it’s really hard to say how you can control them without shutting them out of the space. That being said, I am very much a “push back” kind of person, so I like the idea of liking things that are negatively said about them and promoting them. But the catch is that many of us try to maintain civil spaces, and civil spaces believe in the shared use of resources, whether it’s attention, whether it’s who’s on the mic, or whatever, right? Trolls don’t care about that. And when they come in not caring about that, there’s very little you can do in a civil manner that will allow you to get the upper hand in engagement. And so again, I thought about it a lot, but I don’t really have an answer besides the things that you guys have already discussed, which is blocks, mutes, IP blocks [laughs] because sometimes you have to go that far, and the like.
Omnia: So ignoring is basically the best way to deal with them. Just pretend like they don’t exist.
Cindie: A difference between a physical space vs. a digital space is — let’s say you are in this physical auditorium that’s a physical version of Twitter, and you’re on the mic talking — everybody hears you. And your opponent is also on the mic talking, and everybody hears them in the room, and the people in the room determine who wins. But that’s not really how digital spaces work, because let’s say I quote retweet something from an argument, most of the people who see my quote retweet will be my followers, most of which agree with me already. My opponent then quote retweets it, most of the people who see it are their followers, who already agree with them, so it’s not like a balanced kind of audience. Everybody just shares to their own audience and gets echoes. That’s like a weird thing.
Omnia: And it’s more cathartic than anything, it’s not really gonna add justice into the world.
Andre: Interesting that you say that, though, because I’ve seen a lot of recent pushback against the quote retweet itself, people saying it’s been weaponized to gain followers, it’s turned into this performative thing, rather than a reply to the conversation, but in response I often say that I don’t owe anybody the courtesy of a reply, particularly if they’re not a mutual. I’ll be civil to people who I don’t know who attempt to engage me civilly, but if you’re just coming into my thread or mentions saying, “You need to explain to me what critical race theory is” I don’t have to respond to that.
Omnia: What kind of question is that? [laughs]
Andre: Eventually, they’ll get tired. They may create sock puppets to continue harassing you, but eventually they’re get tired. The issue, though, is brigading, where they send other people who are not tired yet to keep harassing you, and that’s something that I think needs to be more fully addressed by platforms. Which I think is one of values of blockchain-style block lists, so I can block you and the people who follow you without ever having to interact with you, because I know your followers are trash too.
Omnia: I didn’t realize that’s what a block chain was, so that’s amazing.
Andre: It’s one of the ways it’s developing now. A lot of people have done a lot of hard work to assemble them, but it’s getting to a point where you can block entire swaths of people so that you never have to deal with them.
Cindie: I’ve gotten blocked by people on those block chains, literally because I’m a BTS stan, and there are people who try to block every BTS stan on Twitter. [laughs]
Andre: It’s a really crude way of controlling conversation, but sometimes those are the ones that work.
Cindie: That’s true.
Omnia: Very true. And so I’ve been thinking a lot about — when people feel outrage, it’s never not justified. They feel outrage because they feel like it’s justice, you know? They think that by merely feeling outrage, that’s gonna add justice into the world. And in leftist communities, there’s a lot of outrage obviously — in the “woke” left mob. Are there any ways — and I will own it — well actually, would you call yourself “woke”?
Andre: I technically fit the definition of both “woke” and an “sjw,” a social justice warrior.
Omnia: Yeah, me too!
Andre: It’s not something I am pressed about. Like, I’m not jumping up for every leftist cause, and outrage is not my currency. Partly because outrage is really exhausting, and I’m already worn out from this last year. I just sit there and eat my food. I don’t have the time to fight everybody.
Omnia: But a lot of people feel like that’s the only thing they can contribute is to speak the truth, and by speaking the truth, they incite outrage. But in leftist communities, is there a way to incite outrage intentionally without yourself being a bad faith actor?
Andre: People talk about the rise of polarization on social media. And for leftists I see it largely as purity tests.
Andre: You have to demonstrate that you are committed to the most righteous version of a particular group in order to participate. And that’s not really helpful. I think that also contributes to outrage because people can then become outraged because you’re not sufficiently demonstrating your dedication. We used to call it virtue signalling. But it’s gone way past that these days. One of the things I’ve been talking about in the talks I’ve been giving recently is that any people are powered emotionally, not necessarily in a bad way, but our emotions have intensified since the pandemic started, in a way that has become unhelpful. Because we have all this passion and this energy that we would normally dissipate by going out and hanging with our friends, or doing our hobbies, or sitting in coffee shops, which is my thing. Or getting wildly drunk on Bourbon Street — everybody has their thing. And at this point, we don’t necessarily have those things to relieve us, so we pour all this energy into the internet spaces that we inhabit. So outrage for the next year or so, I’m gonna argue, is gonna be kind of unavoidable. Because we still don’t have those mechanisms for relief.
Omnia: So is there a way to weaponize it into change, into action? For example, is being outraged that Doja Cat was in racist chatrooms showing feet, is that going to improve the condition of Black people?
Omnia: Or, it’s okay to be outraged at Lana Del Rey for dating a cop, but is that going to get rid of police brutality? There are ways that you can be, like I said, intentional, and I don’t know what those ways are.
Andre: In my book specifically, I talk about the mundane. Which is very different from the Big ‘P’ political that we’ve been mobilized over the last four years. It’s the little things. Like Doja showing feet. Or the #bussit challenge. Who’s doing it appropriately? Or teens taunting their parents on Tiktok. And I find it interesting that in many ways, the internet pushes people to think that you can’t be Big ‘P’ political and Small ‘p’ political at the same time. You’re insufficiently engaged if you’re worried about the little things instead of the big things. And so [laughs] to show my age, I kind of wish the more radical leftists would take a chill pill. Everything does not demand outrage, right?
Andre: You have to have somewhere to put that energy. Tiktok has kind of been a blessing. I find people really escaping to Tiktok as a way to just deal with absurdity and social challenges and the like, but there are many more people who are serious internet users, who can’t find relief in those spaces. I don’t know if I answered your question. Ask me the question again, and I’ll try it.
Omnia: You know, I think it’s probably just not an answerable question.
Cindie: I think that when it comes to trying to assess millions of people at once, you can’t just draw one answer. It’s really case-by-case. Because I do think that to some extent, outrage does cause change, because it creates fear, and then fear guides people’s decisions. And you can see how corporations that used to be politically neutral are now changing their branding to being leftist, and trying to remove people who show right-wing beliefs from their organizations. I feel like I see that happening, but I don’t know if that’s good or not, because it’s very performative.
Andre: It is performative in the medium of social media, and like most outrage, it won’t last. I was intrigued because Alexei Navalny was released to Russia last week, he returned to Russia, and people were outside protesting in minus 50 degree weather. And so some of the puritans on my particular timeline were like, “See, this is how real protestors act, your social media stuff doesn’t mean anything. I’m willing to put boots on the ground.” Which is such a problematic way to think about being active, or being an activist, because information is really the currency of activism. Yes, that physical presence does mean something, even if you’re gonna get beat with batons and set on by water cannons and LRADs at the end, that physical presence means something. But to get to that point, you have to do the organization and the information first. One thing I talk about with my students is the idea that something can be a “problematic” vs. a “problem.”
Omnia: What’s the difference?
Andre: A problem is something that can be solved. If you say, “How can I water the grass?” somebody can walk you through the process of hooking up the sprinkler, making sure you paid your water bill, pointing the sprinkler in the right direction so it hits the grass and not the sidewalk and the street and then the grass gets water. As opposed to a “problematic”: “How do we solve racism?” Well… [laughs] You can’t kill all the old people, that’s not gonna do it because the young people have already picked up from their old people, plus there are multiple institutions that contribute to the structural discrimination and racism, so it becomes a problematic, which can really only be addressed through dialogue. And then political action. There needs to be something we can build to martial the energies of activists into productive dialogue. And I think that would make a huge difference. We call these “counterpublics” in public sphere discourse, and I think there are plenty of them.
Omnia: What is a counterpublic?
Andre: A counterpublic is basically a public sphere with people who are not necessarily aligned with the interests and goals of the ruling elite, have their own ways of thinking how things should be run, and they gather together in their own spaces to discuss how things can change, and that often filters back into the main spaces. Because you never just only belong to once space. One of the things I’ve been reading about the capitol rioters is that many of them just so happen to be doctors and lawyers and financial traders. But all of them assembled in these various groups and became this patchwork mob that descended upon the capitol.
Omnia: You hear about them assembling a lot. The left never assembles like that.
Andre: No, we do not. Because we’re so busy arguing with each other. Like as soon as Biden got into office, the left was like, we didn’t end deportation on day one. Like, wait a minute — that’s not how it works. [laughs]
Omnia: That’s another thing — Kamala’s a cop. That should’ve not been a thing that we discussed after she was chosen to be Vice President. Because, I mean, at that point, there’s really nothing we could’ve done about that. So that’s another way that we can be more intentional with our outrage. Yeah, Kamala’s a cop, she did a lot of things that were hurtful to Black people. But is it really the best time to criticize her?
Andre: That’s one of the hallmarks of leftist discourse. We pride ourselves on critique. We don’t just blindly follow like we think conservatives do. But that creates coalitional problems where we can’t all get on the same page to make things happen, because we’re so busy trying to establish that we’re independent thinkers. It becomes problematic. We don’t have the skill, at least watching the Democratic Senate, we don’t necessarily have the skills to pull together coalitions to take power into our hands and do things with it.
Omnia: I really do think there’s something to be unlocked about the leftist woke mob. Yeah, we do need to take a chill pill, but even if we do take a chill pill, there’s still a lot of power that could be unlocked. There’s definitely a way to do it, but I don’t have the answers.
Andre: Let me ask you a question. What’s the one issue you think leftists should focus on?
Omnia: Hm. Wealth distribution.
Andre: Wealth distribution?
Omnia: Yes. We need to make sure people are able to survive.
Andre: So — the conservatives would say abortion.
Omnia: Which is absurd.
Andre: It’s absurd, but think about it in this way: it’s something that can be imposed upon individuals without any loss of autonomy for the conservatives that are proposing it. We want to redistribute; conservatives want to control. Redistribution is a mode of control, but the ways in which — ah, shoot. Every time I say that, I’m supposed to take a shot. [laughs]
Cindie: Take a shot now!
Andre: I would, I would. I have another meeting after this though. [laughs] But the ways that we think of ourselves wanting to change the world is a structural mode, and we are reflective enough to recognize that. The conservatives will say, “I want my individual rights, but in the meantime, we want the government to support our ability to discriminate against certain classes.” [laughs] So there’s a mode of lying that they do to themselves that enables them to exert power in ways that the leftists-slash-liberals-slash-progressives are not able to do. Is it a weakness? It shouldn’t be, but the way things are working right now, it looks like one.
Omnia: Andre, that’s a good point. Leftists, when they feel outrage, it’s because they want to basically bridge the power gap. When the right is feeling outrage, it’s because they want things to stay the same. Should we call both things outrage? They’re both outrage, but the left, they believe they are creating justice in the world when they’re outraged. The right — do they believe that? How do they lie to themselves and say, “Okay, this is my right. This is what is just, so this is what I’m gonna feel outrage about.”
Andre: At the risk of sounding overly professorial, I try to think about these things from a perspective of what the thing is, what the thing does, and how we understand ourselves. Let me explain. So, a smartphone is a computational device that fits in your hands, that has a high-definition screen, a fast processor, wireless connectivity, radio connectivity, so on and so forth. If I gave each of you an iPhone 11 Pro Max, the three of you are gonna all use it in different ways. One of you will largely use it for photography, one of you will use it for gaming, and another will use it for socials. Does that make that device different? No. It has multiple capacities. And I think of outrage in the same way. Just because we can identify that outrage is a particularly vivid visceral outpouring of emotion, usually when people feel they’re not getting their way. But like you just pointed out, the conservatives do it in one way, and the progressives do it in another. It’s still outrage, though. The question is who it’s directed to and towards.
Omnia: I would have to say that it’s not about not getting their way — I feel like they truly believe that the world will be a better place. And I mean, that’s what we believe. We believe the world will be a better place if the wealth was redistributed, if racism went away, but how do they justify that to themselves that if nothing changes, then the world will be a better place?
Andre: I think — and I’m writing about this now, because I talk about white outrage — in many ways, white outrage is powered by fear. A fear that they will no longer have access to the resources that they have accrued to themselves, the permissions they give themselves, I hate using the “privilege” word, because people react to it strongly in a Western context, like “I earned this massive billion dollar inheritance, dammit” [laughs] But permissions and rights and privileges and allowances that accrue with whiteness, a lot of white folk are deeply in fear of that. A lot of the poor white folk, because that whiteness is all they really had, to lord it over people who otherwise share their same economic distress. But for the richer folk, they see the world somehow moving in a direction where their unearned wealth will be taken from them. Wealth distributive policies, they don’t want that. Or that women — it’s always really freaky to me when women oppose abortion rights. Because we’re saying you should be allowed to control your body and these women are like, “No…”
Omnia: That’s religion, so that’s a whole other thing.
Andre: It is religion, but it’s also just a particularly patriarchal view of a woman’s role in the human ecosystem.
Omnia: It’s because they have the resources to live and it works for them. They like their place in the world. They’re comfortable.
Cindie: In the leftist vision, in order to redistribute wealth, the wealth has to be taken from those who currently hold it, so it makes sense that those people are like, “No, the world will be better if everything stays the same, because it’ll just be better for me.”
Andre: It’ll trickle down.
Cindie: [laughs] Have you seen that meme that’s like, “Ronald Reagen in hell waiting for heaven to trickle down to him”
Andre: I have not. Please send that to me so I can repost it. [laughs] That’s awesome. I will say, just because you guys sent me a list of questions, the internet and its current manifestation as social media prioritized outrage because outrage generates engagement, which generates ad sales. And so some of what we started out talking about, like how do you begin to limit interactions with trolls, involves the very practices of social media platforms where they prioritize limited modes of engagement that are driven by emotion, in order to make money. Like — Twitter tried this experiment. Instead of being able to retweet right away, it sent you to a “Quote Tweet” dialogue, and then you had to press “Tweet” then. And people were really frustrated with that. “I just wanted to retweet it!” But Twitter’s idea was that by making you pause, you don’t just as a reflex click on something and share it, you actually have to think about why you’re sharing it in the first place. They even added the prompt “Would you like to read this article?” Like no, it’s a paywall, I don’t pay. [laughs]
Omnia: That prompt worked on me, by the way, so good job to them.
Andre: I know! I wish they hadn’t backed up on it!
Omnia: They did?
Andre: Yeah, they restored the retweet button. They still have the prompt to say, if there’s an article linked from a magazine or a newspaper, they say, “Do you wanna read it?” first.
Omnia: That definitely shamed me into reading things before retweeting.
Andre: People were like, me and my friends didn’t do it, so obviously it didn’t work. But I think what you say is just as relevant. Even if you get 10% of the people to slow down the information they simply reshare, that’s a bonus. It’s incremental. Those things can only build. There will always be people who don’t read.
Cindie: What is Twitter’s motivation for implementing that?
Andre: There are some smart people in Twitter Safety who are trying to reorient Twitter to understanding its space as a public forum. Information is quickly shared and magnified and taken in by people in ways that aren’t helpful. So their move was to try to encourage reflexivity: the idea that you think about what you’re doing as you do it. In part because Twitter’s model to me, and one of the reasons I keep studying it, is that it encourages weak-tie relationships, so people you aren’t exactly friends with in person, you’re connected to them because of your interests, or they’re friends of friends of friends, as opposed to Facebook, which is still, even though Facebook is a billion-person endeavor, it’s still tightly tied around the people you know and interact with regularly. Twitter’s model is more attractive to me because I get to meet more weird people. Twitter has kind of recognized that because we don’t necessarily have the same feedback mechanisms from people we’re not close to, that it has encouraged the wild spread of misinformation and disinformation.
Omnia: That kind of reminds me: you see a lot of Black people: Black professionals, Black activists, who say, “Black trauma — I don’t want to see that on my TL.” Now, I understand it’s retraumatizing, and I get that. What I don’t believe, though, is when they claim that it’s futile, and that it’s even harmful, or that it gives white supremacists a boner, and that’s why we shouldn’t share it. Do you know if it’s actually harmful? Because I feel like people need to see it. And people are not seeing it enough.
Andre: The idea of witnessing is a powerful one, and so the smartphone camera has really allowed us to enter an era where we are witnessing acts of police brutality pretty much simultaneously as they happen. In ways that are not — to give an example, Chicago police two years ago broke into this woman’s home, mistaken her for someone else on the warrant, she was butt naked, filmed her butt naked with their body cams, and then tried to act like it never happened. They buried the footage, she had to sue them, and it took them two years before that footage was released. So, when you have incidences of police malfeasance like that, if you let the authorities control it, they will always try to hide it because they don’t wanna be seen in a bad light. Whereas a smartphone is like, we’re blasting this out right now. And then Youtube and other spaces allow us to redistribute it. So the smartphone camera is really kind of a game changing — I would even say a world changing — phenomenon in allowing us to document and spread those things. The thing is, and this has been happening since the internet started, spaces that were formerly white nationalist spaces, we used to call them out as white supremacist spaces, but now those things have metastasized like a cancer and they’re everywhere, they also pick up those videos and they love on them. They’re like, “Look at ‘em. That’s exactly what they deserve.”
Omnia: It’s so disgusting.
Andre: Reddit is full of this, Gab is full of this, other spaces are as well. And they do get off on it. I don’t know if they get a full-on boner or lady-boner, but they do get off on what they call “people getting put in their place.” Or the state handling things in a violent way that they find gratifies their outrage.
Omnia: They feel just. Yeah.
Andre: And so unless the platforms and the services take a stronger stance in how that content is being reshared, there is no real way to stop folk from getting off on it, or being hurt from it. Unless you see this ad hoc solution that some folk on Black and Brown Twitter have said, don’t reshare these images of death. And I wrote about it in the book, because it was really fascinating to me that people were promoting this as a solution to the engagement paradigm that social networks would prefer, because if you look at somebody getting killed, you’re automatically going to send it to somebody else. Like, “Did you see this shit?” And people are saying that’s not necessarily the best way to understand trauma.
Omnia: Would you agree with that?
Andre: Again, I think witnessing is important. I think that it should be put up under a content warning, saying “This image or video contains violence, be aware that if you click it you’ll be subjected to it,” similar to trigger warnings or spoilers are done, and that would be helpful. There’s an additional catch I don’t know if you’ve considered, in order to get to that point, you have to expose tens of thousands of low-paid moderators to go through and add those labels to that content.
Omnia: Oh my gosh, yeah. I mean they’re gonna look at that stuff anyway because people are gonna report it.
Andre: They are. But does that mean they should have to?
Cindie: I read a book called Ghost Work about that industry, and how companies like Instagram or Microsoft claim to have this grand A.I. that can parse images but it’s just low-paid workers around the world who get paid, like, $8 a day to look at this graphic violence.
Omnia: So the A.I. doesn’t exist?
Cindie: There is an A.I., but it only does, like, pretty basic stuff. Maybe it can flag an image for gore or nudity, but they still need an actual human moderator to say delete or no.
Omnia: I didn’t think about that, yeah.
Andre: And then they also don’t necessarily provide those moderators with any kind of mental health benefits, so a lot of them with PTSD and worse for continually viewing violent images. And what they see is much worse than what we see. One of my favorite colleagues talks about this, Sarah Roberts, and she says they’re seeing images of death, mutilation, domestic violence, car accidents, industrial accidents, and all those things never make it to the feeds that we get. But those moderators are exposed to it, and not even given extra time off to handle it or counseling resources to deal with it.
Omnia: That sounds like it would be a very simple problem to fix. Give them mental health — wow.
Andre: I think being exposed to death like that changes you. That’s the cliche in every assassin movie. [laughs]
Omnia: I bet it does.
Andre: It’s true. Watching people die violently or being harmed violently affects us because we care about people. So yeah, giving them mental health days would be helpful. Giving them counseling resources would be helpful. But think about your much less stressful job. What kind of mental health resources do you get?
Omnia: What’s the solution then? How do we keep those images from kids and stuff?
Andre: Kids are a whole nother story. There’s nothing a kid is better at than finding things they’re not meant to find.
Cindie: When I was 12 and I first made an email account, that entire year all I did was me and my friends sent each other chain mails that had, like, gore clips attached to them. Kids love that shit.
Andre: There’s a whole series of movies called Faces of Death, which is nothing but people dying in various gruesome and horrible ways. We are fascinated by that aspect of life. Is there a technical fix? No. Can neural nets/machine learning algorithms be trained on how to recognize those things? Kind of, but never underestimate human creativity. I mean, you guys know this, you’re meme artists, right? And web inhabitants. People will always find ways to work around restrictions to show things that will gratify or disgust or amaze people. That’s the whole purpose of being on 4chan in the first place. That was their intent. And so there is no easy quick fix. There’s just this series of step-by-step fixes that we can do to help take care of the people who are forced to deal with this on a day-to-day basis.
Omnia: Or, you know, hire more people so they don’t have to sit there all day and do it. But yeah, they have to be humans.
Andre: Then they say they can’t afford to pay them.
Omnia: They can afford to pay them. But yeah.
Cindie: This brings me to something I really wanted to ask Andre about, and I guess it’s kind of a two-part question. I feel like in the past ten years or so that I’ve been an avid internet user, I’ve seen the internet kind of condense more and more into, like four places. It’s like Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and, like, an occasional fourth place. And because of that, I’m kind of seeing — in certain ways, our internet experience is becoming more of an echo chamber because you can curate what content you see more, but at the same time most people I feel like are being exposed also to more people who are different from them and having different beliefs, so I guess I wanted to ask about how those two factors have shaped activism in the past ten years.
Andre: Four is a good start, but it kind of ignores all the spaces that particularly white supremacists have managed to carve out or have funded. Like Parler is founded by Rebekah Mercer, a huge Republican donor who’s funded a lot of the anti-abortion restrictions, a lot of the anti-voting restrictions, like her thing is alt-right nationalism. Parler, Gab, the subreddits r/DonaldTrump and other spaces — these spaces took over for the former, more organized white supremacist websites: American Renaissance, there’s another one I can’t remember that Jessie Daniels writes about. So even those four that you mentioned — Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, there’s one more — they seem to have really become the ways people experience the internet, everyone has a set of niche spaces that they also go to as well. And we can’t forget cable news. And so one of the things that I’ve noticed over the last ten years is that platforms have really sought to become what AOL was. They wanna be this one-stop space where you can get everything you need. Instagram is a really good example. Instagram used to be a simple photo browsing website, and now it’s a frickin’ shopping mall. [laughs] They wanna do IG Live and have concerts in there. They wanna become this place that is sticky, because the more time you spend on there, the more ads they can serve you, the more they can convince investors to put money into them. It’s just really nasty. And each space has a different ethos. Again, Instagram, shopping mall, Facebook, toxic Thanksgiving dinner is basically how I’ve begun to understand Facebook, and Twitter can sometimes be — you guys are young, so pardon me if this may sound condescending, but remember when people used to get together after lunch in a huge courtyard, and everybody would have their little cliques? But you’ll all be together in the same lunch period?
Omnia: I remember that.
Andre: Yeah, that’s what Twitter is like, right? It’s a shared space with certain rules and regulations like a school courtyard would be, but also it’s a bunch of little cliques that all happen to attend the same space. And that’s good in some ways and bad in some ways. All three of those spaces have particular rules, regulations, and etiquette. And even presentations of self that they encourage. You’re not gonna show up — well, unless you’re like me — you’re not gonna show up high to your toxic Thanksgiving dinner. [laughs] Unless it helps you cope with your toxic Thanksgiving family, right? But to lunchtime with your peers? You might’ve had a 40oz before class, or a joint in the bathroom during a break. And so that’s part of that experience as well. The key thing to think about for each of these spaces is what type of self do they encourage you to perform. And from that perspective, it becomes you also finding, at least for progressives and leftists, any other spaces that contribute to you being a well-rounded individual. Which is difficult, given how platforms really exercise this lock-in. The first thing you do when you sign up for Twitter is you tell them who you wanna follow. I’m like, I don’t know these people. [laughs]
Omnia: That’s true.
Andre: They give you a list of people to follow, I’m like I don’t know them, I really came on here because my cousin said it was hot on here. And so you create your own spaces, and then Twitter reinforces that mode of self-selection. Same thing for Facebook, same thing for Instagram and the like. Being able to break out of that paradigm of self selected resources that make you feel a certain way is that second key to pushing back against platform lock-in.
Omnia: So basically, you just have to go and follow people you don’t agree with. [laughs]
Andre: Not necessarily that you don’t agree with, but a friend of a friend. And a friend of a friend, y’all have a person who the three of y’all have a shared interest, but they’re also interested in other stuff. So for example, somebody I play ball with may have a friend who’s wildly into anime. I may have seen an anime show, so I’m gonna follow that person because they follow anime. But we still have that connection, the basketball player, so we both have that interest in sports. And it’s more like that. It’s more the six degrees of separation than it is people you don’t necessarily know.
Cindie: People have different levels of tolerance for opposing views in different circumstances. Like all the people who will cancel you for anything on Twitter, they probably have a problematic coworker that they tolerate because it’s their job or something. But Andre, do you think the average internet user has become more or less well-rounded?
Andre: That’s a tough question. The one piece of evidence I can offer is that Pew Internet & American Life, which is one of my favorite quantitative sources for data, did a survey, and they found that on content that is by people of color or about people of color, Black people are 3x more likely to view it and interact with it than white people. White people when they say they don’t say race be dead serious. They only focus on things that reify their whiteness.
Omnia: They just keep scrolling.
Andre: They just keep scrolling. While Black people have to engage with white people shit, because that’s our boss, our coworker, that we don’t like or like, but we also engage with stuff about Brown people that we like and care about. And there are some Black people who are kind of parochial, so they only really rock with other Black people, but there are many more that see Latinx people, Asian people, and other groups of folk as part of a grand coalition of people that they want to interact with. In some ways, Brown folk are more accepting of others. Until you get to immigrant populations, but then we could talk about that too. But Brown folk are in large ways more accepting of other Brown folk and their interactions with white people than white people are the other way around. Make sense? So our internet use is more well-rounded. In part because there’s too much information. But one thing that you do, when you create a filter by saying “these are the type of people I follow,” it also dictates the kind of information you receive. And that information, even if it slightly challenges your worldview, is something you don’t have to dedicate a lot of cognitive resources to understanding. And although Facebook has 2 billion members, you only really interact with maybe 300 at a time? Same for Twitter, same for Instagram. Like, you guys have thousands of followers, right? How many of them are your actual mutuals? Not people that follow you just because, but people you actually spend time to talk to every day. With those people, you don’t have a lot of energy to figure out where they’re coming from.
Omnia: And with Instagram, they show you about five of your mutuals anyway on the TL.
Andre: That’s crazy. I honestly have trouble understanding what the appeal of Instagram is. To me, at first it was like a huge photo catalog, and now it’s just a shopping catalog with stupid advertisements they send me every five minutes, but I didn’t wanna see much of people’s lives. I thought I would, because when I first joined Facebook, one of the fun parts of Facebook was going through people’s photo albums, but now that all it is is photo albums on Instagram, like ehh.
Omnia: Yeah, we’ve seen too much of people.
Andre: Talk more. [laughs]
Cindie: I originally joined Instagram because I like photography and I like visual art, so I literally used Instagram for that solely, and now it’s like, you can’t even find good art or good photography anymore, you just see the same five ads every day.
Andre: You really can’t. The people who came to Instagram to showcase their creative use of filters and landscapes, and I used to love the tilt-shift community on Flickr, and then when it started on Instagram, where it looks like you’re looking down at a toy environment that’s actually a real one, that kind of stuff fascinates me. So hard to find on Instagram these days. I find more stuff on Instagram through Twitter. Which is really weird to say. Our own desire to kind of filter out the noise that all these social media platforms wanna throw at us, plus the everyday world, has caused us to be more circumscribed in the type of internet content we consume and the type of people we deal with. At the same time, there are more of them than ever, so there’s some heterogeneity in that group. No, it hasn’t made us greater citizens of the world I think, which makes me sad.
Omnia: I want to shift to talk about cancel culture a little bit. So what do you think about what Spotify did when they punished all the people that have credible domestic violence and sexual assault accusations? Why do you think that didn’t work? Do you think that was a good thing?
Andre: Private companies are in no way obliged to host you on their platform just like physical establishments don’t have to let you in. And so there is no free speech right that you have to participate in a private space. We’ve been kind of lucky so far, and I don’t really know if it’s luck when I look at the way that Europe handles privacy and data and the way Asian countries handle privacy and data, we’ve been kind of lucky that we’ve not been more circumscribed governmentally thanks to the misunderstanding of the First Amendment and the ways that Section 230 operates as a safe harbor, but people have taken that too far. They believe that if they do anything wrong, they should not ever be held accountable for those wrongs, they should still be allowed to have a voice, a platform to talk to other people. I don’t agree with that.
Omnia: So you think that they should’ve, you know, stuck with it.
Andre: They should’ve stuck with it.
Omnia: Me too. Because that’s the only way really that — Okay, so I used to hear people say abolish prison, abolish police, abolish everything, and I used to be like, well what about the rapists? And I find out that 97% of sexual assaults don’t result in any jail time. Zero days. So I was like, what are we doing here? I guess we should abolish everything, and a lot of people apparently agree, but where does that leave the victims? If Spotify can’t punish them and the jails can’t punish them, how do we keep them accountable unless there is some incentive for them to do the right thing?
Andre: You don’t have a right to do wrong and make money.
Omnia: Yeah, exactly.
Andre: You don’t have a right to hurt people and then continue to be an unaccountable public citizen. I just don’t think that way. Prison abolition is a contentious topic in part because there will always be a subset of people who are criminal and enjoy hurting people. And I’m not willing to abolish prison for them. Because prison, I think when I listen to Mariame Kaba, when she talks about prison abolition, she’s not saying there should never be a punishment, it’s just prison isn’t necessarily the punishment that we should be invested in. There has to be some form of rehabilitation and accountability.
Omnia: Cancel culture is basically what made me open to the idea of abolition. But then you hear people saying that cancel culture is basically the justice system. And that it kind of plays by the same disposability politics, and I completely disagree with that. I hear the argument made all the time: Cancel culture is exactly what white people did when they made prisons. No it’s not. Prisons were made to capture the most vulnerable people in society. They were made to capture slaves. Cancel culture started to make the powerful more vulnerable. And so I think that’s the only thing that will make me okay with prison abolition is if corporations start taking a stand against people who are psychopaths, basically.
Andre: I agree. I will say one more thing though. It’s really fascinating to me that conservatives and their skill at corrupting progressive messaging have really taken over cancel culture, and are able to scream about how they are being cancelled from spaces like the New York Times and Fox News. [laughs] They’re so cancelled that they’re still getting time on national TV and national magazines to scream about how they’re being cancelled. The fact of the matter is, and one of the problems we’re having to deal with at this moment, is how journalism has failed us. Journalism has not been acting in its role as the fifth estate of government, where we are presented with information about things that are going on, and to understand the context of this information and how it’s being served to us. Instead, journalism has said, “Both sides are equal.” So they’ll give “dapper nazis” the same platform as they’ll give prison abolitionists, and say, “Well these are very fine people on both sides.” No. One group wants to kill people [laughs] and put them in jail, and the other wants to redistribute resources to make society more equitable. There is no way this is a both sides argument. But journalists have failed us by trying to pretend to objectivity. The websites have finally fallen out of that particular paradigm, so now they’re understanding you cannot necessarily protect and coddle bad actors without some of their activity blowing back on you. I think of Tyler Blevins, is that his name? Ninja? And how he lost Youtube sponsors — or was it Pewdiepie? One of the two. They made racist or sexist comments and ended up losing millions of dollars of sponsors. That doesn’t make you “cancelled.” That means you have to face accountability for saying something that you shouldn’t be saying in the first place. That’s the way sociality is supposed to work.
Omnia: I’ve gotten a lot of arguments about that, but I think that when the person being cancelled is more powerful than the people holding them accountable, they call it cancel culture, but I think that we should refrain from describing situations where we’re talking about people being bullied or people being oppressed as “cancel culture.” I think the left should probably refrain from using “cancel culture” when they’re talking about vulnerable people who are being oppressed.
Cindie: I feel like “cancel culture,” like the very term “cancelled” itself kind of arose as a slang term referring to what we recognize now as cancel culture, like it was never supposed to be particularly serious, and I feel like that’s why it was so easily co-opted by the right to ridicule the left.
Omnia: Like “woke.”
Cindie: Yeah, exactly! And I feel like when it comes to “cancellations,” there are so many white famous people who get “cancelled” so often — Jeffree Star, for example, or Shane Dawson. Figures like those, their whole strategy is creating controversy that they’ll get “cancelled” for, but it just gains them more eyes on them every time, and they profit off it every time. If you look at a tour of Jeffree Star’s house, he has, like, a hundred Birkin bags. It’s ridiculous.
Omnia: Yeah, exactly. They use getting “cancelled” as a way to gain more followers. But if they’re saying, “I’m getting cancelled,” and somebody who is, you know, a weak person who’s being bullied, says, “I’m getting cancelled,” I feel like this creates an obfuscation where nobody knows what getting cancelled means. So Jeffree Star can still say, “I’m getting cancelled,” and the word would still be legitimate.
Andre: Mmhmm. I will say your point about cancel culture actually being a form of redistribution of attention from the powerful to the less powerful, it is extremely valid. But because it also has to deal with institutional inertia, people will rarely be cancelled for long, unless there are other modes of redistribution that are also activated as well. A good example is Harvey Weinstein and Bill Cosby. They were cancelled initially by the #MeToo, but they were also cancelled because they happened to be addressed by the judicial system. And do I have a problem with men who are serial multiple rapists and aggressive, terrible towards women being in jail and possibly dying? Nah, I don’t have a problem with that at all. That being said, I am a huge stand up comedian fan, and watching comedians really play themselves by discussing how they feel they’re being cancelled for saying objectionable shit has been really tricky for me to navigate. I love raunchy comedy, and in many ways, comedy is transgressive, right, but that transgression has often revolved around putting other people down to make people laugh.
Omnia: Yeah. It’s like, are you making fun of your own self, are you making fun of people in power? That’s fine. But are you using your comedy to make people laugh at people who are less powerful than them? Then you’re just bullying. That’s not comedy. People think anything is funny if it means they get to feel better than someone.
Andre: See, here’s the thing. I’m also a fan of hip-hop. And hip-hop is wildly misogynistic and objectifying. And I’ve long had to balance the idea that it’s objectifying women and sexual acts and the like, with my enjoyment of the art form. I feel the same way about stand up comedy. It’s conflictual. It conflicts me on an everyday basis. But sometimes, shit is funny. And triggering.
Omnia: Sometimes it’s funny, I agree, but sometimes, the comedians are really cheap with it. They say the same things. They can say anything, and racist people will laugh. If you talk about Black people, racist people will laugh. And I think that a lot of comedians are taking advantage of that. And on top of it, they have specials titled “Triggered” to talk about how people keep getting triggered, and how people keep trying to get them cancelled. What do you think about Dave Chapelle?
Andre: I was just about to ask: here’s a question I have for y’all. Do you think that comedians’ comments in their own capacity should be held against them in their art form?
Omnia: So with Dave Chapelle, here’s my thing. The transphobic jokes that he makes, he’s been told, don’t make them. It hurts trans people. And he took that as an oppressive thing to say to him. And so he could very easily not make those jokes. He will still be rich. It makes no difference to him. People are telling you, “You’re hurting us,” and he’s saying, “No I’m not. I’m a comedian. It’s a joke.” But then, he’ll go around and ask Netflix to do something nice for him, or he’ll expect people to support him, so I think it’s just — he’s being selfish.
Andre: I’m gonna shut up before I get myself in trouble.
Omnia: No no no, say something.
Andre: So, remember how we started out this conversation? About leftists finding one thing to get mad at somebody about, and then another thing to get mad at somebody about, and sometimes the two just don’t necessarily have to work together? That’s how we started.
Omnia: I used to be obsessed with Dave Chapelle. And I love his comedy.
Andre: I do too.
Omnia: I think lately, it’s been…
Andre: It’s not as good.
Andre: And comedy ages. Comedians age. What I will say is that he did make a transphobic joke, then he doubled down on it. And as a millionaire, he will not lose any money from — I agree with you. He will not lose any money from removing that comedy from his act. Dave Chapelle has always been a transgressive comedian. Like Bill Burr, they’ve made careers out of talking about bad shit that makes us laugh.
Omnia: But trans people, trans kids. Are dying at alarming rates because they hear jokes like that. And it’s an issue. I don’t know about homophobic jokes, racist jokes, whatever, but I think transphobic jokes especially are harmful. Because trans kids are at the highest risk of suicide out of all populations. So if somebody is asking him to just be nice, why not?
Andre: Does the presence of a multi million dollar comedian equate to the attitudes towards transphobia held by billions of people across the globe?
Cindie: I think that’s a good point because it’s true that he should not make transphobic jokes, and that he’s definitely wrong for that and he’s wrong for not thinking it’s wrong, but also it’s like, if we want to address the issue of transphobia and to help trans youth, is — it’s the outrage economy thing again. Because Dave Chapelle is an easy target to be mad at because he’s famous and he’s successful, but what about, like, a middle schooler at your local middle school who’s bullying trans kids? What are you gonna do about that?
Omnia: Why is trans visibility important? Because he’s making trans people visible, but visible as a pathology.
Cindie: That’s definitely true. I’m not defending him at all. I guess I identify as non binary and, like, I don’t really try to speak on trans issues because I feel like I’m not really somebody who’s oppressed in that way, but I definitely don’t believe in the gender binary or anything like that. But I also feel like when it comes down to it, there are a lot of resources, real life resources and public decisions that are going on that are a lot more important than what one famous person is saying.
Omnia: That’s true.
Andre: I was listening to a series of video interviews the Washington Post just published, and there are older folk recounting what their families had to do to travel across country by car in the 40s, 50s, 60s, and 70s. And it really brought to mind that no individual entertainer would’ve changed the ways that they had to know which gas stations not to stop at, know where they could stop to get gas or to use the bathroom, where they could get food from, where they could rest. Those are attitudes that slowly have to be addressed by multiple institutions in society taking a stand and saying, “We are not going to allow this type of behavior.” And I see this issue of trans visibility in the same way. It’s useful and it’s helpful to focus on big targets, but there also has to be work to be done so that the middle schooler is sanctioned and made accountable for the ways that they physically and emotionally hurt this young child who’s still trying to figure out who they are. So, I get it. I’m not happy with Dave or other comedians who have taken on that approach, but I’m also aware that it’s a technical fix, not a cultural fix. And we really need a cultural fix first.
Cindie: I think that really ties to our current society and how I guess messing with someone’s money is the only way to get anything to happen. All these corporations — for example, all the corporations that banned Trump. I highly doubt that all of those corporations are led by leftists that are actually against Trump. I bet some of those people actually voted for Trump or support him or support his policies, but they’re just trying to look good, but that economic pressure pushes them to behave in a different way and perform in a different way that does end up affecting real people’s lives. But it’s a weird place where that’s kind of the only way to create effective change.
Omnia: So then would corporations taking a performative stance — I think whether or not it’s performative, it’s a good thing for anybody to take a stance right now.
Andre: Even with the black squares thing that happened on Instagram this summer?
Omnia: Well, that specific thing was harmful. Because it was hiding information about BLM. But honestly, the Sean Kings and everything, the grifters — I think that people taking a stand and people raising awareness, that adds more good to the world than their bad intentions.
Andre: That’s the trick with social media. And I talk about libidinal economy in the book. I talk about how our feelings and our gut understandings of the world around us really shape the actual practices that we do. And on social media, it’s really easy to believe that what people type is performative. Because you know what you’re doing and composing and presenting on the web, you can easily transpose that to say, “Well obviously, they’re performing who they are,” even if you passionately believe — like if you’re on Tumblr, talking about your process of gender transition, you are pouring yourself onto that page. That is not performative. But those same people — and I’m not just talking about trans folk, I see this in my students all the time — are so willing to accuse other people of being performative.
Andre: At some point, we have to try to improve our detection mechanisms to where we can watch people’s behavior over time to see if the performance is actually a practice. One of the things I stepped away from in my book is talking about online identity as a performance. I call it an enactment instead. And this is from rhetoric, where we talk about how saying things about yourself enact yourself in that space. It’s not simply a performance of self, it is an embodiment of self, an intentionality of self that goes beyond performance that gets people to accept that this is what you are and your reality. And when Black folk first got online, nobody believed they were online. Everybody thought it was a bunch of white people performing Blackness. Which for some strange reason still happens.
Omnia: [laughs] Do you follow No Context Dr. Umar?
Andre: I see it when it pops up in my feed, and it’s hilarious every time. No context meme threads, meme accounts are fascinating to me. And so there has to be — it’s too easy to do the knee-jerk “oh, that’s just performative” until you start spending time in those communities with those accounts, with the people’s performances of self until you see that this is actually who they are. And you’ll still get called out there. That’s the trick. There was a prompt on Twitter the other day: “Say you’ve been on Twitter a long time without actually saying you’ve been on Twitter,” and I chose something that a deceptive account used to domnia: “Did you drink water today, you rotten bitch.” [laughs]
Omnia: By the way, I’ve never seen somebody get cancelled permanently like this.
Andre: They shut him down. They shut him down completely. And people are still mad about his deception. But — this is something I say that troubles people. If somebody is able to convince you over time that they are a particular person, then for all intents and purposes, they are that person, until they’re not.
Omnia: Mmhmm. Yeah. And that’s really, like, all you can know.
Andre: Parents are amazing until they’re not. Right? [laughs] They do things over time. You slowly use your — not unrequited, what’s the word —
Andre: You lose your unconditional love for them because you realize they are often flawed human beings trying to do the best they can, and they have presented themselves as parents in order to raise you and did the best they could, sometimes, and that’s where you reconcile. And it’s the same way with these internet accounts. If they can build a convincing persona and enact themselves in that persona that is consistent, then that is who that person is, until they’re not. Cancel culture, in some way, has seized upon the first part of that, that people build personas, and then stopped right there. So there’s no possibility for rehabilitation in some ways.
Omnia: And that kind of brings me to another question I had: Have you seen restorative justice play out in digital spaces at all? I keep hearing people talking about it, but I’ve never seen it actually happen.
Andre: People creating new accounts is the only way I’ve really seen it. That’s one of the questions that Twitter safety is wrestling with: How to onboard people after they’ve been banned or shut down for a while. How to get them to onboard to get them to change their behavior? And that’s a really huge problem. Especially since Twitter’s algorithm tends to flag people of color for pushing back on Nazis who have tried to dox them, right? When they’re let back online, these people are justifiably angry.
Andre: And so how exactly do you address that? Again, institutions reinforcing what other institutions do. So no, restorative justice… The only way I’ve seen it happen is people who are incarcerated. And when the injustice of their incarceration is highlighted in online spaces, people are much more likely to give them the benefit of the doubt for being good people. Well, except for Nicki Minaj’s husband. Or Nicki Minaj.
Omnia: I think that Nicki Minaj — so, the women who are apathetic to, you know, the assaulters and the rapists, they get more hate than the actual rapists. And I think that’s another way that we should fix our outrage.
Andre: But again, that’s societal. That’s cultural. That’s not internet-specific. The internet amplifies some of our worst tendencies at the same time that it amplifies some of our more creative and beautiful practices as well. It’s kind of like life. One thing I love about talking to people who are on the internet, even if we share internet spaces, everybody has a different internet, right? So that’s kind of an answer to your question, Cindie. Even if they have the same phone and the same followers, they’re always gonna have something that they find interesting that will create a sub internet for them.
Andre: So none of my students have the same niche. They know who Jeffree Star is, they used to know who Jenna Marbles was, but then you start going down the rabbit hole. Somebody likes Dr. Pimple Popper videos, somebody likes random red vs. blue videos, everybody has a different universe.
Cindie: Ben Shapiro destroys.
Andre: The one thing that I do love about Black Twitter is that they don’t forget, so every once in a while people will bring up how Ben Shapiro said he couldn’t satisfy his wife.
Andre: I’m gonna go ahead and take my leave. Thank you all for inviting me.
Omnia: Thank you.
Andre: This was really fun. And you made me talk about stuff I don’t always get to talk about. So I really appreciate that as well.
Omnia: We really appreciate you.
Cindie: Thank you so much. This was an awesome conversation, I really learned a lot.
ada.wrong: An open access version of Dr. Andre Brock’s book, Distributed Blackness: African American Cybercultures is available through NYU Press Open Square. The link is available on our website below. This has been the first episode of the Virtualgoodsdealer interview series. Thanks for listening!