Race and the Digital: Racial Formation and 21st Century Technologies

Engaging In New Media

From Tweets To Streets

Over the years, the advancement of ICTs has taken people beyond the confines of communication alone into a digital world that has allowed them to actively engage with and participate in the creation and distribution of media content. As Jenkins (2008) argues, the rise of new media has “expanded the ability of average citizens to express [their] ideas, circulate them before a larger public, and pool information in the hopes of transforming society” (273). Nakamura (2015) states however, that media does more than just convey information or ideology; it creates strong communities as well (3). Essentially, through the use of social media sites like Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr, along with blog sites and official websites, new media has provided an expansive array of functionalities that have been crucial and beneficial to the #BlackLivesMatter movement. It has served as a mobilizing tool to raise public awareness and engagement; as an alternative news and information source, as a space for dialogue; and as a space to foster collective identity, which is the driving force that leads to movement participation. 

Not surprisingly, Twitter has been the backbone media site of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Bryers (2014) notes that in accessing the importance of Twitter, “we must take into account that despite the enduring digital divide within the United States, the percentage of African Americans who use Twitter [22 percent] is much higher than of white Americans [16 percent] (as cited in Bonilla and Rosa, 2015: 6). This has lead to the emergence of the term  “Black Twitter‚Äč.” In the case of #BlackLivesMatter, Twitter has provided "a unique platform for collectively identifying, articulating, and contesting racial injustices from the in-group perspective of [a] radicalized population" (Bonilla and Rosa, 2015: 6). Given their broader views of new media, Jenkins (2008), Nakamura (2015), and Constanza-Chock (2014) would argue that this sort of engagement is not limited to Twitter alone. They would not be wrong. The #BlackLivesMatter movement has understood the importance of media bridging and transmedia organizing and many of the actions that have occurred on Twitter, have been replicated onto other media platforms. 

Social media has often been used to bypass traditional media gatekeepers and in a greater sense, given agency to ordinary people to tell their sides of their stories without being portrayed in a negative light or stereotyped. In his book, Out of the Shadows, Into the Streets, Costanza-Chock (2014) mentions how after being negatively portrayed in the media news, protesters during the 2007 Mayday March used social media--Youtube--to recount what truly happened during the MacArthur Park Melee. Similarly, many African Americans from the #BlackLivesMatter movement have taken to social media to report events and issues that would normally not be reported, be underreported, or even misreported by mainstream media. Moreover, social media has also been used to challenge the injustices brought by mainstream media (as seen in this twitter post). In engaging with new media in this way, #BlackLivesMatter have simultaneously been able to spread public awareness. Barron (2008) mentions, "Searching for a work or phrase in a digital text now takes seconds, even microseconds..." (332). The same can be said when searching for a hashtag, which is attached to almost every social media post that is written. Social media users from all across the globe can search up #BlackLivesMatter and instantly get results that contain the most recent information and content available. Now whether that information or content is supportive or opposed to the movement is another story however. Still, the hashtag itself allows for awareness to be generated across media platforms and into the feeds of thousands of people. 

In addition to using new media to generate public awareness, #BlackLivesMatter has taken advantage of media bridging and the easy accessibility of getting information to coordinate real world protests. Certainly there has been a lot of criticism on the effectiveness that online social movements have to mobilize people offline. Bonilla and Rosa (2015) state, "Many have disparaged hashtag activism as a poor substitute for “real” activism, and, indeed, some suggest that the virality and ephemerality of social media can only ever produce fleeting “nanostories” [Wasik 2009] with little lasting impact" (8). Regardless of ones feeling towards online activism, its important to understand that social media alone does not ignite social movements. Instead we must think of social media as a supplement to an already existing physical manifestation of a movement. As I find with #BlackLivesMatter, many tweets, Facebook and Tumblr posts, and Instagram pictures contain information and links that inform people how to get involved in offline action and where to go to engage in a protest. Recently, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has coordinated a protest in the wake of an "unjust" arrest of Black Lives activist Jasmine Abdullah for "attempted lynching." Information on how to engage in the protest was found on various new media platforms

One of the most important functionalities that new media has provided the #BlackLivesMatter movement has been its ability to foster collective identity across a dispersed population. This has been partly been accomplished through the rich dialogue that is allowed to happen in new media sites. New media allows for back and forth conversation. People are able to communicate with social activists and organizers and ask questions, ask for elaborations, and ask for more information. People can also get in conversation with one another and build that strong community that is needed for social movements. This dialogue has been present through the various media platforms that #BlackLivesMatter has utilized, especially within the comment sections of each one. Additionally, new media allows for activists themselves to connect with others across the globe and nation, which can expand the movement even further. The ability to coordinate nationally and globally means that activists from around the world can arrange their actions so that they function as part of a larger collective movement. This has been seen with the #BlackLivesMatter protests which have taken, at times, simultaneously in places like Los Angeles, New York, Chicago, Ferguson, and various other cities. 

Apart from the simple hashtag, which allows anyone to utilize it to spread information and content (whether positive or negative), the #BlackLivesMovement has created its own media accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr, which have been used to convey more accurate and direct information to people. Additionally, #BlackLivesMatter has its own official website where people can learn about the movement itself, learn about the people behind the movement, get involved, connect with organizers and supporters, and find out about any current projects. 

Below are some examples of how #BlackLivesMatter has engaged with new media. The authors of each post vary from community organizers and activists, to everyday African Americans looking to empower the movement.  


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