Note: This interview was conducted in October, prior to the results of the US presidential election. A post-election postscript from Dana has been included at the end.
You mentioned in your initial email that you’ve been thinking about balance when using Facebook as a personal and as a professional platform. Do you use other social platforms too?
Absolutely… I primarily use Facebook for social/professional use, which certainly has made my content shift from initial usage – I think Facebook was first accessible when I was 19 and a college sophomore.
I also have a LinkedIn account, but only set it up and sporadically access it because it’s communicated to be a necessary professional networking tool.
While I don’t create content, I do follow public figures on Instagram and my latest research obsession is around YouTube ‘creators’.
YouTube creators – like people making videos and becoming celebrities?
Exactly. Many of my students reference YouTube celebrities (apparently now commonly titled/self-titled “Creators”). At first I brushed it off but after they came up enough, I started digging into different YouTubers (Jenna Marbles and Sam & Nia were the first big names I recall) and have now gone down the rabbit hole!
There are so many niche markets I’ve become fascinated with: LGBT communities and parenting, teen moms, family bloggers with underlying political or religious agendas… Completely different audiences but they manage to accrue MASSIVE audiences and operate under very similar formats. So to see how it’s evolved with everything from subtle product placement endorsements to massive livestreamed YouTube conventions is wild! I think there’s something really interesting culturally going on and want to dig into YouTube research at some point ☺
It is interesting how quickly these new pop cultural norms have developed.
And as soon as my non-millennial self catches on (I’m ancient at the whopping age of 31!) meaning has already evolved.
We are, like it or not, tethered to our words and actions online as well as off.
So, in terms of your own use of social media, do you interact anonymously, or do you use your real name or a photo of yourself?
I’m a believer that very little is anonymous given our digital landscape–or perhaps I’m not skilled enough to navigate it!–so anything I post has my identity attached. It feels more transparent/democratic. And also realistic that we are, like it or not, tethered to our words and actions online as well as off.
I don’t hesitate to share political beliefs and highlight issues that are really important to me, but find myself considering what the most impactful or meaningful avenue for having different conversations may be.
Are there any limitations, for example from a professional perspective, are there things you can or cannot say online?
Oh absolutely… I have become far more guarded, not as much around content for it’s own sake, but what communication I am willing to engage in online. I don’t hesitate to share political beliefs and highlight issues that are really important to me, but find myself considering what the most impactful or meaningful avenue for having different conversations may be.
Put simply, I am a chatty, type-A personality and acknowledge the slippery-slope potential to be one of ‘those’ relatives/friend-of-a-friend fighting with strangers on someone else’s Facebook wall. Nobody likes those people and more importantly, I don’t see any productive discourse coming out of that. Just emotional exhaustion. ☺
The only exception I must acknowledge is overt hate speech of any kind. If it feels ethically ambiguous to not call out social injustice, I’ll engage above my normal level. Given the various privileges my identities carry, it feels important to have tough conversations that have the potential to affect social change–the echo-chamber alternative is far more safe and boring.
Do you encounter hate speech much online?
Oh, absolutely. To be fair, my Facebook community is a bit of an echo chamber, I suppose by virtue of being largely comprised with who I surround myself with. It’s nothing new but particularly heightened within the increasing unbelievability of our presidential elections, I firmly believe that the Donald Trump campaign creates the facade of simply ‘telling it like it is,’ but in reality is a person protected by race/gender/financial/national privilege normalizing the most divisive, anti-democratic hate I can imagine.
Trump and politicians like him feed off of ignorance to instill fear, and people who have little to no exposure to immigration/racial diversity, etc see the world as a radically different place. I would argue that communication can create a profound sense of reality alongside the material/physical world. Hegemony in it’s finest.
The reality that Trump has made it this far is an international embarrassment. I’m on Facebook right now and a trending topic is Trump discussing Lindsay Lohan circa 2004 and said something to the tune of “deeply troubled women are always the best in bed”. To be fair, his thoughts are nothing new…but what’s remarkable is a large voter base that give unwavering support instead of running for the hills as more and more of these things come out.
I suppose Trump’s voter base is in an echo-chamber of their own…and don’t hear things like that speech which might get them thinking about Trump’s comments.
I really enjoyed Michelle Obama’s speech.
Oh, me too. She is a phenomenal speaker. I saw her speak live about a year ago (and managed to get a selfie with her!) and she is incredible.
Maine has become quite a battleground state for the elections… Chelsea Clinton spoke on campus yesterday and I had a photo taken with her too! It’s my Facebook profile photo. A whole other conversation: how ridiculously excited my Facebook friends were for it. Far more ‘likes’ and comments than when I got married. Haha!
Please don’t translate all of that to taking myself that seriously. I’m drinking wine and taking photos on my laptop right now to check out my eye makeup.
I’d love to hear more about how the marriage equality movement unfolded in the online sphere from your experience. Did you get very involved in this discussion at the time?
Absolutely! I was very much involved. Having such an embodied, personal issue–literally my identity and my family–in a public spotlight was a very strange position to be in. I simultaneously felt very guarded and protective, yet had a visceral need to put a face and a narrative to what LGBT rights in both state-specific battles and national campaigns mean. What is at stake. It felt really important both for the generations of brave and suppressed LGBT people who have made my life as safe as it is, as well as for members of the community that have to live closeted for a handful of reasons.
Identities live and breathe in cultural context and political reality.
The research overwhelmingly points to changing hearts and minds through face-to-face interactions and personal stories. Providing a litany of statistics does very little, particularly surrounding marriage equality. My wife Cassie and I got engaged before it with legal in either of our home states (New York and Maine), planned a 200+ person wedding in Bar Harbor, Maine, and during that time had the ‘back-up’ plan of getting legally married in Massachusetts, where we were living at the time. Marriage became legal in Maine about 6 months before our wedding and by pure coincidence, the federal “Defense of Marriage Act” that federally prohibited same-sex marriage was overturned one month, nearly to the day after our wedding.
With that wild timing, this incredibly chaotic, personal, and–let’s be real–stressful day was also in the crossfire of politics. It was a crazy experience. That experience certainly speaks to the reality that while identities are inherently personal, they are not simply individual–Identities live and breathe in cultural context and political reality.
That’s an interesting thing for straight couples to consider as they’re potentially stressing out over their own wedding plans: that they don’t have to deal with a political and social layer to their special day.
Exactly. And I still think about that a lot…what those implications meant on the logistics and our thoughts and more broadly (probably because I spend far too much time thinking about power and politics and media!), how we were playing a role in participating in this big production. I was certainly drawn to marriage for the legal recognition of my family, but I’d be lying if it wasn’t a large production that comes with a contentious history… Like, spending a silly amount of money on one day, having my parents ‘give me away,’ the white dresses, etc. It certainly assimilates to tradition–despite my feminist sensibilities and the flexibility of an inherently ‘unconventional’ wedding.
I am frequently very dystopian surrounding inherent political/economic power imbalance in all forms of media, but there are certainly ways that online spaces facilitate counter-hegemonic discourse.
Thinking about online spaces again, do you think they help or hinder engagement with campaigns like this?
I think they absolutely help progressive campaigns. Online spaces give people exposure to narrative they may otherwise be inaccessible or ignored–I am frequently very dystopian surrounding inherent political/economic power imbalance in all forms of media, but there are certainly ways that online spaces facilitate counter-hegemonic discourse.
…And those spaces are critical for democracy. I am just always weary of how they will become appropriated or monetized and how those processes continue the cycle of taking power away from people.
Actually, that’s an interesting point, since for example, Facebook has algorithms which dictate what you see in your feed, which may not show you the most “important” or democratic content.
Exactly. And it’s so unfortunate–and far too common–that people assume online spaces and media in general to be inherently democratic. When they are monetized, every decision is deliberate. Even within user-generated content. Yet somehow, despite rational evidence to the contrary, so many ascribe to these ideas that media producers are simply “giving the public what we want to see,” or that reality TV is televised reality and not a heavily edited and deliberate production.
Every semester, I ask students if advertising works on them. And every semester only a handful will acknowledge they may be susceptible. Yet they struggle to explain how advertising can be a multi billion dollar industry if none of them are susceptible. Or why if given unlimited money they would all end up with nearly identical clothing/electronic brands.
…It’s such a balancing act. While I lean towards a dystopian view of society/social media, there are so many great examples of how online spaces have opened the flood gates in big and small ways. Everything from citizen journalism of political unrest in Egypt to very recent livestreaming of police brutality here in the US. And the #shoutyourabortion campaign to normalize reproductive choice… and, most recently various campaigns to address experiences with sexual assault in response to Trump’s comments.
Being immune to media is an unrealistic goal – being a conscious consumer and engaged with the structural repercussions is a far better place to start.
Do you think you’re susceptible to online advertising?
Hahaha. I am ABSOLUTELY susceptible. I’d love to pretend that I engage with media from a solely academic perspective, but anyone who claims they are not an engaged part of their culture needs a major look in the mirror. We don’t live devoid of cultural and political contexts. Being immune to media is an unrealistic goal–being a conscious consumer and engaged with the structural repercussions is a far better place to start. ☺
Thinking back to our earlier discussion about how you interact on social media, especially around issues you feel passionately about… do you find it easier or more difficult to talk about these things online? Or perhaps there’s no difference?
Hmm…that’s a hard question. Since my Facebook platform is quite public–family/friends/coworkers/former students–I would say I am more guarded online because it reaches an inherently public audience.
I think the core messaging would be the same online or over coffee, but I am more deliberate online.
Hello, Online Identity Project!
What an overwhelming roller coaster it’s been since we last spoke. While my comments referenced fear of “The Trump Effect”, I am heartbroken that this massive step backwards has come to fruition. The feminist in me is still emotionally reeling, my American identity is internationally mortified, and my policy-wonk brain is inundated with all of the opinion/research pieces filling the internet in an attempt to figure out what went wrong.
Here’s the silver lining that’s keeping me going: the people (well, the people in those all-important Electoral College states) have spoken, and it’s our job to listen. If Clinton was elected, I have no doubt well-intentioned progressives, myself unfortunately included, would have been all-too-quick to pat ourselves on the back and take our feet off the gas. It would have been easier to ignore how the Trump-Pence ticket successfully engaged millions of Americans–how people voted out of fear, and that fear allowed so many to overlook the overt white nationalism, sexism, Islamophobia, homophobia, and ablism that their campaign was grounded within. Any person who believes that we are better than this must realize that your political voice begins, not ends, with voting.
It’s our job to find better ways to engage disenfranchised rural voters who were susceptible to the “Make America Great Again” messaging. To hold media responsible for covering standards of journalistic integrity WHILE whistleblowing instances of media suppression. To run for office and support those candidates whose very presence will shake things up from town councils to Congress and everywhere in between. And to step up in solidarity surrounding ALL injustice–not just campaigns of personal significance.
We’ve got a long road ahead here in the States, but I feel a connectedness to both my on-the-ground community and online network now more than ever.
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Share your experiences with us – we’re always looking for more people to talk to about who they are online. There is no story too big or too small!