Just finished facilitating a six-week course for Button Poetry called “Writing to Cancel the Apocalypse,” which focused on “political” poetry: analyzing examples, sharing tools and tactics, and exploring the role(s) of poets and other artists in times of crisis (which is also ground my new book covers). I’d like to synthesize some of those discussions into a few posts here over the next few months; I already shared this updated list of poems on reproductive justice. Here’s one that uses social media as an entry point into thinking about the broader issue of how we (artists or otherwise) use our platforms.
I wrote a version of this years ago, but here’s an update. Some framing:
1. This is a tool that’s been useful to me, and I’m sharing it in case it can be useful to others. I’m not interested in policing what other people post about, or “calling out” people with different social media practices. I’ve just had so many conversations with people who want to speak out, but don’t know what to say, and my hope is that this can be useful food for thought.
2. We already know that social media, by itself, is not the work. It’s not radical. All of the platforms are owned by awful people and built to be addictive. But it is a tool that a lot of organizations, collectives, and individuals still use, for better or worse, and it can do some good when used with intentionality. (And as long as we’re talking about social media and activism, here’s a good thread from Evan Greer on digital security basics).
3. The primary audience I have in mind for this piece is people like me: artists, minor celebrities (extremely minor, in my case), people with some kind of platform. These days, however, almost everyone has “some kind of platform.” Whether it’s 100k, 10k, or just a few dozen followers- we all have access to our own specific micro-audiences, so we might as well do something with it.
To jump into this conversation, here’s a chart:
I won’t go through every point on the chart. I really just want to get to this point: I believe that, in times of crisis, the best thing we can do with our platforms is lift up the voices of the people who are doing the work. “Signal-boosting” is the idea that community groups, service providers, or policy campaigns have limited reach, and we can expand that reach by retweeting, reposting, and encouraging our audiences to find and support their work.
Celebrity commentators, politicians, artists, influencers, designers who share Canva infographics on IG, poets—it’s not that any of these are “bad” or don’t have anything useful to offer. I just try to think of their contributions as supplementary; I try to remind myself that if I’m going to be lifting up voices beside my own, it is important to center the people who are on the frontlines, who are part of the most impacted communities, doing the everyday work.
Focusing on signal-boosting is also a way to break out of the “hot take industrial complex,” the pressure to always perform the most radical, the most “right,” the most quotable response to every crisis or horror in the world. And look: especially for those of us who do culture work and narrative-shifting work, I’m not saying we should never share our own thoughts, or never express ourselves online. Indeed, sometimes our own commentary is more likely to reach our audience; in the midst of this complexity, let’s strive for synergy. For example this, and this, and this are all tweets in my voice, but they center others’ work.
That connects to a key point found in the middle of the chart: what kind of content is mobilizing, and what kind of content is demobilizing?
Of course, some people just get on social media to vent, don’t care if it’s mobilizing or not, and they’re free to do that. Some are just sharing their authentic, human reactions to the world. And these reactions are always valid; feel what you feel. But for those of us who have some kind of platform, I believe it is worth thinking critically about the difference between what we feel and what we share. It is possible to avoid head-in-the-sand toxic positivity on one hand, and “we’re doomed!”-style fatalism on the other. Let’s remember who benefits from both ends of that spectrum.
WHAT CAN ALL THIS LOOK LIKE IN PRACTICE?
A few thoughts, ideas, and examples:
1. Create a pool of potential accounts to signal-boost. Seek out the organizers, activists, and advocates who do the work around the issues you care about. A good place to start might be organizations, rather than individuals or content creators. Organizations are never perfect, but at least their calls to action and resources they share (should) go through some kind of collaborative process, which can help avoid the proliferation of mis/disinformation. Make a list. This can take a little research based on where you’re at geographically, and what issues you care about, but it’s a relatively easy action step one can take to stay informed.
2. Strive for specificity and local connections. This is a creative writing tip, but it’s also a signal-boosting tip: Zoom in. For example, when abortion rights are under attack, I can signal boost a video of Nancy Pelosi reading a poem, or I can signal boost the donation links to big organizations like Planned Parenthood or the ACLU, or I can signal boost someone sharing a list of a hundred different abortion funds, or I can signal boost the specific abortion fund that is connected to my (and the bulk of my audience’s) geographic region. As we move from point to point on that list, the “ask” gets more specific, more local, and often more impactful.
3. Build it in. Signal-boosting can be done haphazardly, but I’d also encourage us all to think about how we can commit to it, how we can build it into our practice. For example: for quite a while now, every third post on my IG grid has been a #RecommendedReading, and I’ve built an archive of them here. Another option might be to use a quota system: for every self-promotional post, share one that is lifting up others’ work- maybe the exact ratio is different based on your platform and practice, but the takeaway is to be intentional about it.
4. Consider cutting out the middleman. Here’s a Teen Vogue article from 2020 about celebrities who “have decided to hand their social media accounts over to Black activists in order to amplify their voices and share important messages with their large fanbases.” This one is maybe a better option for people with pretty big followings (because asking an organization’s comms person to plan and design a week of outreach is work, and it’d have to be worth it), but this kind of *direct* signal-boosting can be powerful.
5. Get creative and take signal-boosting offline too. Especially for artists: How can art space become activist space? How can we share the mic, the merch table, and our platforms beyond social media? For a local example, if you’re a performer, grab a free box (25 copies) of MPD150’s “Enough Is Enough” report & abolitionist toolkit to have at your merch table. For years, I’ve made zines on issues like consent, abolition, and beyond in order to have them at my shows, to give away for free. More broadly, we can do things like let organizers speak between sets on a multi-act bill; we can organize “themed” events around issues to connect our audiences to movement work; and of course, we can play benefits and fundraisers. Just a few ideas, among many, many more.
CONTINUING TO SHOW UP BEYOND SOCIAL MEDIA
I get it. Nobody wants to look like they’re being performative. There are people who are loud about certain issues but don’t walk the walk in real life, and sure, that’s annoying. On the other hand, a lot of us are literally performers, and there is going to be some element of performance in any act of speaking out (though if we’re signal-boosting, the risk is lower). I just think that sometimes, the fear of being perceived as performative can prevent us from engaging with an issue at all.
As Paulo Freire said, “Washing one’s hands of the conflict between the powerful and the powerless means to side with the powerful, not to be neutral.” As Angela Davis said, “In a racist society, it’s not enough to be non-racist, we must be anti-racist.” As Howard Zinn said, “You can’t be neutral on a moving train.” As Audre Lorde said, “Your silence will not protect you.”
Signal-boosting and platform-sharing can also be first steps into showing up in deeper ways. This piece isn’t just for artists, but that example can be instructive: I know a lot of artists who are also organizers, or who coordinate mutual aid efforts, or who facilitate political ed spaces, and on and on. Sometimes, we might support a cause or project using our actual artistic skills: designing posters, shooting PSAs, stage-managing a live event, etc. Other times, the connection between our art and the work we’re doing might be more implicit: writing press releases or social media copy, managing a mailing list, updating a website, etc. Still other times, it might just be a flat-out different kind of work. I’m not wearing my poet hat when I’m setting out a hundred chairs for a teach-in, and it doesn’t matter how many IG followers I have when I’m moving boxes of sign-making materials from one storage space to another.
We don’t all have to show up in the same ways. But thinking about how we want to show up is important, especially in this specific historical moment.
A FEW RELATED RESOURCES
- Social Change Ecosystem Map via Deepa Iyer and the Building Movement Project
- Ricardo Levins Morales’ “Tending the Soil” series
- My TEDx Talk: “Five Things Art Taught Me About Activism”
- “The Role of the Artist in Times of Authoritarian Brutality: A Panel Discussion”
- “Pick Your Fighter: The Next Major Reproductive Freedom Movement Has Begun,” which is a great article lifting up the voices of organizers all over the US, and also includes this specific quote from SisterSong’s Simran Singh Jain that I think is a good thought to end this with:
- “Art and storytelling bring inspiration back into the work. When I’m feeling overwhelmed or hopeless—as I have many times over the course of my activism—I write a poem just for me. I reground myself. And then I show up. Some days I take to the streets and march and scream; some days I hold my best friend’s hand and remind them that everything’s going to be okay. Showing up is the most important thing we can do, and it’s flexible and fluid, like we are.”