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Head in the Cloud

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For the first week of my remote internship last summer, I had no idea of what most of my colleagues looked like. 

The only connection I had to them was through their profile photos –– and at the time, all of them were the Black Lives Matter logo. My social media feed was the same. Gone were the usual vacation photos, brunch spreads and sun-kissed selfies; the floodgates opened up to the massive influx of BLM posts instead.

Amid the flurry of petitions being signed, fundraisers being donated to and resources being shared, I didn’t know how to speak up. As an Asian American, I, too, sympathize … I, myself, understand … I fumbled awkwardly with trying to express my support for others without positioning myself at the center of it. 

Getting plugged into online conversations was supposed to be as simple as tweeting a hashtag or reposting an infographic. Yet I felt stumped by my online expression of solidarity and questioned whether publicly expressing my thoughts even added anything to the conversation. In high school, I remembered rooting for women to reclaim their #MeToo narratives and then seeing the immediate effect as men in power were called out, so it was only natural for me to correlate social media activism with real change. Add on to that experience that a mere click on Instacart brings groceries to my door in two hours and a mere tap on my Uber app will send a driver to me in 15 minutes, the frictionless culture of tech led me to believe that there was a quick fix for everything –– even political activism. So why was it so difficult to say something online this time?

Designers at social media companies have created hashtags, retweets, reposting, social-movement-based filters for profile photos –– all of which are able to amplify our voices. But when it’s so simple, it’s easy to question whether people’s intent behind the gesture is cheapened. What does it really mean to tack on a social-movement-based filter on your profile picture when the mechanics of doing so are so embarrassingly facile? What does the ephemerality of an Instagram story say about our online expression of solidarity? Like the 10-second-long feature, is it temporary and fleeting too? Online, it’s not necessary to try to be a good person; merely seeming like a good person is good enough. 

As I continued to scroll through social media, it became difficult to unravel whether a retweet was just tied to self-promotion. I remember seeing apology posts from companies such as Reformation. “I’ve failed,” the Instagram post declared in sans-serif font against a jet-black background, in the same simplistic sterility as the rest of Reformation’s posts. Saying something on the internet began to feel less like a first step toward making tangible change and more like a satisfactory end in itself.

I found myself equally troubled by the changes in tech that were happening and the sanctimonious claims that companies were making about them. While it was a step in the right direction, Apple’s initiative in adding new skin shades for emojis wasn’t the end-all solution to racism. Github’s decision to rename the “master” branch the “main” branch to remove unnecessary references to slavery doesn’t mean that tech’s job in sparking conversations about anti-Blackness is done. Although tech companies’ online actions were representative of activism, the actionable change to improve workplace diversity and racism was missing.

And there are consequences to the oversimplification of tech’s “solutions” to political and social engagement. While the invention of the hashtag allows people to share common experiences, it collapses individual voices and stories behind a single narrative whose context is solely provided by a limited number of characters, erasing the variety of experiences.

Perhaps slow-moving societal change and progress simply do not align with tech’s culture of efficiency and optimization. The tech community needs to realize that social progress is not the same as a bug fix on an app. But while companies should be responsible for creating more intentional features that benefit the public sphere, it’s important for us to differentiate between the illusion of making change and actually doing so.

Last summer, I busied myself with figuring out the right way to express my solidarity online, but this diverted my attention from the responsibility I hold to take tangible action. I couldn’t help but feel as though I was opting for a discounted solution when the real crux of political activism lay on the outskirts of the virtual world. It was easy to delude myself that posting online was all I could do, even though active engagement such as showing up to marches, talking to my Asian parents and starting book clubs were also within reach.

The internet is inextricable from the problems in the world and easy access to information reminds me daily to stay aware of all that’s happening. But choosing what I do with this awareness determines how sustainable my impact is –– and I want to do more than posting an Instagram story that will disappear in 24 hours.

Bianca Lee writes the Thursday column on the intersection of technology and society.