I LOVE this. [Image credit: Schroeder Jones]
I LOVE this. [Image credit: Schroeder Jones]
Sometime during the spring of my seventh grade year, one of my best friends came to school with a book she’d pulled from her parents’ shelves called Please Understand Me: Character & Temperament Types. It had a long questionnaire in it that, after you answered all the A/B multiple-choice questions, sorted you across four different binaries (and thereby into one of 16 possible personality types). I forget whether it was after school or during a class (ooops), but she and I and another good friend eagerly took turns jotting down answers in our notebooks[i] and tabulating our scores.

We were three awkward, shy, 13-year-old girls; we were not, by any stretch of the imagination, “popular.” Surreptitiously read women’s magazines had taught us to seek self-knowledge through multiple-choice questions, while standardized tests had trained us to endure answering many multiple-choice questions in a row. The book’s subject matter promised to help us sort out everything that had perplexed us about interacting with others, and the title alone resonated with particular force. We worked diligently and with enthusiasm, and perhaps unsurprisingly (given the way our culture socializes girls), all three of us tested identically: At the time, we all came out INFP.

And we rejoiced. Suddenly, we had answers. We weren’t outcasts or “nerds” or any of the other names that I, in particular, got called that year, oh no: we were a rare personality type, one that the book said makes up only one percent of the entire human population. We were special—and now that we had a name, we were proud. We set about planning The First (and only) Annual INFP Fest, a sleepover event for which we made fliers even though we had no intention of inviting anyone other than ourselves. We got dressed up and got dropped off at the Hard Rock Cafe downtown; I even got a fresh (also, my last ever) permanent wave for the occasion. We had an identity to celebrate, and so could take ourselves seriously now. It was a very big deal.

This was my first experience with Introvert Pride.

Image credit: Peppermint Bee
Image credit: Peppermint Bee

My personality has since wandered in and out of a couple different Myers-Briggsville neighborhoods, but to this day I test “introvert” on any test form that has more questions about how the test taker experiences social interaction rather than how the test taker acts in social situations (which makes perfect sense, if you ask me). The tests might even be right: If there’s one pair of things that drives some people close to me insane, it’s that I’m PITA-level precise with my language and often go “straight to the big issues,” which apparently makes me a card-carrier as far as researchers are concerned. I still remember when someone forwarded me Jonathan Rauch’s essay, “Caring for Your Introvert” in 2003, as well as the simultaneous thrill of recognition and relief that hit me as I read it (and then re-forwarded it further). I still love Schroeder Jones’s 2012 comic “Guide to Understanding The Introverted” and, until I thought too sociologically about it, I was even enjoying introversion’s appearance as a meme. (Here is a whole bunch of stuff, all of it just from August 2013, that is about introversion or introversion versus extroversion.) Granted, the Introversion Meme may not be what you’d call “true to the concept,” especially when it comes to differentiating[ii] between “introversion” and “shyness,” but overall, I was thinking the meme-ification of introversion was a net positive (no pun intended).

Here’s why I was into it: Present-day expectations for normative social behavior map much more closely onto extravert preferences than they do onto introvert preferences (at least in the U.S.), but the burdens of these expectations are not equally distributed. If a man of sufficient privilege is reserved, serious, does not engage in small talk, and does not mingle readily with others at parties, he stands a good chance of being read as very important, very interesting, or very smart. A man with less privilege who doesn’t smile and engage in pleasantries, however, runs the risk of being read as menacing, hostile, or aggressive (especially if he isn’t white). Similarly, a woman who is more reserved will likely be read as cold, uptight, haughty, standoffish, self-important, or—my favorite—“bitchy,” and women in particular are expected put others at ease by filling would-be silences with small talk (because while silence is considered awkward, ‘big talk’ from a woman would be threatening). In short, the interactional styles and behaviors captured by the pop definition of “introversion” have generally been more acceptable for privileged men than for Others. By repackaging these non-normative styles and behaviors in a concept that is at least purportedly gender-, race-, and class-neutral, it seemed to me that the Introversion Meme just might put a dent in making it more acceptable for Others to forgo the social- and emotional labor of performing friendly deference in order to make members of dominant groups feel more comfortable.

And yet, on closer examination, there are critical issues with the Introversion Meme as a tool for activism and social justice. Extending the range of what’s considered “normal” is still normative, and using the Introversion Meme to say, “This is why I am like this,” still casts introverted preferences as things that need to be justified or accounted for. For example: It turns out that I’m not terrible at talking to strangers, but I loathe small talk. I’m not good at it; it stresses me out when other people do it at me; I find companionate silence and conversations of substance to be far more comfortable and pleasurable. Yet I’m also aware that, as a woman (and a younger one at that), I am especially expected to be “pleasant” and talkative, to do the “nurturing” work in social interactions, and to shape my behavior around others’ needs and pleasures. My personal preferences and inclinations are therefore in conflict with social norms for people of my demographic—but how to address that fact? On the one hand, I can insist upon “being myself” as a political act Because Screw Normative Expectations, but that strategy is going to cost me social capital (and probably won’t make me a whole lot of friends). Alternatively, I can pull out the Introversion Meme to explain myself, but to do so is to shift the conversation from gender and power to why I, personally, am “like that.” While invoking “introversion” might be less of a hassle, I’m not certain that doing so is worth the ideological and political price.

Image credit: Hyperbole and a Half
Image credit: Hyperbole and a Half

The other thing about the Introversion Meme is that—and this might not make sense at first, so bear with me—beneath its dork-positive surface, the Introversion Meme has roots in digital dualism. Wait, what? Introverts tend to like the Internet, and tend to be comfortable with technologically mediated interaction, so you’d think introverts (of all people!) would be less likely to denigrate or discount digital interaction. Yet the rise of the Introversion Meme isn’t actually about introversion or introverts; it’s about turning away from what is meaningless and shallow, and toward what is ‘deep, meaningful, and true.’ Sound familiar?

Introversion is the new “disconnection,” and the Introvert fetish is the new IRL fetish. 

Recall the relationship between digital dualism and the IRL Fetish (both concepts Nathan Jurgenson’s handiwork): digital dualism marks a conceptual division between “online” and “offline” that falsely construes digitally mediated experiences as somehow separate from other experiences, and that often leads us to denigrate or dismiss digitally mediated experiences as less real or less important than other experiences. The IRL Fetish, in turn, is when we elevate things we think of as “offline” to hold them up as aesthetically, qualitatively, and morally superior to things we think of as “online.” This comparatively recent (over)valuing of “offline” objects and experiences doesn’t stem from some change in their intrinsic properties, however. Rather, we ascribe more value to certain “offline” objects and experiences—which we misleadingly label “real,” as if online objects and experiences were not equally real—because they now serve as symbols (fetishes) that represent both the superiority of the precious, authentic “offline” and the inferiority of the hollow, ubiquitous, ever-encroaching “online.” Accordingly, the Disconnection Meme—in which “disconnecting,” “unplugging,” “logging off,” taking a “screen vacation” or “digital detox” (etc.), is framed as a way to retrieve, revive, or rediscover the real, meaningful, pleasurable, authentic, significant, or important things in life—is IRL fetishism par excellence.

alone-not-left-aloneJust as the Introversion Meme’s “introversion” isn’t exactly what psychologists have in mind when they use the word, neither is the Introversion Meme’s “extroversion” what psychologists mean when they say “extraversion.” In meme caricature, “extroversion” is marked by superficiality, triviality, insubstantiality, and a preference for frenetic, empty sociality. “Extroverts” are “always on,” and they derive pleasure from a constant bombardment of empty, surface-level interaction; they may not have close or meaningful friendships, but they sure have a lot of friends. In this unflattering portrait, extroverts are denigrated digital interaction personified: Like your smartphone, they’re always on; like Facebook, they have too many friends (and those friendships aren’t even real); like SMS and Twitter, their interactions are too fast and too superficial. Actual introverts may have a particular affinity for the Internet, but the Internet itself becomes an extrovert.

Introverts, on the other hand, are meme-caricatured as preferring quality over quantity, and as gravitating toward what is more “authentic” and “meaningful.” As Katy Waldman summarizes in her sardonic critique of “23 Signs You’re Secretly an Introvert,”

you may claim membership in this elite club if “idle chatter” fails to thrill you, if networking “feels disingenuous” (you “crave authenticity in [your] interactions”), if you “have a penchant for philosophical conversations and a love of thought-provoking books and movies,” if you’re “geared toward intense study and developing expertise,” if you “have a keen eye for detail,” and if your habit of “thinking before [you] speak” gives you a “wise” reputation.

With the Disconnection Meme still making the rounds, is our cultural enthusiasm for the Introversion Meme even the least bit surprising? In fact, I’m almost surprised I’ve not seen an iteration of the Introversion Meme that lists a preference for walks on Cape Cod as a diagnostic criterion for introversion (or maybe that’s the 24th sign). The “introvert” has joined the paper book, the vinyl record, the face-to-face conversation, and the wilderness vacation as a fetish object imbued with the mythic power of Authentic Life™.

This, then, is my sad conclusion: As much as I identify as an introvert, and as much as I like seeing my non-normative way of being in the world represented in a (seemingly) positive light, I don’t think the popularity of the Introversion Meme actually has much to do with me or with my introverted brethren. The Introversion Meme isn’t promoting acceptance of introverts, and it isn’t encouraging positive change in the realm of normative social expectations. Instead, the Introversion Meme is just the newest face on a many-headed hydra of conservative backlash against a changing, augmented society.


Whitney Erin Boesel (@weboesel) has embraced Twitter as an introvert-positive interactional medium.

[i] Yes, pencil and paper: I’m probably among the youngest of people who encountered the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator (or something a lot like it) before they encountered the Internet.

[ii]Here’s a super basic way to tell the difference between “introversion” and “shyness”: as The Smiths famously sang, “Shyness is nice, but shyness can stop you from doing all the things in life you’d like to.” Introversion, on the other hand, is simply a particular pattern of liking (and disliking) different things to do in life.

asa-2013During the 2013 Annual Meeting of the American Sociological Association (#ASA13) in New York this last week, I was reminded of the post that I wrote last year before #ASA2012 in which I encouraged tweeting academics to reach out to non-tweeting academics to bridge the gap between those who participate on the conference hashtags at ASA and those who don’t. Nathan Jurgenson (@nathanjurgenson) followed up with a post titled, “Twitter isn’t a Backchannel,” in which he made the point that the term “backchannel” perpetuates digital dualist ideas of what does and doesn’t count as “real” participation at a conference:

There is no “backchannel”, there is no more or less “real” way to exist within this atmosphere of information, yet we continue to hear that the Twitter distraction whisks people away from the “real” conference in favor of something separate and “virtual.” Each time we say “real” or “IRL” (“in real life”) to mean offline, we reify the digital dualist myth of a separate digital layer “out there” in some ‘cyber’ space. And when we call Twitter a “backchannel” to mean a separate conversation, running tangent to the offline conference in some space behind precious face-to-face exchanges, we continue to support this digital dualism. The implicit, and incorrect, assumption is that the on and offline are zero-sum, that being offline means being not online, and vice versa.

In the comments, I agreed that Nathan had a point: “backchannel” really isn’t a great term for what we-who-livetweet do when we tweet at a conference. But what, I asked, should we call this activity? Neither Nathan nor I had an answer at the time, and I was still looking for a term when I wrote my ASA 2012 wrap-up post. But sometime in between post-ASA 2012 and when the Theorizing the Web planning committee was getting together to plan #TtW13, I’d come to a conclusion—and was solidly of an opinion that we should call the people moderating hashtag discussions for the TtW sessions “hashtag moderators” rather than “backchannel moderators” (which we did; needless to say, the term change was not a hard sell).

Revisiting my old post this week (and wincing a little for each use of the word “backchannel”) reminded me, however, that I never got around to posting about my proposed (and now, adopted) term change, so here we go: If we want to talk about that thing that happens when people who are in-room and people who are elsewhere use Twitter to have a conversation about a talk, a presentation, or some other event, that thing isn’t a backchannel; it’s a hashtag stream.

Again: It is not a backchannel; it is a hashtag stream.

You are not a backchannel moderator; you are a hashtag moderator.

You are not backchanneling; you are participating on the hashtag (possibly by livetweeting).

Granted, “participating on the hashtag” is more of a mouthful than “backchanneling”—so perhaps we could shorten this to “hashtagging,” and understand that term to mean “participating on the conference hashtag” in the context of a conference; alternatively, if we’re going to rely on context in that way, perhaps we could simply say “tweeting.” (I’m interested to hear people’s thoughts on this.) But there you have it: some workable language for talking about using Twitter at academic conferences. We need not denigrate hashtag participation as “backchanneling” again.

Other than that—on the topic of Twitter and ASA, and in the spirit of revisiting my post from last year—is there anything else I want to add, now that I’ve been to two ASA meetings instead of none? I have a few thoughts:

Sometimes session rooms were almost this empty. It was weird.

1.) This year’s ASA felt off to me, in a way that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Perhaps it was because the conference started on a Saturday and ended on a Tuesday, which meant that there were more people around for the first half than for the second half, which in turn created a sense that momentum was dwindling rather than building; perhaps it was the number of people I know who weren’t able to make it this year (or who only stayed for a day or two), in part because staying in New York can be so expensive; perhaps it was the number of scheduling conflicts for CITASA sessions & other sessions CITASA folks were likely to find interesting (CITASA is the Communication and Information Technology section of the American Sociological Association). But in any case, the Internet-studies “scene” felt far less cohesive and energized at #ASA13 than it did last year at #ASA2012 in Denver. Unsurprisingly (at least, to me)—because again, Twitter isn’t a “backchannel”—the listlessness this year manifested across in-room experiences, the session hashtags, and the general conference hashtag. Rooms for many of the Internet-related sessions were strangely empty (a thematic session titled, “Studying Social Dynamics in the Digital Age” was the most obvious exception, though for some unfathomable reason it was scheduled at the same time as a CITASA “Open Topic on Communication, Technology, and Society” session panel), and tweets about Internet-related sessions seemed to make up a much smaller percentage of the general ASA stream this year than last. More often than not, I was one of fewer than three or four people tweeting on a session hashtag, and on at least one occasion, I was the only person tweeting on a session hashtag. At times, this felt strange to the point of being a little eerie.

2.) I did notice more people using session hashtags in addition to the regular conference hashtag this year, so that made me happy.

3.) Aside from one man (at the Media Sociology pre-conference), who stood next to where I was sitting and spent an entire presentation staring at some combination of me and Tweetdeck on my laptop screen, no one much seemed to care about the fact that I was livetweeting. I think I heard all of one snarky remark about Twitter during the whole of ASA13, and it wasn’t even interesting (or pointed) enough for me to remember it clearly. Though I’ve been told that “people tweeting during sessions” was A Big Deal even a few years ago, it mostly seems like a non-issue now; in fact, it seems like such a non-issue that even those of us who are into livetweeting at conferences couldn’t get all that excited about it this year. I seem to recall spending a lot of ASA2012 involved in fairly intense conversations on the session hashtags, but at ASA13, I more often than not felt like I was just taking public notes—which, while still a worthwhile pursuit, is not quite the same thing.

4.) The #ASA13 hashtag did considerably enhance my experience of ASA 2013, and I remain a committed enthusiast both of conference hashtags and of more fully augmented conferences (like Theorizing the Web). But I have to admit: if we’re going to talk about converting non-users of particular social media platforms, I’ve actually gotten far more people to start using Snapchat than I’ve gotten to start using Twitter. This is probably due mainly to saturation—aka, the fact that the majority of people I know who would use Twitter are already doing so, whereas the same is not true of using Snapchat—but this minor detail still strikes me as mildly amusing (especially since I myself initially resisted Snapchat). I do have a few friends who live-snap me their readings of things (much as some of us, grad students especially, sometimes livetweet our readings of things), but—for obvious reasons—I doubt that livesnapping will ever become much of a conference phenomenon; as a result, my Social Media Activism Score for the 2012-2013 conference season is probably pretty low. Alas.

What are your thoughts—about hashtag participation generally, or about ASA 2013 specifically?


With her new username, Whitney Erin Boesel (@weboesel) saved four characters per tweet for everyone who talked with her on #ASA13—but is still slightly thrown every time she checks her @-replies and sees people addressing her newest performance of self.


iGibbs on deviantARmage credit: Elini
Image credit: EliniGibbs on deviantART

Once upon a time, when I was somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 or 12 years old, it was my job to go with my mom to the laundromat to help do my family’s laundry. I wasn’t a huge fan of this—the nearest laundromat was kind of sketchy, to this day I remain mediocre at folding t-shirts, and there’s just something a little uncomfortable about having to fold your parents’ and brother’s underwear—but there was one thing I really liked about those trips, and that was the 20 minute lull in between when the last load went into a washer and the first load demanded sorting and partial transfer to a dryer. During that downtime, my mom would read her book, and I was free to do whatever I wanted. Invariably, I sat at a little folding station and, sheltered from view by washing machines on three sides, pretended to do my homework while reading from the laundromat’s stack of “trashy” magazines.

With rapt attention and furtive glances over my shoulder, I read ALL the sex tips (in Cosmo and in other such fine publications). I studiously absorbed articles that subtly (and not-so-subtly) encouraged me to feel insecure about body parts and features that I didn’t even have yet. I was also a huge fan of Ladies’ Home Journal’s “Can This Marriage Be Saved,” even though I was already developing opinions that sometimes clashed with those of whoever was doling out advice to unhappy wives.

Somewhere in all that secretive studying was when I first read about (what I think of as) The Marble Thing. 

What, you ask, is The Marble Thing? As explained by a woman who wrote in to relay advice she’d gotten from her mother shortly before she’d gotten married, The Marble Thing is this: get a jar and a bunch of marbles, and keep them under the bed. Starting from the night you get married, and for the first year of marriage, put a marble in the jar every time you have sex. (What counts as one marble’s worth of “sex” was apparently so self-evident as not to merit addressing.) After your first anniversary, start removing a marble from the jar every time you have sex—and see how long it takes you to empty the jar. The woman who wrote in said it took her and her husband about four years, though she didn’t mention whether her husband knew about the marbles or not.

Even as a kid, I wasn’t quite sure how to feel about this marble business.

Image credit: MidwestFinds on Etsy

I bring this up to make the point that tracking one’s sex life is not new. On some level, we know this already: reference, for example, the (usually figurative) expression about “notches on a bedpost.” And especially when we were younger and first sexually active, most of us knew exactly how many partners we’d had (it’s a prerequisite for fretting about having slept with “too many” or “not enough” people, after all). I reference The Marble Thing, however, to show that it’s not just informal tracking that’s been around for a long, indeterminate while; it’s formal, quantitative tracking, too.

From my perspective—as someone who studies self-tracking, and who has known about sex tracking (like The Marble Thing) probably longer than I should have—it was only a matter of time before sex-tracking apps started turning up somewhere inside my field of attention. (If nothing else, I know the life-hacking crowd talks about “sex hacking,” and they tend to be a pretty tech-savvy bunch.) Today “sooner or later” became sooner, as the magical network that is Twitter pointed me at a sex-tracking app called Spreadsheets.

Spreadsheets. (Let’s all pause to think about that name, *facepalm* a little, and move on.)

There’s a whole lot to say about this app, and I’ll probably write about it again in a few weeks when I’m not half-packed for #ASA13 and theoretically leaving in about an hour. But for now, there’s two main points I want to make:

First, we need to ask some big questions about the cultural and political implications of both this app’s design and its very existence. What messages is this app sending about which types of activity do and don’t count as “sex,” and about what the meanings of sex are, and about what’s most important during sex? How is the design of this app reinforcing which conceptualizations of and attitudes about sex, and to what effect (and for whom)? What are the lessons it’s teaching about masculine and feminine sexuality, and how would queer sexualities fit into its structuring? What does it mean to distill sexual activity down to “how many thrusts per minute you’re averaging, how long you go for, and exactly how loud it gets”? What does it mean to encourage users to “monitor” their sexual activity, to view sex as an “accomplishment” or an “achievement,” to compare their sex lives to other people’s sex lives (“Share [your data] with your friends and let the facts speak for themselves”), and to seek “feedback” from an app rather than talking to their partners?

As Jenny (@Jenny_L_Davis) argues in her analysis of the kink-oriented social networking site Fetlife, the way a platform is designed and structured can influence how we come to see others and ourselves as sexual beings, as well as how we think about sex itself. While I’m not usually a fan of the line of reasoning that goes, “OMG, now people will look to an app for feedback instead of asking other people or relying on their own intuition, surely it is the end of the world,” I do think this case is a little different. I used to volunteer answering questions and giving advice on online safer-sex information bulletin boards, and I frankly think it’s somewhere between “a tragedy” and “psychological violence” how little we (in the U.S.) teach people about how to talk about sex. The promotional video on the Spreadsheets website, for instance, tells the story of a woman who is frustrated trying to get her male partner into bed. She tries leaving her clothes all over the stairs; she tries wearing short shorts and bending over in the kitchen; nothing works. Since clearly she can’t use words to express her desire, or to directly initiate sex herself (especially as a woman!), she remains frustrated—until the excitement of tracking with Spreadsheets is finally enough to get her partner’s attention and lure him into bed. Perhaps this is Spreadsheets’ way of arguing that the app could be “a conversation starter,” but I honestly don’t think it will structure the kinds of conversations about sex that our culture (and each of us as individuals) needs to be having. “Monitoring” decibel levels, for example, is not the same thing as knowing about, and seeking, enthusiastic consent.

Frankly, what that decibel thing most reminds me of is this (really great) song by the band Lush, which features the lyric, “When he’s nice to me, he’s just nice to himself / And he’s watching his reflection / I’m a five-foot mirror for adoring himself / Here’s seven years bad luck.” Is hitting an all-time loudness record really about trying to make one’s partner feel happy and fulfilled, or is it more about stroking (har, har) one’s own ego? I’ll grant that there’s an extent to which all sex (like all of life) is performative—in fact, I passed most of a bus ride to NYC last spring SMS-discussing with Nathan (@nathanjurgenson) the idea all sex is now porn (following this Twitter thread)—but how does focusing on one’s “performance” in this way intensify those elements of sexual activity? The Spreadsheets website states that “your partner will support your commitment to improving sexual activity through performance tracking,” but I’m not certain how they can be so sure.

Needless to say, the app is also rooted in—and seriously reinforcing—the heteronormative, patriarchal idea that sex=penetration with a penis, period stop. While any combination of people having penetrative sex could ostensibly use this app, regardless of their genders or of what they’re using to penetrate whom, the cultural paradigms that undergird the Spreadsheets designers’ choice of metrics aren’t rooted in GLBTQ sexual activity or in non-heteronormative straight sexual activity. If you doubt me on this one, and don’t feel like reviewing Gender Studies 101, try this: go to the Spreadsheets website and find an image of hypothetical users that doesn’t feature a two-person couple, and that isn’t a cisgender straight couple. I’ll wait. Wait, no I won’t.

Finally, the second issue I want to raise is a running theme of discussions within the Quantified Self community, which is where exactly “self” stops and “other” begins with respect to self-tracking. The Spreadsheets website does encourage users to inform their partners that their shared sex is being tracked, but what happens when one partner is into tracking and the other isn’t? (How is that similar to, and different from, when partners have discordant kink interests?) Ultimately, I can’t say it any better than Jay (@thejaymo) did on Twitter this morning: “at what point does MY QS data become surveillance of YOU”?

What do you think?

internet trolling is not random—it is a sentient, directed, strong-armed goon of the status quo

It could be used for anything depending on how creepy you want to be

yes, they are collecting everything, contents word for word, everything of every domestic communication in this country

So women aren’t geeks, so is that your conclusion?

Online and offline only scratch the surface of dualist language

It’s the heart of the video, surgically removed and held aloft, endlessly beating

a game where players could connect to someone, someone they could trust but who they knew nothing about

The war on whistleblowers is just as much a war on journalists

To blame Reddit is to pretend that the platform is the problem” 

every investigative journalist in the United States who works with their sources, who receives classified information, is a criminal

[The FBI] is loath to use these tools when investigating hackers, out of fear the suspect will discover and publicize the technique

For all the ways Schwyzer can be called out for being wrong, these call-outs can never be framed in ways that make him as vulnerable as someone who isn’t a white straight cis-dude

some of Mr. McGinn’s posts  …have struck even some of Mr. McGinn’s onetime supporters as less philosophical than self-incriminating

The Occupy Money Cooperative represents post-anarchism in that it does not present itself as the people’s banking opportunity

The world of “occupy,” successfully (violently) branded as fair, peaceful, and revolutionary, was up for grabs

‘If you’re not now, you never were’ implies ‘If you’re not in the future, you’re not now’

the latter’s insect limbs wrapped around the former’s warm-blooded trunk, about to hatch something new

Maybe this is the selfie as a way to combat death. Or to face it?

I’d have to call it a success, unless I develop cancer on my scalp!

This isn’t like a bag of Doritos …We’re talking about a raw product, the essence of orange

Thus [Pope] Francis …opened up ‘a sort of technological sacred space’

Where did his driving expertise come from? Mario Kart, naturally

If you are remembered, mentioned and quoted, are you ever really dead?






Probably a drone. (Image credit: Nathan Jurgenson)
Probably a drone. (Image credit: Nathan Jurgenson)


Image credit:
Image credit: ~Ninetailsgal on deviantART

Russian Internet giant Yandex posted a press statement on July 25th about the death of their co-founder Ilya Segalovich. Segalovich, 48 years old and a father of four, was a billionaire and a philanthropist, loved by many for his kindness and hard work to better the Russian Internet and software development field. He reportedly had stomach cancer and had been ill for some time.

News of his death quickly went viral – it was shared on Twitter, Facebook, and many news websites. But hours later, Yandex retracted the press-release to say Segalovich was not actually dead, but was in a coma & on life support, with no signs of brain activity.

Flabbergasted, RuNet users exploded in a new wave of discussion: was Segalovich dead or not?

All this has me thinking about how modern medicine, science, technology and media are changing the conventions of reporting on the deaths of public figures: when is someone really dead? Are they considered gone when an official press release says so? Or when the family releases a statement? But what if they are still breathing (albeit through a ventilator)? When do the media and social network users get to say, “R.I.P., they were a good person”?

History, even recent history, offers examples of people who are “technically” dead, but are not considered such – or at least, this issue is hotly debated. Take Ariel Sharon, the former Israeli prime minister, who has been in a vegetative state for over seven years after a stroke. Earlier this year, there was news that his brain showed signs of activity and even responded to stimuli. So, while the family and the nation have grieved for the loss already, the media continue to find Sharon’s state a source of news and wonder.

Or remember the story of Fabrice Muamba, a 23-year-old British footballer (no, I will not say ‘soccer’!), who collapsed on the field during a match, went into cardiac arrest, was “technically” dead for more than an hour, and was then resuscitated by doctors to virtually complete health? Yeah, that was one for the history books. The media found his back-from-the-dead story fascinating and his recovery was touted as a miracle of nature and modern medicine.

Image credit: Whitney Erin Boesel
Instructions for cryoprocessing (image credit: Whitney Erin Boesel)

Death is a normal part of life, but it is a subject fascinates the media and the people. We don’t like learning about someone’s death, but we cannot look away. The numerous death hoaxes that regularly roll through the social networks have made people so skeptical that when news of someone’s unexpected death (see: Cory Monteith) rolls around, the first gut reaction is to shout, “It must be a hoax!” But what happens when it’s difficult to determine whether someone has really died or not? What qualifies as death, in a world where technology is causing us to redefine mobility, disability and normality, and where body parts and organs can be replaced with bionic appendages and electronics? When someone is frozen in a cryogenic tub in the hope of future revival, can we say with finality that they’ve died?

As we contemplate the physical aspect of death, there are those who have undertaken to assist us with the metaphysical side of things as well, in an attempt to preserve some form of our conscience or its traces: you can get your Twitter account to keep tweeting after you die and your Google Account data will be passed on to loved ones if you indicate your preference in the account settings. As Facebook memorial pages crop up and Twitter accounts keep tweeting from beyond, how will we even know anymore to tell the dead from the living? And will it matter?

The Brief History of the Dead, a novel by Kevin Brockmeier, describes a place beyond death, a sort of purgatory, called The City. People who find themselves in The City are there as long as someone on Earth remembers them. I imagine that public figures, people who were famous before they passed, would stay in The City forever, since there would always be someone remembering them in news stories, books or student papers. But in a world of microcelebrity, there is always someone who remembers you even if you’re not that famous: someone who liked your photo on Instagram, favorited a Tumblr post of yours, or Storified your tweets from an event. If you are remembered, mentioned and quoted, are you ever really dead? And when news of your death does come, will everyone believe it? Or will they say Pics, or it didn’t happen?


Tanya Lokot lives and tweets at @tanyalokot.

Hello reader! Nathan’s cross-country adventures continue, and I continue to bring you links.

You have no obligations to what isn’t real

the control over the vibrator’s narrative passed from male doctors to male pornographers

Her characterless character drinks desire like a matte surface repudiates light

Ideas of women relieving themselves in small ʻrest roomsʼ outside the confines of their homes (where they should be) was shocking and morally transgressive

his habit of sending raunchy online photographs and messages to women had persisted long after he resigned from Congress in 2011

My name is America and I’m a dataholic

At three hops, you have a dragnet” 

What’s clear here is that David Cameron wants people to sleepwalk into censorship

Socioeconomic status (SES) not only predicts one’s chances of getting into graduate school, but it also predicts successful completion

I’m really not calling for an end to capitalism; I’m calling for humanism

Myth 1: Economics is a science

getting any climate change-themed story published got harder

only 37% of students cooperate. Inmates cooperated 56% of the time

those 217 ‘no’ voters received twice as much campaign financing from the defense and intelligence industry as the 205 ‘yes’ voters

Silver didn’t think you could use polls to project the outcome of elections because he had a mystical faith in the power of polling

He was, in a word, disruptive

the public have a right to see weaknesses in security on which they rely exposed

I was able to click on the links, giving me the ability to turn these people’s homes into haunted houses, energy-consumption nightmares, or even robbery targets

social media shows his connection to Zimmerman

In the United States, it is far easier to find a train station that has become condos, a restaurant, a museum, or any other currently-used space than it is to find one remaining vacant

realtime emoji use on Twitter


The sneakers that inspired my first username. (Image credit: my dad)
The sneakers that inspired my first username (Image credit: my dad)

Ever since it and I first became acquainted, I have been the sort of person who goes by strange made-up names on the Internet. That “ever since” is a long one, too: It begins in the fall of 1995, when my classmates and I returned to school to find not only that the dark room full of DOS machines had been swapped out for a bright room full of Windows boxes with Internet access, but also that we now had email accounts—something most of us didn’t have at home.

To our mostly pre-digital teenaged selves, email was clearly the Best. Thing. Ever.

My friends and I spent all of our free periods in the computer lab emailing each other, even though we went to a small school and so all saw each other every single weekday. We passed silly forwards around (like “100 Things to Do in An Elevator”), and had group conversations, and had long one-on-one conversations as well—often conversations that, for a whole range of reasons, would never have happened through in-person interaction. I spent some of the most intense, exciting hours of that school year in the computer lab, engaged with those machines (and through them, my friends) as if they were lifelines.

I’m reasonably certain our usernames on those email accounts were assigned by the school, and so probably had something to do with our legal names—but that’s not what I remember. What I do remember is that, within a few weeks, we all started signing our emails to each other with what I’d later recognize as “handles,” most of which were based on nicknames we had amongst each other. I signed all of my messages “rubyslippers,” for instance, after my friends’ name for the (fabulous) red metallic Airwalks I wore on a daily basis (see above).

Then summer came, and horror of horrors: I was facing almost three months without the Internet. Salvation came via snailmail, however, in the form of one of those “10 hours free!” AOL CDs—and in parents indulgent enough to install two new phone lines (I suspect the only thing worse than listening to my younger brother and I fight over the existing phone line was trying to get either of us off of it to make an actual phone call). Miracle of miracles, I could breathe again: by late June, the Internet and I were reunited.

I still remember that summer night vividly. I had a hand-me-down Intel 386 from my brother sitting on one end of the old coffee table in my room (my stereo—including a receiver older than I was—got the other end); I had myself sitting awkwardly on a stepstool in front of it, because there were only two feet of space between the coffee table and my bed. Giddy with anticipation, I sat wide-eyed and perched more or less like a gremlin through the entire installation process, until finally the magic moment arrived: picking my new AOL username. But “rubyslippers” was taken, and so was just about every possible alternate spelling, up to and including even “rubyshoes.” It took an hour of thinking and trying different possibilities, but finally I had it: I became “Al2O3shoes” on the Internet, because that’s just the kind of dork I am.

(If you don’t get the joke, “Al2O3” is the chemical formula for corundum, which in its red gem form is called “ruby.” Yup.)

Where my personal username was born (Image credit: MIT)
Where my personal username was born (Image credit: MIT)

I was Al2O3shoes until I went off to college, at which point I got a new username for my university account. My school was nice enough to let us choose our usernames (though there was an eight character maximum), and for months I’d been planning on using my initials—my best friend from high school was a year ahead of me at the same university and had used his initials for his username, and his resultant email address had a certain elegant simplicity that I found appealing. Yet when the time came, there I was—this time stumped on a summer afternoon in the W20 cluster, because some guy named David already had my initials as his username. Why did he get to be web@mit.edu?

Oh. Right. Ha-ha.

And so there, by virtue of what someone nicknamed the Internet, went my one brush with almost going by something related to my legal name online. The made up word I did come up with for a username remained my only name online for more than a decade, and to this day remains the name my “personal” identity uses online. Perhaps it is unsurprising then that, when I did begin a new “public” Internet presence in early 2011 by starting a second (open) Twitter account for conference-going, it never occurred to me to use a username based on my legal name. Instead I chose another made-up word: “phenatypical,” which—as a portmanteau of “phenotype” and “atypical”—seemed appropriate for someone who was (at the time) researching personal genomics and had unnaturally bright hair. (Again, that’s just the kind of dork I am.)

In summary, there you have it: I am, and have from the beginning been, the kind of person who goes by dorky, esoteric made-up names on the Internet, and I have repeatedly resisted pressure from a variety of online platforms to do otherwise. My personal email account (which is by far my oldest gmail account) quit Google+ over nymwars in the summer of 2011; I stopped using Facebook for two years in part over their “real names” policy (also in part over that glaring spring 2010 privacy snafu). I am a firm believer that my name is me, and in some ways, my suite of strange pseudonyms is more “me” than my legal name will ever be.

Yet despite all this, for almost a year now, I’ve been doing some serious soul-searching about whether I should change the username on my public Twitter account to something based on my legal name. For a change that’s really pretty trivial, the matter has also turned out to be a really big deal to me—and trying to muddle my way through the decision has made me realize just how much my sense of identity and self-conceptualization really are tied up in a name. My strongest, most readily apparent feeling is that I don’t really want to change my username at all—yet at the same time, I can’t shake the nagging feeling that I’m missing out both on professional cultural capital and on opportunities to increase my name recognition. And as the nagging anxiety about not changing my username mounts, and I continue to confront and dissect my deep ambivalence about changing, I’m realizing there’s part of me that does want to change my username as well.

It started at ASA 2012, as Nathan (@nathanjurgenson) and PJ (@pjrey) and I were all sitting in the audience at the same panel session, and so doing what we tend to do when that happens: engage in rapid-fire debate and discussion on the conference hashtag. Watching my columns scroll in TweetDeck, I suddenly realized that with every retweet, every mention, and every reply, they were both increasing the general (tweeting) public’s familiarity with their names, whereas people would have to glance down at my conference badge in order to connect me, my legal name, and my Twitter handle. I wondered if I shouldn’t think about switching, but in the middle of a conference seemed the worst time to do so; changing also didn’t feel quite right. At the time I’d just joined Cyborgology as a regular contributor, and I took comfort in the fact that, while all the men writing for Cyborgology had legal-name-based usernames, none of the women then-writing did; I could also point to some prominent women whose work I admired who were using pseudonyms on Twitter as well.


People live-tweeting at #TtW13 (image credit: Aaron Thompson)
People live-tweeting at #TtW13 (Image credit: Aaron Thompson)

ASA 2013 is now around two weeks away, and my one-year anniversary as a Cyborgology contributor is two days away…and I’m realizing that a lot has changed over the last year. Jenny Davis is now @Jenny_L_Davis, and Zeynep Tufekci is now @zeynep; it genuinely gives me hope for the world that danah boyd is still @zephoria, but as every grad student who loves studying the Internet gets told a million times, “we don’t all get to grow up to be danah.” I’m also realizing that, entirely despite myself, my instinctual reaction is to take new Twitter followers more seriously if their username seems based on a legal name; somehow it seems that’s what most of the people who are serious about being Public seem to be doing these days. And as I continue to work at building a public self, it more and more seems as though I should follow their lead (and save everyone who tweets at me four characters) by dropping down to my first two initials and my last name: @weboesel.

And yet, it’s neither quite that simple nor that easy. In a weird way, the idea of changing my username feels like “having to grow up”—not because there’s anything child-like about using a pseudonym, but because changing my username feels like a scary and increasingly inevitable shift in my identity. My pseudonym is in many ways more “me” than my legal name, and yet the idea of using my legal name scares me because it feels too much me. The idea of going first & foremost by my legal name—something I’ve never really done on the Internet, save what’s now my oft-neglected professional Facebook profile—feels frighteningly naked, so intensely visible. I’d just be myself, plain and in plain sight, right there in front of everyone.

On a visceral level, I find the idea of that kind of visibility to be completely terrifying—and yet, it’s the fact of that terror that has finally tipped the scales toward making the change. I see it in some ways as a small, personally political statement about women and visibility: if on some level I fear being visible (and I do), then I will walk straight into my fear and become more visible. It’s also that, if I’m really going to do this public academia thing, if I want to become a public figure, if I want a public life—and I do, all of it—then I have to take the deep breath and let go and become those things, release that public part of me to become. While obviously there remain successful women public intellectuals whose usernames have nothing to do with their legal names, I’m starting to realize the “becomingness” piece is what changing my username symbolizes for me. Ever since I discovered Academic Twitter™ following #TtW12, a public self has been in formation; as she continues to become, I increasingly feel that she’s constrained by an older identity and an older name.

Again, so much has changed since #TtW12: how I use Twitter; what I believe to be possible—& therefore, what I desire—professionally, academically, and intellectually; what I want and believe to be possible in life itself; the mundane realities of my day-to-day existence; everything in between all of those things. As a sociologist, I’m on board with the fact that identity is neither stable nor a linear narrative, and yet more so than in most other years, I feel like I left 2012 markedly different from the person I was when I went in. And I think this, too, is part of the tension: The fact that I’m somewhere in the middle of becoming a person who, in her array of selves (some more familiar, some less), also has a capital-P Public self. That newer, public self seems to need—and also, to want—to take up more visual and textual space, instead of lurking inside an esoteric demonstration of my cleverness until she feels like stepping out.

And so, in the end—after months of borderline-neurotic deliberation—I’ve come to the conclusion that I do need to change my username. I just wish anyone had given me an unequivocal “you must change” argument along the way, so that I might feel less unsettled as I do so.

Releasing old selves is hard.


Whitney Erin Boesel was @phenatypical on Twitter from March 2011 to July 2013; as this post goes live, she’s initializing the change to @weboesel

Hello reader! This week Nathan continues his epic journey across the country, and I continue babysitting In Their Words.

BuzzFeed, in all its listicle glory, reimagined and repurposed for a black audience

The hive has become a swarm. It’s diffuse, powerful, and all around you

This particular dark corner of the web was never merely content to stay in its corner; its members ventured out

Strong opinions were prevalent and as a result more people hit the unfriend and block buttons in any day in Facebook’s history

Legally, this was self-defense. The law is a racist technology

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

Yeah! Shouldn’t you be FROM America!? Like, sorry, New York City just doesn’t cut it

The Internet, she explains, is for getting to the next level on Candy Crush Saga, not for getting information

From profile pics and bios, blog posts and tweets, simple HR reconnaissance can glean tons of off-limits information

But one doesn’t need the content to reveal the full extent of what sort of communication is taking place

the key final step that will allow the agency to collect and store massive amounts of data on United States citizens

Being able to record and analyze what’s not done in addition to what’s done makes it possible to explore and exploit human behavior in ways that approach the level of quantum mechanics

we should think twice before making a one-to-one comparison between cookies and cameras

The high-risk teams shift the burden of being surveilled from the victim to the abuser

Photography is very simple, it’s very basic. It brings us back to the cave

when does our software quietly choose not to help us?

If noise is so sickening to privileged constitutions, I wonder what this means for the political possibilities of new types of industrial music

You can’t obtain indulgences like getting a coffee from a vending machine

Am I fetishizing the ephemeral, the present, the current moment?




(from here)
(from here)


(from here)


(from here)
(from here)


image credit: nathan jurgenson
(image credit: nathan jurgenson)


wpid-goodwhitepersoncertificate(Expiation, n.: the act of making amends or reparation for guilt or wrongdoing; atonement: an act of public expiation.)

Dear reader, are you still thinking about the Zimmerman verdict?

Yeah, me too.

Over the last five days I’ve been thinking a lot about Trayvon Martin’s murder, and about George Zimmerman’s acquittal, and especially about the reactions to both that I’ve observed since the jury returned with a verdict Saturday night. I’ve been thinking (and somewhat obsessively reading) about these things not just because of my contractual obligation as a sociologist, but because as a person I’m saddened, troubled, and angered by what all of this says about U.S. society. Yet I’m not just a person; I’m also a white person, and as such I don’t know where to begin processing the fact that, regardless of my personal particularities, I am by this fact alone complicit in the systems of oppression that made Martin’s murder and Zimmerman’s acquittal possible.

Here’s the thing about white people, the Zimmerman verdict, and its aftermath: This moment isn’t about us. I mean, it is about us, in that—as Aura Bogado wrote for The Nation—“white supremacy acquit George Zimmerman.” But while I know I’m far from the only white person who feels anger, shame, and grief, I also know that this moment isn’t and shouldn’t be about white people’s pain or guilt. The future is long, and there will be plenty of time for most of us to sort out our feelings; more than anything, Right Now is a moment for white people to shut up, to listen, and to reflect on how we can better allies in the future.

Given this, I’m really conflicted about the “We Are Not Trayvon Martin” meme.

Children as Trayvon Martin
Children as Trayvon Martin

If you aren’t familiar with the meme, here’s some quick background. The original meme is “I am Trayvon Martin”; it started after Martin’s death, and made a resurgence as the Zimmerman trial came to a close. The I am Trayvon Martin tumblr features pictures from protests and portraits of people of color wearing hoodies; the We Are Trayvon Martin tumblr features similar images plus videos, article, and personal stories; photographer Eunique Gibson Jones made portraits of adults and children (almost all people of color) wearing hoodies for an “I Am Trayvon Martin” photo awareness campaign; the Miami Heat and a large group of Howard University medical students posed for photos wearing hoodies as well. As Feministing put it, the idea behind the meme is “lifting Martin’s story out of the particular—holding it up as a symbol of something bigger, tying it to the racial history of our society.” But then white people got in on it and, like certain other sets of words, “I Am Trayvon Martin” is a different thing when it starts slipping out from between white lips—which is something some white people didn’t exactly understand, intentions toward solidarity notwithstanding. As Eric Liu put it, “Martin died not because he was wearing a hoodie but because he was wearing a hoodie while black. Blackness was the fatal variable.” To wrap one’s white self up in a hoodie and declare, “I am Trayvon Martin,” is fundamentally to miss the point.

Before I go further, let’s just pause and get this out of the way: yes, I am white. I’m not just white, I’m very white—both biologically low on melanin and sociologically steeped in most of the additional economic and cultural privilege that “white” stereotypically entails. I’m white like my brother jokes about being one gene away from albinism, white like some faint olive undertones make me “dark” for my family but still way too “light” to be an olive that cosmetics manufacturers think exists (I know, my life is so hard). I’m culturally white, too, just like all the other white folks who try to escape white normalcy through tattoos and/or Crayola-colored hair and/or extra metal installed in their white flesh; I’m white like I have a closet half-full of hoodies and, despite what Richard Cohen says (in a 15 July opinion piece in the Washington Post that I refuse to link here), the worst that wardrobe choice can do is implicate me as probably being in a band. And I’m white like I’m deeply uncomfortable Being White, because unlike being a woman, “being white” isn’t anything I’ve ever identified around—which, of course, is my bloody white privilege. I laughed through the book Stuff White People Like because more often than not, I think it’s spot on. HI YES I AM PAINFULLY WHITE, and now I’m going to talk about white people’s reactions to Trayvon Martin’s murder and George Zimmerman’s acquittal, and I honestly can’t tell you even as I write this whether the fact that I’m writing this makes me a part of the problem I’m about to describe.

In case you were abducted by aliens (or vigilantes) last week, and only just this moment returned to Internet access, last Saturday night George Zimmerman was acquitted in the murder of Trayvon Martin—“acquitted” as in found not guilty of anything, legally speaking. Some white people—the sorts of white people I follow on Twitter, or who ride retweets into my feed, for instance—expressed shock and outrage; other white people—the ones I’m especially embarrassed and ashamed about being lumped in with when people call me “white[i]”—reportedly lit fireworks in celebration[ii]. I knew enough not to be “shocked” by the verdict; I may be white, but the first class I TAed as a graduate student was a sociology/legal studies cross-register course called Race and Justice, and if there are two things of which I’m certain, they are that structuralized oppression is real and that “justice system” is a misnomer. Still, I was ready to be angry because Zimmerman got let off with manslaughter rather than second-degree murder, not because he got let off with getting his gun back and going home; I wasn’t ready for everyone who argued, “Well, Zimmerman was genuinely afraid, so it’s sad but ok that he shot an unarmed kid whom he stalked and made genuinely afraid for his life.” It’s not surprising that Zimmerman was afraid: welcome to Race and Representation in the United States (101). I just really didn’t expect that the same stereotypes and racialized fear-mongering that I’ve walked literally hundreds of undergraduate students through deconstructing would turn out to be a Get Out Of Jail Free card.

The verdict reduced me to swearing on Twitter…and then I kept my mouth shut, whereby “kept my mouth shut” I mean I spent most of the night retweeting a massive collection of reactions and, as they came out, articles. I did this because curating content and boosting signal is something I know how to do, and because I didn’t know what else to do, and because I’ve been socialized into thinking that when I have a feeling, or when something is Wrong, I should do something about it. Over the last two years, Twitter has become how I experience and process events of national importance—ten white fingers flying over a keyboard, two white thumbs tapping on a touchscreen—and yet, even with hands in motion, the Zimmerman verdict was (and is) a lot to sit with. White supremacy is ugly, and I feel impotent.

we-are-all-trayvon-martinEnter “We Are Not Trayvon Martin.”

The meme was apparently sparked by one middle-aged white man’s Facebook post the day after the verdict, in which he stated that he was not Trayvon Martin, but that, “You don’t have to be Trayvon Martin to know this is wrong […] This type of injustice will continue until enough guys like me – guys who are not Trayvon Martin – have had enough of it and finally say ‘No more.’” From there “I Am Not Trayvon Martin” took off, and inspired (among other things) the We Are Not Trayvon Martin tumblr, which has been my primary exposure to the revised-for-white people edition of the original meme. The best way to get a sense of the tumblr is simply to read a few posts, but here’s the general formula: 1) explain your membership in one or more privileged groups; 2) talk about one or more aspects of how great your life is; 3) (optional) talk about a time you could have gotten in trouble for something, but didn’t; 4) (optional) say something about how either privilege and/or the Zimmerman verdict is terrible and makes you feel bad; 5) conclude by reminding the reader that you are not Trayvon Martin.

Compared to white people declaring, “I Am Trayvon Martin,” the “I Am Not Trayvon Martin” meme is something of an improvement, but the problem is that…I’m not convinced ‘better’ actually makes it good, or right. A majority of the articles I’ve been able to find about “Not Trayvon” have viewed the meme positively—though notably, all but one of those pieces were written by more white (or so-called “honorary white”) people. Tracy Clayton mentions that reaction to “Not Trayvon” has been mixed on Twitter, and Kyra Kyles mentions (in her interview with the “Not Trayvon” tumblr’s creator) that “some detractors who feel that this tumblr is a way for non-Blacks to somehow make the Trayvon travesty about them,” but these are the closest things I’ve been able to find (so far) to negative coverage.

But why am I not sold on the “Not Trayvon” meta-meme? I get that people—white people especially—feel bad and weird and guilty about the Zimmerman verdict in ways they don’t entirely know to understand or do anything about. And as a white woman, I get why white women in particular might feel those feelings even more strongly: after all, there’s been a lot of media attention given to the fact that the Zimmerman jury was all women, and that five out of six of those women are white. As a random sample, I scrolled back through 24 hours of We Are Not Trayvon Martin, and counted 102 non-duplicated posts; of them, 59 (or 58%) were written by authors who identified themselves as white women (for comparison, the next largest group was people who identified themselves as white men [10 posts], followed by 9 people who stated neither their race nor their gender[iii]). While both the meta-meme and the tumblr were started by white men, I don’t think the popularity of “Not Trayvon” with white women is a coincidence; even a good deal of writing about “Not Trayvon” by white women writers includes confessional-style detailings of the authors’ privilege. If (some) white people feel bad about Martin’s murder and Zimmerman’s acquittal, then (some) white women feel really bad; is it so bad to provide a forum for turning those bad feelings into positive action?

You have to scroll through a lot of the “Not Trayvon” tumblr to find it, but this is the post that finally helped me put my finger on why the site doesn’t sit right with me. It begins with this reaction from an anonymous commenter:

As an African American person, I’m gonna say what tumblr has been screaming: this is a huge example of appropriation. The “We Are Trayvon Martin” campaign is a way for POC to intelligently express their emotions and arguments relating to the recent travesty of justice. This tumblr is, as one blog put it, the Toms of the Internet. Please know that very Very VERY few people appreciate your efforts. Most people (Me included) Would very much like you to stop.


To which the blog’s creator responds,

Thanks for sharing.

This blog and idea is not meant to silence in anyway the voices of people of color in talking about, organizing, or mobilizing around the recent travesty of justice.

This blog was started to encourage people who benefit from racism, who have racial privilege, to understand their role in the system and institutions of white supremacy and take action against it.

It is imperfect, and messy, and raw, and difficult. But I believe we are opening a conversation and a direction that will support the fight against white supremacy in this country.



…and just, wow. Joseph’s response has so little to do with Anonymous’s comment that almost reads as though Joseph copied and pasted in a response originally written to someone else; there’s no indication of having considered or even listened to what Anonymous had to say. Supposedly Joseph and his site are dedicated to ending racism, but that canned brush-off is dripping with white “I’m right” privilege. Not to mention: Thanks for sharing?

We Are Not Trayvon Martin tumblr creator Joseph Phelan

I don’t doubt that Joseph started the “Not Trayvon” tumblr out of good intentions, and I don’t doubt that the people who have submitted posts to it have done so out of good intentions, too. But as I scrolled through post after post on We Are Not Trayvon Martin, it began to seem a lot less like anti-racist activism and a lot more like a white people’s guilt support group. While a very, very small number of posts stand out for offering some kind of social insight or advice on how white people can be better allies, the majority of posts can be summed up as follows:  “Hey everyone! Guess what! I’m not Trayvon Martin, and I know that I’m not Trayvon Martin!” And…that’s it.

Such posts come off as one part catharsis (right now I am facing my complicity and I feel terrible about it) and one part identity performance (look, see, I’m the good kind of white person…validate my good-white-ness by reblogging this post or clicking that little heart), while overall, the tumblr itself comes off as something for white people. Perhaps its creators would say that’s the point: It’s a tumblr intended to get people in positions of racial privilege both to think about their privilege and to take action against it, and if you want to talk to “people in positions of racial privilege,” white people are your prime demographic. But when I say the tumblr seems like something “for white people,” I don’t mean “designed to speak to white people”; I mean “designed to benefit white people.” More than anything it seems more like a platform for white people to get the burden (‘burden’) of whiteness off their chests, a kind of online confessional where white folks whisper their privilege through a digital lattice to a Generalized Othered Other, seeking absolution.

I am all for people who have privilege recognizing their privilege, and I am all for people who have privilege working to dismantle privilege and counter discrimination. And by all means, yes, let’s have a whole bunch of really hard conversations about racism and sexism and all the other *-isms that plague our society. But here’s the thing about being a good conversationalist: you have to know how to listen at least as well as you speak, and you have to know when it is you should be speaking in the first place. Truly becoming an ally in the struggle against racism means starting with yourself, and it doesn’t just mean “become aware that you have racial privilege”; it means doing the hard work every single day to struggle against the racism that you yourself have already internalized. It means developing the sociopolitical self-awareness to know when it’s not your turn to take up speech-space. It means confronting racism when you encounter it—not just by signing large-scale petitions, but also by speaking up in one-on-one conversations—and it means learning to recognize racism in places where you’ve been taught to be blind to it; it means owning your anti-racism, and saying “that offends me” instead of “that’s offensive to <insert group here>.” Perhaps most importantly, being an ally means acknowledging that it takes a lot more than “conversation” to fight racism. It means acting on that knowledge, and it means resisting the urge to go running for a gold star when you take action. You don’t get a gold star. That’s not the point.

To be fair, We Are Not Trayvon Martin does have a “Take Action” page (under a sidebar link titled, “FIGHT RACISM NOW”), but aside from a list of books and some links to petitions, the suggestions it offers are so broad and vague as to be essentially meaningless. If the “Not Trayvon” tumblr creators are serious about enlisting newly-awakened white people in the fight against racism, I’d like to see them instead offer advice that’s more like “How to be an anti-racist ally,” “White Anti-Racism: Living the Legacy,” or some of the tools from The UNtraining (which unfortunately costs money). I’d like to see them engage with people like “Anonymous” rather than brush off both the critic and the critique. I’d like to see them spin the support group stuff off to the side, and make anti-racist education and collaboration their front-and-center focus.

Oh, and I’d really like them to change the name of their tumblr—because it is appropriation, and because right now simply isn’t about the white “we.”


Whitney Erin Boesel is, as always, on Twitter: she’s @phenatypical.

Children as Trayvon Martin image from here; Joseph Phelan image from here.

[i] See also: what happens if you search “I Am George Zimmerman” and look for people who are saying it with pride …but I’m not going to link to any of that, either.

[ii] At least some of the fireworks reported following the Zimmerman verdict have since been determined to have been in celebration of unrelated events (such as a Philadelphia Phillies game). Still, it says something about our country and our society that people in several cities across the U.S. were able to read mid-July fireworks as “about the Zimmerman trial” in the first place.

[iii] Full breakdown: of 102 non-duplicated posts, 59 authors identify themselves as white women; 10 as white men; 9 who specify neither race nor gender directly; 6 as Black women; 4 as white people (unspecified gender); 3 as Black men; 3 as Indian men; 2 as Latina; 2 as women (unspecified race); 1 as an Asian woman; 1 as an Indian woman; 1 as a biracial person (unspecified gender); 1 as an Asian person (unspecified gender). [Notably, 5 of the 10 white men also identified as being gay.]

Hello Reader! In support of Nathan’s Epic Roadtrip (we all know how I feel about Epic Roadtrips), I’ll be minding In Their Words for the next few weeks. Enjoy!

“Why do we prefer to see a brown man forcibly rape a white woman, rather than romance her?”

“People shouted at the police… [in] the footage, you can hear the whole BART car shouting at what they were seeing”

“looped & unlooped short videos aren’t just different types of the same form, but different forms altogether”

“Vine videos have become their own six-second art form, but they are also increasingly being used to tell a data-driven story “

“WikiLeaks provides a solution for how network journalism can stabilize leak-based investigative journalism in the face of diminishing newsroom” [pdf]

“the liberty of the press is the right of the lonely pamphleteer with a mimeograph [and] the metropolitan press with the latest technologies” [pdf]

“Silicon Valley is ‘starting to come into a realization of our own power” in politics’” 

“If Yahoo succeeds in unsealing some of the court files, legal experts say, it would be a historic development and an important step toward illuminating the arguments behind the controversial Internet surveillance program known as Prism”

“having a woman at the helm could have other benefits for the notoriously sexist gaming industry”

“people were concern trolling about this statue’s health. and saying it (the STATUE) got fat from being lazy”

“what that means is there is nothing special about us, and we can never shut up about it”

“guerrilla tactics won’t work for everyone, but …sex workers have few other options if they want to protect themselves”

“There are two main factors that drive the continued proliferation of unsafe sex toys: greed and shame”

“a cross between a Concorde, a rail gun, and an air hockey table”

“Yep, he actually named his daughter ‘Facebook'”

It’s not uncommon for hikikomori to hole up in a kitchen. The parents will sometimes construct a new one”

“he photographs family members and then cuts them side by side to create one portrait”


@pjrey's "Cyborgology Edition" of the xkcd classic

Image credit: @pjrey‘s “Cyborgology Edition” of the xkcd classic

Image credit: Bradley Manning Support Network
Image credit: Bradley Manning Support Network


Image credit: unknown
Image credit: unknown