In Real Life

We've created an imaginary dichotomy between internet activism and in-person social justice.

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The distinction between “online life” and “real life” has been blurred to oblivion. Each day, we’re spending more time online than the day before, and it’s not like Vegas: what happens online very much doesn’t stay online.

The internet is playing an ever-increasing role in our experiences offline, shaping how we see and respond to and discuss ideas, defining what feels possible, and even challenging our senses for what feels real.

This is as clear in the worlds of activism and social justice as anywhere else, and evident in the spread of social justice dogma (SJD).

An immediate reaction many people have when I talk with them about SJD is, “Oh, you mean Twitter?”

And my response is usually, “I wish it were only Twitter.”

Because even if that’s where a lot of the dogmatic ideas start (which is debatable, and not a hill I’m interesting in dying on), it’s not where they end.

“IRL”

For awhile, IRL seemed like the perfect shorthand. We could use it as an abbreviation for “in real life,” and it came in handy to separate what we were doing online from what we were doing offline.

“I saw the cutest dog yesterday.”

“IRL or online?”

“Oh, online.”

But as social media became more prevalent, and the internet started to creep more into our lives – growing from an escape, to a utility, to a platform for work, to what the UN is now calling a Human Right – the idea that whatever we’re doing online is somehow not “real” started to fall apart.

If you’re working, learning, shopping, socializing, and being entertained online, there’s not a whole lot of “real life” that hasn’t migrated, at least in part, to the internet.

The internet is IRL.

Even if you want to disconnect, your options are limited. Sure, you can choose not to have a smartphone, or delete your Facebook, or avoid shopping online. But to fully abscond the influence of the internet is to abandon society.

“We are the Borg. You will hear about this meme we just saw on Facebook. Resistance is futile.”

With the internet becoming a bigger part of real life, people who still want to draw the boundaries are left to find other phrases than IRL. And many of us really want to be able to hold these as separate, because we attribute different amounts of credibility, urgency, and worth to things that happen online versus offline.

To this end, we might use the term “meatspace”. Originating in cyberpunk novels, meatspace is a fun (and kinda gross) way to describe life outside the internet. Offline life. Physical space, not cyberspace.

It’s a useful term for differentiating from IRL, because it calls attention to the truth that online life is part of “real” life – truer than ever in our increasingly connected, social-media-mediated lives.

But the true utility of these terms, for me, is less about our ability to easily delineate between something that’s happening online and something that’s happening offline (or in meatspace), as it is determined by the merits of making that distinction.

That is, how useful is it for us to even be distinguishing between things that happen online and offline?

A Recent Browsing of History

Back in 2013, I spent a lot of time talking to people about the differences between doing activism online and in-person. We’d contrast things like digital education campaigns with grassroots door-knocking, online fundraising with local organizing, reading a blog with going to a workshop, and so on.

The terms “clicktivism”, “slacktivism”, and “hacktivism” had all been coined and captured this zeitgeist, and I was getting invited to a lot of panels where the moderators asked us questions like, “Is the activism being done online having effects in the real world? Or is it a distraction? Or more about feeling good than doing good?”

With the Colour Revolutions and Arab Spring of the 2000s and early 2010s fresh in our memories, and all the reports of the role Twitter and other social media played, there was plenty to talk about.

I was part of a global summit on the digital campaigns for “social good,” and we were answering those questions, as well as asking others. “What can we do to measure the good being done online? What are the best practices for digital content creators? How can you make ‘social good’ go viral?”

Websites riding this wave seemed to appear over night, some exploding in popularity.

The clickbait-as-a-science site Upworthy is front and center in my mind. Realizing that this is the first time I’ve thought of that site in years, and how remarkable that is because of how ever-present and everywhere it felt just a few years ago, I just checked and – wow, they’re still alive! I had no idea. I thought they went the way of Icarus. And if that sounds mean, I should disclose that I was published there several times (might still be?), so I’m standing firmly inside the glass house I’m throwing stones at.

The boom of these viral-trending sites complicated the “online social good” conversation.

We were definitely seeing venture capitalism thriving thanks to all of this attention generated by social good, and the clicks and thereby ad revenue it generated, but did anything change beyond people’s hearts and minds? Were the material conditions of the people who were supposed to be benefiting from all this consciousness-raising actually improving?

They also represented the beginning of a trend of A/B-testing headlines, fine-tuning messaging to evoke the biggest response. Some popular social justice and intersectional feminist sites – that I wrote for, or that republished my work, or my friends wrote for (again, here I am, waving to you from inside the glass house) – would test as many as 10 different headlines for an article, then let the data tell them which resulted in the most clicks and shares and go with that.

It was all about the clicks, baby. Clicks and eyeballs. It didn’t matter if someone rage-clicked, or shame-shared, or hate-read what you wrote, that was all “engagement” – a magical word driving social media strategy, which in turn drove editorial decisions.

At that point, I was running several websites that were consistently reaching millions of people a month, and producing articles and edugraphics that were regularly shared by hundreds of thousands of people on social media.

While I never employed those tactics myself – I wasn’t a purveyor of click-bait, didn’t use manipulative social media strategies, or intentionally dive into the raging waters of hate traffic – whenever I saw the traffic to one of my sites dipping, or a non-click-bait-leveraging article stalling (while another site published its click-baiting twin to wide reach), it was hard not to feel like the loser in the prisoner’s dilemma.

Or, worse, it felt like everyone creating content on the internet was involved in an arms race of ethically-dubious, attention-stealing, emotionally-manipulative tactics – all, ostensibly, for social good. Nuke or be nuked.

At the time, which feels like a lifetime ago, we couldn’t have known for sure where all this was leading. These waters were uncharted and murky, optimism and pessimism both had a hand on the helm.

But we can look back on all this with the clarity of hindsight and knowledge of waters treaded and see exactly where it led: here, now.

“You should probably be browsing Reddit.”

In the Fall of 2015, I was traveling all around the country to colleges and universities, performing my shows as part of orientation and “Fall Welcome” events, and speaking with administrators and professors. This had become a fixture in my personal calendar, and always wrapped me in layers of both dĆ©jĆ  vu and nostalgia.

At one point, I would be in the office of a Director of Gender and Women’s Studies at a major research university in the Southwest United States, at another speaking with the Dean of Students at a small liberal arts college in the Northeast. And everywhere in between. All of this was normal.

But what stuck out this year was that everywhere I went, regardless of whom I was talking with, the conversation kept landing in the same unlikely place: me teaching them about Reddit. I was as surprised to be doing this as you might be reading about it.

And beyond just giving them a Reddit 101, I also found myself suggesting they add it to their internet browsing routine, at least any time they’re trying to check the pulse of an issue related to their roles. (Who knew that masochism could spread like a contagion.)

This kept coming up because of issues they were noticing on campus, disruptions in classrooms, conduct cases, hot-button controversies sourced from geo-fenced rumor apps (like YikYak), murmurs throughout the faculty, or even just a sense of change in the consciousness of the student body, or subsections thereof.

These were things directly related to social justice and oppression, but that, to the administrator or professor I was talking, seemed to materialize out of thin air.

They’d share something they were struggling with on their campus, or a new prickly thing they heard of from a colleague that they hadn’t been able to wrap their mind around, and say, “Have you heard of anything like that?”

And I’d reply, “Yeah, there’s a whole subreddit dedicated to that, and it’s really been growing lately.”

Then they’d say, invariably, “What’s a subreddit?”

At that point, we’d often spend the rest of our time talking about Reddit, and other online gathering places (like the Chan sites), how they work, how they’re different from Facebook and Twitter, and the ways conversations happening on those sites kept popping up on campus.

The person I was talking with, generally, would end the conversation exasperated, feeling completely and hopelessly out of touch (when just an hour ago they felt like they had their finger on the pulse).

Or sometimes they’d be galvanized with a new mission, excited to explore this other part of the social interwebs, and to bring their findings back to their department, office, or student conversations.

Two things became obvious to me then, that I didn’t actually make sense of, or fully wrap my mind around, until a few years later:

  1. Facebook is failing us as a gathering place of our “community.” It tricks us into thinking we know what the people in our lives are generally thinking, and what issues are most prevalent in our little corner of the world, but we’re mislead on both fronts.
  2. It’s too late. The divide was already too wide to bridge, and no amount of scouring other social media, or trying to supplement the worldview depicted to you by Facebook would be enough.

Throughout the semester, the refrain of these conversations I was having fell into the backdrop, because something else was making its way to center stage: The Rise of Trumpism.

A World in the Shape of the Internet

I’m not going to rehash the role of the internet and social media in electing Donald Trump to the U.S. Presidency in 2016. Hopefully, by now, you know of Cambridge Analytica, Facebook’s role, and the big picture details of how those things combined to form what some have called “The Great Hack.”. (If you don’t, those keywords entered into your favorite search engine will get you there)

I am, however, bringing this up because it’s one of the most striking, obvious, and irrefutable examples of the internet not being contained to “the internet.” I want you to hold the image of Donald Trump is President in your mind every time you have the thought, “Well, that’s just a thing on social media. It’s not real.”

It might just be a thing on social media, and it’s real. Whether it eventually extends beyond the blurry boundaries of social media, and starts showing up in meatspace, is hard to say, but it at least shares the likelihood that Donald Trump gets elected President of the United States of America.

I’m being slightly facetious here, and, in the effort to make my point, I might be exaggerating the direct role of social media and the internet in the election of Trump.

The glaring aspect of all of this I’m trying to bring your attention to is that something being true “on the internet” is a breath away from it being true. Period.

Where the internet started as a network of networks allowing people to communicate all around the world, and an idealistic repository of the world’s knowledge, it was the beginning of a reflection of the world itself.

But what the internet has evolved into, the commercial and advertising entity it’s become, is less of a repository of knowledge than a machine of big data and metadata creation (over 90% of the data created on the internet has been generated in the past 3 years); less a reflection of the world than an architect reshaping our world in its image.

The value of the data being generated on the internet, all the creepy little bits and bytes being collected by the internet giants (e.g., Google, Facebook, Amazon), is directly connected to its ability to predict our behavior in “real life.” Or, even better, to motivate it, to influence it.

Whenever you hear the word “algorithm” referring to a tech company, this is probably what the person is talking about. They’re talking about how these companies are taking in all of these data, crunching them, then giving you (and a billion other yous) a couple of options they think you’ll like. Every time you interact with an option (e.g., click that story in your Facebook newsfeed, or even just linger on it when scrolling), you’re creating another bit of data, which gets fed back into the algorithm, which then generates another set of options, and so on.

This results in a bunch of little buckets that we are categorized into, based on the types of content that, predictably, will result in a reaction (whether that’s ads, articles, political opinions, or entertainment).

The algorithm doesn’t really care what you’re clicking on, sharing, liking, or reacting to. It doesn’t have a preference that you click a link to this politician over that one.

It’s not trying to push you somewhere specific, it’s just paying attention to what moves you, and trying to, as predictably as possible, keep you moving.

And nothing moves us like rage.

Uploading and Downloading SJD

The evolution of media, as a byproduct of the evolution of social media, which itself has led to a reshaping of our political and physical realities, which was actually a byproduct of learning algorithms designed to recognize patterns in behavior and keep feeding those behaviors, are all books in their own right.

Consider everything I shared above my attempt at skipping a stone across the surface of those topics, touching on them just enough to get us here: talking about the internet and social media’s role in creating and spreading social justice dogma.

With any luck, having skipped that stone, this goes without saying: While examples of SJD are rampant online, they’re not merely an online phenomenon.

Indeed, anything that is truly a tenet of SJD, or a cornerstone, will be showing up in a variety of social justice spaces, online and in-person, in workshops, one-on-one conversations, conferences, curricula, and/or writing.

Depending on what your relationship with the internet looks like, the social networks you participate in, the people you’re connected to there, the sites where you get your news (or don’t), and how much time you spend online, the amount of SJD you learn about (or contribute) to online will vary.

I have some friends who are very online, or who follow some of the more dogmatic authority figures within the movement, and it’s unusual for me to share something with them that they haven’t already seen. With other friends, I’m that friend.

With all the administrators and professors I told you about earlier, I was absolutely that friend.

I’m sure they left those meetings thinking, “Wow, Sam spends a lot of time online.” And their tone, if it’s at all like the tone in my head when I think that about myself, was judgy.

Viral Doesn’t Mean Dogma

Every viral thing online that is an absolutist “do this” or “don’t do this” social justice decree doesn’t make it into the SJD.

Because of the algorithms driving social media, lots of dogmatic, angry, hateful, spiteful, or vengeful memes catch on within Social Justice Land.

Something that goes viral might be dogmatic, or being shared by someone who isn’t willing to be questioned, and they might be telling you that you’re bad if you don’t do this, or you’re only good if you do this, but, again, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s part of the SJD.

It’s a candidate, for sure. And the person who started the idea, and all the people sharing it, are essentially voting in its favor. But a lot of candidates don’t persist.

Does it really matter if something doesn’t end up getting set down in stone, spreading throughout the entire social justice movement as decree? Honestly, it probably doesn’t matter that much. Because even a viral dogmatic rule that doesn’t end up sticking around is still, in its peak of popularity, reinforcing the idea that there are dogmatic rules we should be following.

Lots of Dogma Starts Offline

There are plenty of ideas that start offline, in a workshop or grassroots space, that become part of the dogma, before being spread online. It would be hard to say how many, but “plenty” feels totally safe.

In an optional welcome survey for my Social Justice, Minus Dogma Course, only 28% of people agreed with the statement “social-media-based online activism is the problem” causing social justice dogma. (Not that I’m touting this as valid research, but it’s something, and it was a surprise to me.)

Some old ideas that have existed for decades within the social justice movement, long before the internet, have also come to be internalized as part of the dogma.

In-person Interactions are one Viral Share Away From Being Immortalized Online

Ten years ago, if you were in a social justice context (i.e., a workshop, training, conference, meeting, rally) and you screwed up, or said the wrong thing, you might lose face with that group, experience some shame and embarrassment, and not want to come back. More likely than not you’d apology profusely, people would accept your apology, and you’d move on. That’s no longer the case.

A lot of the dogmatic beliefs, stances, and acceptable actions that do go viral online are sourced from some in-person experience. Some of them from social justice contexts (and people who screw up in those spaces are particularly big targets), but most of the time it’s just people existing in the world.

Someone is in class and their teacher does something harmful, or they experience a microagression in a public space, or they’re at a conference, or at a picnic, or in an elevator, or wherever – they’re in meatspace, an oppressive thing happens to them, or they witness an oppressive thing happen to someone else (or it just feels like that’s what happened, which is all that matters), and they snapshot that moment in time and share it with the world.

A tweet, or a photo with a caption on Facebook, or a blog post recounting the transgression are all it takes to put that person on the world stage.

And sometimes, the echoes keep ringing.

Some Viruses Become Pandemics

Why do some things end up carved into stone, and others don’t? I obviously don’t have the answer to that, but I have a hunch.

I think it’s a combination of how viral something is, plus how easily it translates into a clear do or don’t (as a belief, stance, or acceptable action), plus how well it sits atop the cornerstones we’ve already established.

If something is super viral and it easily translates into an absolute do/don’t and it fits nicely atop a cornerstone, it’s in.

If it’s not all three of those things, it doesn’t mean it’s out, but it’s more likely that I would see it in a few spaces (e.g., a conference workshop, then it would come up in a group’s discussion the next week), before it dies out.

But the things that were all three would keep popping up.

I’d see some idea go viral online, and it would show up in every space I was in for the next few months. A conference I was keynoting would have a workshop topic that related to the idea, listservs I’m on would end up discussing it, organizers’ roundtables would be bringing it up proactively.

One signal I’d look out for, that I know most people don’t have access to, would be the number of emails I’d get, and over what time period.

“Hey, I heard that you’re not supposed to ask people about their pronouns?” was an email I got dozens of times one week, when there was a dogmatic viral meme going around that this was tantamount to outing a trans person, and not something that we should be doing.

Then, within a week or two, no more emails. That idea died off. It didn’t stick. Dogmatic for sure, but not something that ended up as part of our current SJD.

It’s all Happening IRL

Social justice dogma, and any steps we might be taking toward living social justice, are happening in real life.

Whether that real life is being experienced through a computer or a cellphone, via text message or email, on a discussion board or social network, all of it’s real.

The in-person stuff – the trainings and meetings and rallies and workshops – feeds into what happens online. And what happens online feeds into what happens in-person.

Holding space for all of this – the digital and the analog, the cyber and the meat – is necessary for us if we want to accomplish our goals. It’s the reality of the world we live in. Online and offline are both IRL. Both of them, combined, are the room where it happens.

I still find myself recommending to social justice people that they browse Reddit, and specifically subreddits that represent ideologies in contrast or opposition to their own. Or, to be more accurate, that we they do what they can to intentionally pop their filter bubble.

That is, I make that recommendation to anyone who is already online, and lets their experiences online inform their sense of what’s going on in the world. I’d never, ever recommend someone spend time online who doesn’t, and particularly not on Reddit. My masochism isn’t even close to being that contagious.

We can’t rely on virality as an arbiter of success, because the gatekeepers of virality – media with opaque financial interests, platforms with rage-stoking algorithms – are not on the side of living social justice. They’re perfectly suited for SJD, and dangerously well-suited for fascism.

And we can’t cut ourselves off from the internet, relying only on face-to-face interactions, organizing, and collaboration. As much as this might feed our soul, and cut through the bullshit, we’d be ignoring a massive influence that’s tainting our in-person interactions, and ceding digital ground to SJD and fascism.

We need to become savvy with digital media, and find ways to spread the ideas that will make people more healthy, understood, educated, and safe; while not deploying manipulative, malicious, and misleading tactics to do so.

And we need to take everything we’re saying online, and make sure it applies in-person, three-dimensionally. That we can say those things. That we can follow our own decrees.

It’s our job to make sure that in the face of another human being, the thing we’re saying, or believing, or doing feels like it’s capable of doing good. That it feels just. That it feels like liberation.

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