Not gonna show images of #Trayvonning.
Not gonna show images of #Trayvonning.

Note: This article discusses virulent racism and white privilege. However, every effort has been made to not post or link to the images discussed below.

At first, I didn’t want to write about the privileged little shits who, sometime around May of last year, got it in their heads that it would be funny to lay facedown on the floor with some skittles and tea and call it #trayvonning. The Zimmerman verdict brought the disgusting meme back into timelines and news cycles, so I feel obliged to make short mention of it. I thought it would be disingenuous of me to write a post for just about every other (1, 2, 3) performative internet meme without mentioning this disgusting bit of racism. #Trayvonning shows up on the usual platforms –Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Tumblr—albeit I don’t see as much #Trayvonning as I did #standingman or even #eastwooding in its heyday. There are no dedicated web sites to #Trayvonning (although I haven’t checked Stormfront), nor have I ever seen the hashtag reach trending status. If there’s any silver lining to this story it’s the fact that I encountered many more people deriding the meme, than participating in it.

One might be tempted to begin and end this post with the simple observation that performative Internet memes can promote or perpetuate problematic behavior just as easily as it can spread a liberatory or (punching-up) satirical message.  That, however, would ignore the important fact that communication technologies have politics of their own.  How would we describe participatory Internet memes’ politics? Given that memes require a large amount of people and (unless you’re a high-powered marketing firm) aren’t terribly difficult to make (thanks to easy-to-use web-enabled cameras and photo manipulators) it would be safe to call them populist technologies.[1]

Populist technology might be similar in many ways, but different in key respects, to Virginia Eubanks’ term “popular technology.” She defines popular technology as a “problem-posing rather than a problem-solving strategy for achieving equity in the information age.” It also “has as its goal the creation of collective knowledge, the practice of people’s science, and the exercise of power in political movement.” To be clear, Eubanks would describe a participatory design workshop as a popular technology, not the widget that workshop produces. Populist and popular technologies are both approachable and meant to be mastered quickly by non-experts, and they are both effective means of exercising power and creating collective knowledge (no matter how racist or repugnant that knowledge and power might be). And while some memes like #standingman might go towards achieving equity, #Trayvonning certainly does not do that, nor can we call it a “problem-solving strategy.” In short, content is just one part of memes’ politics. Populism is a political means to an end, and that end isn’t always liberatory for all people.

When I started this post, I had hypothesized that incidents of #Trayvonning would trend with increased white and affluent user bases. After all, almost instance of #Trayvonning showed a young white male in relatively nice clothes. But after reviewing Pew Internet’s latest report on the demographics of social media users and doing some unscientific searches for the hashtag on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr I found almost no discernable correlation. I couldn’t find any on Facebook (the most affluent network) and I found a couple on Twitter[2] (one of the more diverse and least affluent network). All networks had posts condemning the meme, although the users who wrote those posts didn’t seem to be speaking to anyone in particular. As far as I could tell, a single Buzzfeed article (not linking to it) contained just about every #Trayvonning incident I found in news stories or on social networking sites. That article pulled most of its photos from Twitter, which again torpedoed my original hypothesis.

#Trayvonning is disturbing, but it teaches us something important about how memes work and what they’re good for. It should be no surprise that performative Internet memes can be used for repulsive jokes. Daniel Tosh has always been good at starting those. What should alarm us is just how easily these modern myths can be conceived of and read. It is a stark reminder (for those of us that live such privileged lives that we need reminding) that callous racism is still rampant, especially in our youngest generation. And while I am still keen on racism as a design problem, there’s absolutely no substitute for a good old-fashioned Jane Elliot-ing.

David is on Twitter and Tumblr.

[1] A brief Google Scholar search didn’t turn up any articles claiming to have coined the term, so I’ll tentatively call it my own. I should also note that I am not referring to the “Technology Populism” coined by Forrester Research to refer to, “an adoption trend led by a technology-native workforce that self provisions collaborative tools, information sources, and human networks requiring minimal or no ongoing support from a central IT organization.”


[2] One was done by @winhax who claims in his Twitter bio to have been the first to jailbreak iOS 5 and just seems to be an all-around asshat.