Social Media • Digital Labor • Environmental Fitness • Invisible Audiences • Ethics • Sexploitation • Algorithms of Oppression
Author: Kyra Gaunt, Ph.D.
Voicing the unspoken through music, scholarship, and social media.
Author. Scholar. TEDFellow. Professor.
For speaking engagements, workshops, and coaching: firstname.lastname@example.org
Follow me on Twitter: @kyraocity
“In order to write the book you want to write, in the end you have to become the person you need to become to write that book.”
― Junot Díaz
What a journey I have had since 2011. I left my tenure track job. Got married. Soon divorced. Returned to teach as an adjunct for 5 years and finally landed a new tenure-track position.
It’s near the end of my first semester at University at Albany! My students (100+), department and campus colleagues, and the many staff and administrators I’ve met have all made me feel quite welcome here. I live downtown right near Washington Park. Take the bus, no ready to buy a car because I want a home. And all is well by most accounts, especially the fact that I am no longer adjuncting. Power to the people who still do!!
Around this time of the semester, I try to take my self on — no waiting for the new year to adjust my habits to meet my fitness aims in body, work, and career! From the Thanksgiving break to the last day of classes, it’s normal for students as well as faculty to feel the drag of the semester. We are often slug through to the end of the semester without hope or any lightness. For the last three years, I have deliberately taken a different approach and tried to inspire others to join me. “When the going gets tough, the tough get going!” as the old saying goes.
I invite my students to consider that feeling tired and overwhelmed is a choice! While everyone else complains, why not get on with life. Be the change that makes you feel a little lighter, a bit prouder right now — no delay!
Younger Next Year, Environmentally Fit
After starting to read Younger Next Year* For Women (Live Like You’re 50 – Strong, Fit, Sexy – Until You’re 80 and Beyond), I learned a great deal about getting your heart-rate up to burn calories and avoiding bone loss with weight lifting after 50. So, I joined Orange Fitness Theory two weeks ago.
Orange Fitness Theory is a group-oriented, heart-rate monitored fitness block. An hour of rowing machines, weight lifting and treadmills that if you meet a certain measure will burn calories for 36 hours after. I need group workouts and I love the workout! No time to think about things once you start. Plus, I realize I am much more reliable collaborating on fitness rather than going solo. And I don’t lose my momentum when I travel to Brooklyn or my hometown in Maryland. OTF has interval fitness centers everywhere! I’ve already begun losing weight and intend to keep up this level of fitness until I can’t do it anymore. I want to be younger next year like the book title says and intend to do that!
The upside of this intense plan is feeling charged up all day after the morning workouts. I don’t have as much, if any, brain fog I was experiencing after moving to Albany. Surely some of this was due to the stress of “new culture” shock — moving someplace new gets me every time.
The other upside is feeling mentally inspired and creative. I’ve been writing alot…as well as singing and performing a bit more. As my scholarship/research agenda blossoms in my new position, I realized I left my blog here unattended. 😦 Since I also have a blog on Medium, I decided it’s time to retire one and focus on the other. Bye, bye WordPress! 😦
My new posts will be on Medium
Past blog posts will remain live. I’ll return to retrieve things, but if you want to continue to follow my writing, follow my Medium blog where you can re-read my Lemonade blog postthat got a little attention and will soon become a chapter in an edited volume.
Follow me to Medium! It also is connected to my TEDFellows blogging (sometimes one and the same). I’ll be writing about music, race and gender, technology as well as the unintended consequences of these intersections and resulting oppressions as they affect marginalized groups like tween and teen black girls.
I hope my writing, my voice, and my contributions inspire you enough to follow me from WordPress to Medium into 2018.
WordPress was kind to me: I have had almost 6 different blogs here including my Success with the Opposite Blog from way back. This blog music and the bottomlines of race, gender and technology alone ends with 190 posts, 136 comments, 112 followers, and 41,464 hits!
Check out a some of my most popular or favorite posts from the past again (not necessarily in any particular order):
To Own or Not to Own…My Body
“Today’s word to explore through ideas and quotes is “own” — as in “I own my body” which seems fitting since … October 17th is National Love Your Body Day. I began to examine the definitions of ownership — the act, state or right of possessing something — in this case, over or around one’s body.”
Will Black Girls Make it Rain, too? #ContentCreation #YouTube
“We know from developmental cognitive psychology that young boys and girls, once they know what their gender is, are very motivated to be the best example of their gender. And if the examples of femininity around you are a sort of tarted up, pornographied sexuality, then that’s what you’re psyched to be.”
30 Pages Deep: The End of YouTube’s Archive
“This morning, I went to search for a few videos to download as evidence of local black girls’ presence twerking on YouTube immediately after Hurricane Katrina–YouTube’s launch and Hurricane Katrina both happened in 2005. What I found startled me … it was impossible to replicate the search we did in June of 2014.”
Been a long time since my last post. Been hard at work and landed myself a new position at the University of Albany. I will be returning to a music department where I will teach Black American Music and a new course on Music and Interactive Media. My primary focus however will be my new research on race, gender, and technology in online musical spaces and information from YouTube to Wikipedia.
This past week, I began working on a new article about the sexploitation of tween girls in YouTube twerking videos that were uploaded from 2009 to 2014 (just a year after the Miley twerk-a-thon at the VMAs).
I was about to head out to take care of some chores when I read info about a pattern of gender discrimination against women at Google on the NASDAQ website It was reported from Zach’s investing firm yesterday. It seems the gender pay gap and systematic discrimination in the area of compensation is something that plagues the culture of YouTube’s parent company Google. Think patriarchal oppression. But they’d never write that into the copy.
YouTube videos and gender demographics
When I first began researching twerking videos on YouTube, I remember there was a FAQ section on their help site that asked why females 13-17 were dominating traffic to popular videos, as if that was a personal problem not a form of public praise, and the answer that was provided stunned me. “We don’t know.”
They may have genuinely not known but that seems queer given when we know about the analytics of the social web. They know just about everything quantitatively and with predictive analytics and metrics they know quite about each user qualitatively. What users buy, where they go after visiting the site, their demographics which is bigger than the public demographics general users see–age, gender, and sometimes nation.
YouTube meets Billboard June 2013
Back in the old days you could see details about individual users and you could see the breakdown by age, gender and nation for every video. That public info was privatized around the same time that YouTube, Billboard, and Nielson began to treat YouTube views as viewable impressions for monetization and currency purposes.
I was just reading a wonderful quote about W.E.B. DuBois who in 1899 (r1999) “asserted that Black are not a social problem and that their condition and behaviors, are instead symptomatic of a larger system of oppression” (Hunter, Guerrero, and Cohen in Black Sexualities 2010, p. 377). What’s happening with women inside Google is another social problem that has structural explanations in the ways women are discriminated against. Read more…
Gender Inequality at Google
The U.S. Department of Labor (DoL) has made a sweeping statement that it had “found systemic compensation disparities against women pretty much across the entire workforce” and DOL Regional Director Janette Wipper said the agency had received “compelling evidence of very significant discrimination against women in the most common positions at Google headquarters.
In a detailed response to the allegation, Google’s VP of people operations, Eileen Naughton said that the claims had been made “without any supporting data or methodology.” She also explained the salary analysis system Google currently employs:
“Each year, we suggest an amount for every employee’s new compensation (consisting of base salary, bonus and equity) based on role, job level, job location as well as current and recent performance ratings…The analysts who calculate the suggested amounts do not have access to employees’ gender data. An employee’s manager has limited discretion to adjust the suggested amount, providing they cite a legitimate adjustment rationale.” The model then measures individual salary calculations against those received by their peers, which is done to eliminate “statistically significant differences between men’s and women’s compensation”. Naughton also said that Google’s methodology is available to other businesses if they want to test their own compensation practices for equal pay.
This has been going on since Sep 2016, after which a case was filed in January, asking for Google’s compensation data. Things came to a head after Google failed to comply with a routine audit.
April 28, 2017, 06:17:00 PM EDT By Sejuti Banerjea, Zacks.com
This is useful information given the work I am doing on race, gender, and technology and the impact of social media on marginalized groups. More soon.
The politics of respectability implies that recognition of Black humanity has to be “earned” by Black people by engaging in puritanical behavior as approved by White supremacy…behaviors that Whites themselves don’t have to engage in to “prove” humanity because of White privilege; they’re always viewed as “the default human.”
~~ Trudy @GradientLair
“Challenging power structures from the inside, working the cracks within the system, however, requires learning to speak multiple languages of power convincingly.”
― Patricia Hill Collins, On Intellectual Activism
PRESENTING PRINCESS SHAW: YouTube Star or Prop?
The ultimate dreams of success are not to be CEOs or Bawse moms with their own paper. For little girls the current pop culture mindset is to be a star without any recognition, without any of the politically relevant skills and thought processes that transfer into real economic and social power. Wishing to be a princess or a star is what capitalism sells kids before they can walk any other lifestyle or mindset. If you grow up with an ambitious financial mindset— what I call “ecological fitness” for girls–when you’re young, black, and female, the stereotype and stigmas of black-femaleness often erase you from view. It’s easier to see the gold-digga, hoodrat, and ratchet baby mama as if being a black girl growing up in America ain’t hard enough.
When I was a girl, I dreamed like everyone around me of being the Beyoncé of my time. Then it was Diana Ross. She left her girl group to go on to become the biggest women in the music business. We girls embodied her lead position in play but never learned what it took politically to get there other than some rumor that women slept their way to the top. And I don’t mean the Disney caricature of a sleeping beauty.
Next week when it opens, I’m going to go see the film Presenting Princess Shaw. Her real name is Samantha Montgomery, a 38-year-old single woman originally from Chicago, living in New Orleans. It’s playing at the IFC Center–the art film spot in Greenwich Village NYC. As a social media researcher who specializes in the unintended consequences of YouTube and its social sharing networks for marginalized girls of color, I am interested in examining both the views and reviews this film is getting by the numbers and through the critical lens of repeated cultural appropriation and sexploitation of black female culture in social video, embedded sharing, comments, and its bottomlines — who profits from its popularity and who gets the fame that translates into real capital?
A Guardian article from last September concluded by hinting at the hidden issue of the Montgomery’s clearly not paid-in-full digital labor or exploitation by Israeli documentarian Ido Haar and Israeli producer Kutiman who remixes musical clips from videos uploaded by users in his Thru You series. This is not to say she wasn’t paid but was she able to transact for the rewards and resources they surely imagined from the start? Probably not.
Dust to the Side Chick Dream: The Pitfalls of a Imagining Yourself a Princess
In her older than expected “princess” fairy tale I am curious to see if the happy ending is no more than the emotional labor associated with her YouTube videos; none of which on first glance have more than 9,000 views which is huge for an average or ordinary YouTuber but a pittance for anyone claiming to be a YouTube star these days. Viral videos that make it big 9 times out of 10 are professionally produced.
The question I hope seeing the film answers is whether the protagonist of Presenting Princess Shaw gains more than social capital; can she, is she, or will she have the relevant political skills as a YouTuber to translate her social worth to the film into economic capital in her life of poverty.
Having only seen the Presenting Princess Shaw trailer, it feels like a “fashionable” poverty porn flick at the intersection of post-Katrina NOLA, internet tourism that hunts for black pop culture in the poor’s unpaid digital labor, justified by the acceptance that everyone over shares and ignores the potential profit of their online presence. The marginalize gain views but rarely capital. For black girls and women in an unrelenting search for the resources they need not only to survive but often to support others older and younger, centuries of structural racism and sexism is merely being replicated by invisible audiences from Inkster to Israel to elsewhere on the planet that mobile phones provide access to what’s great about the web and our lives and what’s not. [Inkster is another community where black lives are under attack from state violence. I lived near Inkster during grad school at the University of Michigan. Watch this horrific beating and the cost to taxpayers–we are footing the bill for police violence.]
As I plan to watch the film next week, I have a big question. How will Samantha Montgomery, a 38-year-old single woman struggling in New Orleans magically thrive without the real political tools for change in a market economy that never teaches the poor nor allows the girls and women of color to not only profit but overcome centuries of oppression? The fame thrust upon Montgomery by creatives in Israel may not fill the deep pockets of her unique poverty with the kind of power she needs to move out of a paycheck-to-paycheck existence working in a nursing facility. Being happy seen singing songs on film and being able to take care of your primary conditions of life–health, money, work, home, and family–are never synonymous. I hope she transacted for what she truly needed and that is never fame in and of itself.
On the surface of things–perhaps she has a different story to tell; I have not had the privilege of hearing her tell her side of the story after the fact– I suspect she is ill equipped to handle (hell, I would be ill-equipped to handle) the kind of analysis or critical thinking needed about the hidden costs of such fame, the licensing agreements, marketing, monetization of my channel and any contract, the implications of viral videos and feature films for my future once the film is no longer relevant, ownership of my image and digital content–for instance, asking yourself if a song yours cuz you sang it on YouTube?–and much, much more. No one ever taught me that and they sure don’t teach that to kids in school–and its’ definitely not taught to the girls who dropped out of math and science classes by high school or college. I’m one of them. I know.
When she finally grows up #staywoke
The Cinderella in stories told by Disney (read the critique by Peggy Orenstein here or the critique on NPR here) never asked for much. She wanted the patriarchal fantasy — the man savior never making from life’s racialized and gendered oppression in other ways as Beyoncé Lemonade has done from years of hard labor and rich collaboration. The social and psychological socialization of growing up black, female, and poor in the U.S. tends to limit our imagination to two options — the path to money through men and the systems of fame they created (see Nicki Minaj or Blac Chyna) or the illusion that someone might save you from the poverty most black women from low-income to middle-class occupy (see Blak Chyna or the distorted view that surely some girl out there has that Michelle Obama is famous because her husband is the president of the free world). My examples can be debated but I hope my point is not lost.
What futures are we announcing with existing social and viral media — commercial or user-generated– and what futures are actually available to most girls of color if they are not armed with the ethical study and analysis of the oppression, exploitation, and limits of power given to girls and women locally, nationally, and internationally by race, class, and gender? And let us not misread the “magic”of black girls and women. This is not the magic of a slight of hand or luck. It’s work! And it’s not the wage labor of the body (or stripper booty aka handle your paper). This is about the work and action of the mind and that is what matters for the Minajs and Knowles and Chynas out there.
This is the legacy of the intersectional work of womanists, feminists, anarchists, progressives, and everyday mothers, sisters, and daughters before the Internet was a thing. My mother has been reminding every time we talk lately about how much of this is lost or not being exercised today.
Someday: No Prince Need Come
Some day, when we free democratic systems–schools, media, family, government–from patriarchy (h/t to Carol Gilligan), girls and women will be free of the fantasy of the glass slipper or the diamond ring to grasp the reality that society can break that damn glass ceiling. That beloved community — what some call the art and discipline of nonviolence — comes from serious study and long-term planning.
We must learn how to teach girls and women that some day planning for wealth and health is far better than the glitter of 15 minutes of social media fame!
And it’s never to late to learn this, said the black woman struggling over 50!
POSTSCRIPT: I posted a similar video in a blog post a while back of this same very young girl–JoJo–who asserts to her daddy in more than one video that “I am is NOT a princess”. In this one she insists, “I’m a real person!” It’s precious and it made me think about the oppression socialization around why girls are marketed the princess ideology and why more girls don’t resist it.
We all have dreams and we have the right to imagine ourselves any way we choose. So I am not knocking Montgomery’s right to name herself as she chooses. What I question is the structures of power — particularly those of others– to exploit her circumstances and desires. I hope she understands the control over her representation they may wield and the politics she, or anyone else like her–a marginalized woman of color–needs to turn their 15 minutes of fame into long-term resources. It’s the bottomlines — the multiple forms of capital (i.e., social, economic, human, and cultural) involved that concerns me. I also notice a tendency for female singers to be exploited because we tend to not be well-educated in the power and politics of the music business. I want Montgomery, and others like her, to learn to transact so they can thrive not just survive.
This post was prompted after being contact by a reporter. In preparation, I started doing some study of her channel and the film. I’ll see the film within the week. Stay tuned for more.
For about two years or more I’ve been toying with teens and technology and the implications and unintended consequences particularly for black girls or under-resourced girls from marginalized communities. These communities are rarely represented in videos circulating around the web about social media and screen time.
Girls’ online interest-driven activities–those stepping stones to self-actualization and adulthood–are often stigmatized and stereotyped in networked spaces like YouTube or Facebook. It leads marginalized kids to seek out platforms like Snapchat thinking they are protected when their snaps actually were not deleted or disappearing. It also leads many black girls to seek Tumblr because there is not textual engagement with any uploaded content. Other users leave notes rather than comments providing an affirming space to self-present online.
The technology concerns I am interested in are more about humanizing a group of people who are socially alienated by networked publics. Black girls’s online content tends to be disliked in Generation Like more than their non-black and non-female counterparts.
Studying the misogyny and the sexploitation surrounding young girls’ twerking videos on YouTube has helped me think about the breakdown that can result from others’ judgments of their content and how that then affects their ecological fitness. I wrote about this is the chapter “YouTube, Bad Bitches, and a M.I.C.” in the Hip-hop and Obama Reader edited by Travis Gosa and Erik Nielsen:
Most girls, even the “smart” girls, simply do not yet have the biologically developed cognition needed to process and counter this commercial onslaught of distorted teenage relationships: their frontal lobes will not fully develop until after ages 20–23. Nor do most adolescents and teens have ample“fitness” to do so—defined here as an organism’s capacity to transmit, reproduce, and create a surplus of those things material and immaterial, biological, linguistic, and transactional (the exchange of goods, services, and funds) that it needs to thrive in a particular environment. This includes emotional, mental, and conversational fitness in what are political exchanges for sex, love—and, yes, money—in local and global economies.
Many teens (and adults, for that matter) have not learned to resist the socio-biological pull of their libidos and hormones, which are too frequently directed by the flow of corporate-market music with its twisted myths of romantic seduction. (Gaunt 2015, 221)
My aim is to empower those black, brown and/or poor girls who are unlikely to learn to code or elect to study a STEM or STEAM in school or college. Their digital media literacy is perhaps even more important this the lesser number who will go into tech careers. They will be moms, sisters, caretakers, community leaders, health advocates, fitness seekers, and they need to learn how powerful the mobile apps they already have can be in empowering just about any aspect of their adulthood and ambition in their personal, professional, and physical wellness.
[Ecological fitness is] defined here as an organism’s [or a girl’s] capacity to transmit, reproduce, and create a surplus of those things material and immaterial, biological, linguistic, and transactional (the exchange of goods, services, and funds) that it needs to thrive in a particular environment.
So I came up with an idea from studying thousands of twerking videos featuring tween and teen black girls’ bedroom culture. My mission is to get black, brown and poor girls who use YouTube and other SNSs in musical interactions that often involve their body or dance to extend their online interest-driven activities into tech applications and mobility, too. Thus, the idea of #TwerkTech2.
Join me this weekend at the Rutgers Digital Blackness conference on April 23 at 3:30pm as I present my latest ideas and thoughts about a project I dreamed of almost 4 years ago. Then I called it “Cookies in the Hood”. The reference here is about computer cookies and adulthood (as well as neighborhood, childhood, labiahood or sexuality and intimacy training, and more).
Fitness takes time and planning; seduction is easy and quick. Fitness takes healthy eating, movement, and education; seduction is cheap and fast. Seduction requires nothing of you to participate. In fact, it trades on a naïve notion that your future is far away and that what happens now will not matter later. Why can’t girls as content
creators shift that seduction? It seems so accessible with YouTube—why isn’t it happening? (Gaunt 2015, 221).
Cookies are small files stored on a user’s computer. “They are designed to hold a modest amount of data specific to a particular client and website, and can be accessed either by the web server or the client computer.” What if we took this same concept and restored it to thinking about sovereignty of mind and body as well as the autonomy or learning to DIWO (do it with others) without threats or obligations to others? That’s another way of saying autonomy = wealth. A wealth of skills, capital, and human and non-human resources that all you to “do as you see fit.”
So, that’s what I am up to these days. That’s what I’m going to present about at the Rutgerts University DIgital Blackness Conference this weekend.
Here’s a couple of videos — one for parents and teachers and one for kids and teens — from a great organization Common Sense Media. There mission is to “improves the lives of kids and families by providing independent reviews, age ratings, & other information about all types of media.” These videos give us insights into the need for new digital media literacies and conversations about the unintended consequences so girls can grow up online free from harm AND free to express themselves and explore technical ways to twerk their user-generated content on any platform.
A black Catholic girl’s poetry from an Easter Sunday memory
white stockings never covered my ashy legs.
I wore frilly white ankle socks
buckled into black patent leather shoes.
I tried to dye the ash, like colored eggs, in Vaseline intensive care lotion
kept close at hand for the long drive on Easter Sunday.
granddaddy drove the family to downtown Northeast
with granny in the front seat
mama, aunt bernetta, and me in the back.
We were picture perfect in bonnets and a Fedora
as we crossed the MD/DC border with our contraband;
sweet potatoes in Karo syrup,
homemade buns hidden on laps
and a pot of greens safely tucked in the trunk.
The previous Easter, my great Uncle Don
bought a deed embedded on my tongue. Oratory was mandatory back then
and in 1970 a dollar bill was the ultimate reward.
There will be candy!
Handing me a laminated wallet-sized card
of a poem by Saint Francis of Assissi
and a copy of Lincoln’s Gettyburg address,
Uncle Don bent down to my level and
staring right into my eyes he gently said: “Memorize it!”
The deed of recitation evoked the intangible promise of Emancipation,
resurrecting an origin myth to be consumed and repeated from memory.
In the backseat, in muted fright
and last-minute trepidation,
I madly memorized the verses as we arrived.
Standing in the living room with everyone watching
I read aloud: “Lord, make me an instrument of your peace…”
And then attempted Lincoln’s longer address “…that this nation
shall have a new birth of freedom.”
We girls and women have been fighting for
any benefits from such bargains ever since.
With the piece-work memory of a grown woman,
I can still stitch together a couple of those lines:
Where there is hatred, let me sow love.
Where there is injury, pardon.
Doubt … faith.
Darkness … light.
Just before Cathechism, a process of confirming one’s faith through recitation,
my mother pulled me from the Catholic Church
that had forbade her attendance since my birth. Forgiveness was never granted
for her unmarried sin.
Let this ode be my prayer, my Gettysburg address,
conjured to remedy the injury and harm visited upon
the souls of child-bearing girls and women.
I conjure Uncle Don’s command to memorize it
to embrace a sometimes intangible promise,
with no need to seek consolation.
Let our good and best works voice our presence.
Resurrect love for yourself and others as best you can.
Be still and know we are more than mere girls or women.
We are a light in the darkness
We bring hope and life despite a world of despair
We occupy a space of divine love
waiting to be resurrected in ourselves
“The single story creates stereotypes, and the problem with stereotypes is not that they are untrue, but that they are incomplete. They make one story become the only story.”
― Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Following Jimmy Fallon’s sketch on hashtags from 2013, I wanna talk hashtags in this post.
This blog is dedicated to the intersections of hashtag Black History Month in February (#BHM), hashtag International Women’s Day (#IWD) and hashtag Women’s History Month (#WmnHist) both in this month of March. Black women and girls get to celebrate for two months in a row about inequality and accomplishments! Hashtag#BlackGirlMagic! Hashtag#BlackWomenMatter. Hashtag let’s get in #Formation.
I am using hashtags as the focus of my political sociology course. I have 28 students in this upper-level course using Storify to explore the discipline and issues that interest them in the end of the Obama administration and in the midst of a fascist-sounding GOP presidential election campaign. Professor Deva Woodly joined us a few weeks ago to talk about hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.
Speaking Truth to Power … for Girls
This is the third time I’ve taught a political sociology class. You might ask: What is an ethnomusicologist by training doing teaching political sociology. I was invited to teach this course by my department and now political sociology is really starting to speak to my own research interests in YouTube, music, and the marginalization of black girls. This is primarily due to a fabulous textbook by Devita Glasberg and Deric Shannon titled Political Sociology: Oppression, Resistance, and the State (2011). Hashtag on point!
Black music has always been political but from teaching political sociology I am learning invaluable discourse–the words and ideas used to express meaning as Merriam Webster’s Online Dictionary defines it–that allows me write about black music in a sophisticated way. I can really grasp and grapple with issues of power and the social structures that lay beyond our personal tastes for one artist or genre versus another. As an ethnomusicologist, my specific training socialized me to think about music as sound and as people, which IS political in and of itself. But because I had focused on the micro-subjective thoughts and feelings of black girls I never fully grasped the macro social structures shaping meaning and power. “Language shapes thought“, as cognitive psychologist Lera Boroditsky demonstrates in her research. “What researchers have been calling “thinking” this whole time actually appears to be a collection of both linguistic and nonlinguistic processes. As a result, there may not be a lot of adult human thinking where language does not play a role” (Boroditsky 2011, 65). It is the language of power that lives in political sociology’s discourse and methodology and the symbolic worlds of trends in social media and online video today are important arenas for the study of people, music, and power.
In this post, I will try to introduce some of the discourse of political sociology into my thinking and research about the unintended consequences of online black girls’ interest-driven participation with twerking music and artists in their self-produced YouTube videos.
If you follow my blog, you know I’ve been toying with titles over the last 6 months. It was “Digital Seduction”. Today, it’s “Girls & Hidden Digital Labor of Video Screens.” I’d love your reactions or suggestions as I search for a title that fits.
Currently, I am writing about the unpaid digital labor of marginalized daughters on YouTube, thanks to Dorothy Howard, a brilliant feminist millennial scholar who helped me learn about the topic from her research and activism on Wikipedia.
Because I write primarily about the marginalization of black girls at the moment, one title I considered was “The Dark Digital Labor of Daughters.” But Chimamanda Adichie Ngozi’s TED Talk on the dangers of a single story popped into my mind. I realized I needed to speculate beyond the stereotypical, one-note racial thinking about black or “dark skin” to avoid perpetuating the usual stigmas. Given the Times Square image of jumbo video screens which I chose from a limited set of WordPress options as the background for my blog’s header, I quickly imagined readers associating the “The Dark Digital Labor of Daughters” with the culture this image replaced before Guilani and others cleaned up the porn shops and Kung Fu movie theaters of Times Square.
The “dark” digital labor of social media looks like lots of fun to most users. It’s not a red-light district, hookers, peep shows, and adult or child porn. Social media, like YouTube’s music spaces and YouTube Red, are both free and subscription services accessed anywhere, anytime, built on a complex political economy of state structures and privatized electricity, privatized phone service, and a capitalist system of profit and patriarchy masked by viral videos of kittens, Korean pop stars, and Justin Bieber.
YouTube is a structural online system of power and participatory culture where kids and especially the most vulnerable and marginalized girl childs are seduced into “selling” images of their sexy, dancing bodies for the fun of it to targeted advertisers. Girls will do this free advertising to networked publics for media companies, as bell hooks stated in a public dialogue at the New School in 2014, because more and more adult women won’t do it anymore.
At a conference on Gender, Sexuality and Hip-hop sponsored by Melissa Harris-Perry in December of 2014 at Tulane University, a college-age black women recalled her relationship to hip-hop:
Being very familiar with the “Tip Drill” …um … video and coming into my feminism on the campus of Spelman College, I I grew to not just be a consumer of hip-hop but realize I was being consumed by it. So it was important for me to develop a sense of… a consciousnessso that I can navigate that..space.
The space she meant was whole network of spaces where misogynist hip-hop music dominates the public sphere. Now that sphere is not just online, it’s in your hand 24-7. The younger the girl, the more free music videos on YouTube and other platforms are teaching them to “Keep that ass jumpin” for free in a media ecology that is hashtag for-profit–by-everyone-but-the-girl.
“Keep that ass jumpin'” is the hook from a popular YouTube music video for the song “Booty Hopscotch by Memphis artist Kstylis (pronounced K-styles). His twerk songs appear more often than any others in my dataset of over 1000 YouTube. This media is part of the “oppression socialization” defined as “a process whereby individuals develop understandings of power and political structure, particularly as these inform perceptions of identity, power, and opportunity relative to gender, racialized group membership, and sexuality” (Glasberg and Shannon 2011, 47).
YouTube has become one of the significant agents of oppression and political socialization as media, as a form of free schooling, and as digital labor or work from one’s bedroom as people attempt to monetize their fun online. YouTube is where politics are increasingly mediated through comedy sketches, music and award shows featuring celebrities, and online real and entertainment news stories.
So how and what it this new media ecology of sharing and trending teaching our daughters? What illusions of power and ownership do they learn and what kinds of hegemonies are being taught that empowers and simultaneously disempowers their voice and image? Hashtag #Babymamas, hashtag#ReaganWelfareQueens, and hashtag #videovixens whose body trumps their voice on screen and perhaps even more so off.
“Prospero, you are the master of illusion.
Lying is your trademark.
And you have lied so much to me
(Lied about the world, lied about me)
That you have ended by imposing on me
An image of myself. Underdeveloped, you brand me, inferior,
That s the way you have forced me to see myself
I detest that image! What’s more, it’s a lie!
But now I know you, you old cancer,
And I know myself as well.”
― Aimé Césaire, A Tempest
I didn’t want to recreate the victim blaming and slut shaming of young and black girls in my blog title. Using seduction or darkness is that same old single story again. And this is the immaterial, affective and emotional labor of digital labor. It serves to symbolically and socially reproduce what political sociologists call a “mobilization of bias” (Schattschneider 1975 quoted in Glasberg and Shannon 2011, 37) that affects decision-making at the state level as we say with welfare queens during the election of President Reagan.
This mobilization of bias is ironically done by our personalized use of mobile devices and personally-accessed video screens. The 4th screen that was the first personalized, mobile, always-on, mass media. It is not a form of mass self- communication in an age where racism and sexism have not ended but perhaps become more pernicious because it lives in our hand-held realities. Discrimination and oppression are no longer visible or legible in the ways they once were–as a function of a state controlled or monitored television or radio or big corporate run companies. They are now hidden in online pleasures and play which we self-produce based on what radio and television already taught us and continue to feed us — now they feed us supposedly ourselves. Hashtag#GiveThePeopleWhatTheyWant. And if you check out what girls are doing, what they want is to keep that ass jumpin, right?
What’s really hidden here is that those same video screens we use to self-produce, focus other people’s attention on some generalized black girl on a video screen rather than on the distributors of social media and online video platforms big and small such whether that’s YouTube or UMG’s VEVO or artists like Kystlis, Juicy J, or Nicki Minaj and Rihanna. Hashtag#HegemonicMasculinityandFemininity
“I Do My Thang / On the Video Screen” (from a girls’ game song)
She is a tiny cog in the supply chain of explicit music videos. And yet, she is seen as driving the attention economy, if you know the numbers for engagement on YouTube by age and sex, behind the culture of what’s popular in music and behind the trends in social media rants. Her behind is butt of the joke, too. Visit YouTube’s Dashboard and Trends map for more details.
This phenomena reminds me of when news outlets focused the nightly news on the criminalization of the small-time dealer found on ghetto street corners rather than on the big time distributor of illegal drugs or narcotics in the supply chain. It also reminds me of how local black folk desperate to be seen would mug for the crime scene camera–hashtag #photobombing before there was a dictionary name for it.
Back when I was a teenager in my black community, there was a vernacular critique of this media trend that coordinated action with Reagan’s conservative “get tough on crime” state policies. I remember my mom asking how drugs got into our communities. Communities that lacked social mobility to bring cocaine of marijuana across national borders and into the hood. “Black people don’t own planes!” I remember someone arguing. Where was the focus on the international cartels and drug enforcement and border patrol officers who had to be looking the other way? It was harder for the state to catch the big guys and must easier to criminalize the little ones with nightly news reports that made black people increasingly look like the real menace to society, the imagined Enemy No. 1. Hashtag #decolonizingthemind
Free your mind, and your ass will follow
What I am trying to show in my research and scholarship is how black girls sells sex for the industry and catch all the hell for it, too. They are being exploited for their unpaid digital labor on the very video screens we all use as networked individuals to upload and self-produce our interest-driven activities for the fun of it. But this “fun” is a new kind of digital labor that will recreate the very inequalities that the #BlackLivesMatter campaign is successfully bringing to international attention with its online and off-line protests in Ferguson and at the University of Missouri. Just do a Google or Twitter search on hashtag #MikeBrown and Hashtag #Mizzou.
Unpaid digital labor refers to the affective, emotional, and immaterial labor of social media audiences as owners of the distribution platforms of social media profit from this audience labor. The mechanisms used to propagate that profit has changed. The owners look younger but are still primarily white and male. And a primary result, whether intended or not, of this digital immaterial work or labor is that is reproduces the “oppression socialization” of differences ordered around class (the political economy), race (racism), gendered oppression (patriarchal socialization), and gender (or heteronormativity).
How the political, economic, cultural and ideological systems of those in power come to be accepted, legitimated and even celebrated by the masses at the expense of alternative ways of thinking and doing (O’Leary 2007).
When it comes to kids, especially minors or children on YouTube, there is no need to have formal systems of discrimination against females. Individual networked girls will self-brand within the logics of capitalism, patriarchy, and white superiority. Video screens that are unregulated by only other individuals socialize girls; they quickly learn, adapt to, and adopt the paradigms of music videos and YouTube’s attention economy. They structure themselves into it through user-generated content where they try on these identities and markers of self expression. They imitate and embody them and many will simultaneously try to resist them. Oppression socialization is the digital immaterial werk or labor of twerking songs and twerking self-produced videos, hegemonically speaking. Hashtag #CanIWerkIt
The Blues of “The Changing Same” (hashtag Amiri Baraka)
Change may seem like it’s happening but the shapeshifting of the order of things tends to remain the same more or less or so it seems. The mainstreams of culture on the web now freely feature and spread the exploitation of girls primarily propagated by self-produced video content broadcast from “privately public” and “publicly private” often domestic spaces or bedrooms (Lange 2007).
Meanwhile, online harassment and sexploitation goes viral across the social web. And it justifies itself (as if there is no perpetrator or distributor) on the backs of girls’ self-produced content. No matter what minor and teen girls produce for fun and/or as a critique of the system, it still can be argued that social media platforms are exploiting minor girls for profit to their greatest gain or capital accumulation while girls will be blamed for the demise of their own reputation and future net worth. And this too will be privatized — the discrimination that is since all that girls are doing online lives in a networked publics that are searchable, shareable, and persistent. We don’t own the Internet or the web, just as you don’t really own the technology or data produced on your device while you lay claim to ownership of the device. In actuality, you don’t own, you pay for calling it that
All this–the unintended consequences of social media and self-presentation online and the profit from unpaid digital labor–is a particularly insidious and pernicious ethical gap for marginalized groups like young black girls. And that’s this work interests me so much. It lies at the heart of issues of inequality on the web. Hashtag #YesAllWomen, hashtag #Privacymatters and hashtag #SomeofUsareBrave
So to close my free written thoughts, I offer the First Lady in honor of hashtag Women’s History month and its intersections with race, gender, class, and power. Hashtag #TeamMichelle and hashtag #ThanksMichelleObama.