Activism and performance

Matheus Moraes

Asst. Opinions Editor

Graphic by Adamya Sharma

A sentence I have often repeated in the last year or so is “since the beginning of the pandemic”. It is hard to not compare the world pre vs. during Covid while trying to make sense of it. One of things I noticed was the “boom” of Instagram lives and, with them, the exploring of some social topics that were brought further into light during lock-down days. Voter suppression, white supremacy, natural disasters and Indigenous peoples' rights gave social media users plenty to be mad about, or pretend they were.


In the beginning of August 2020, I made the decision to quit social media as it was causing me more harm than good. I have had Instagram since 2011 and despite not posting often, I felt a strong urge to do it. Yet, whenever I posted I’d feel such anxiety that I would hide my phone to avoid deleting the post almost immediately. It bothered me how much something as unreal and curated as a photo feed triggered an imposter feeling, as if I was trying to fool my “audience”.


The only types of posts I would feel okay with were political ones, such as Black lives matter, abortion rights, LGBTQIA+ rights, etc. Posting these felt like a public service, despite not doing much else besides an occasional donation. By posting a black square, or the decrease of Trans rights in NC, I felt like the spokesperson for the oppressed. I was apparently giving a voice to marginalized groups to my 200 something followers. Yet, most of my followers happened to share the same view as me so I started questioning my reasons behind posting altogether.


Beyond the veiled obligation to post in order to exist online, I felt like in this moment where all my entertainment had to be allocated indoors, I had to curtail some toxic ducts that caused me to feel depressed. Despondent to the point of dropping some of my classes during the Spring semester of 2020. Not even the performance of activism on my feed felt convincing anymore. Doom scrolling had become the drain where hours from my days would go, I fell back on assignments and struggled to find purpose. While in the meantime I felt foolish for taking part in an online discourse that echoed the rest of my timeline.


The sociologist Erwing Goffman developed a theory of identity that revolved around playacting in his book “The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life” (1959). According to this theory, a person must perform to create an impression for an audience. The performances one puts on for their parents during dinner, for instance, wouldn’t be the same performance as when they are at a bar with friends, or at a job interview. Goffman explains, “All the world is not, of course, a stage, but the crucial ways it isn’t are not easy to specify.”


The lines get even blurrier when the stage presents itself every time someone opens their phone. For social media avid users, the performance never ends, turning the discourse of meaningful causes into solidarity performances. According to Jia Tolentino, author of “Trick Mirror: Reflections on self-delusion.”, this practice keeps actual mechanisms through which political solidarity is enacted (strikes, boycotts) still in the fringe, while placing the performance of solidarity under the spotlight.


To make matters worse, algorithms continuously create echo chambers where social media users are targeted to receive news corresponding to their ideological beliefs, polarizing opinions and lessening tolerance for dialogue. The mechanisms of these “news sources” who use social media to propagate information have been exposed as toxic using intermittent positive reinforcement as their tool. Within every timeline refresh there will be an infinite number of new posts, good or bad, just a pull away. The same kind of addicting psychological behavior behind slot machines.


The banalization of social issues becomes evident whenever commemorative dates to create visibility for minorities come around. Brands that three years ago never displayed any interest in representing inclusivity come out with rainbow shirts for pride, or feminist shirts since Beyoncé declared herself a feminist, BLM themed apparel, etc. The expropriation of meaning is for profit, every performance of inclusion on social media resonates into building a public image of inclusion, but not one that translates into marginalized groups holding positions of power in the companies performing activism during a commemorative month.


Public outrage, through any medium, is important. Spreading the word on inequality and all the ways through which it affects different sectors of society is valuable work. Still, there is a reflection to be made about how social media, and the market, contribute to the hollowing of social movements by merely highlighting “representation” and not dealing with all the other aspects that go into being a minority daily.


As I wrote this, I have deleted the twitter app from my phone three times, as well as retweeted photos of illegal mining companies destroying the Amazon. Being honest, I don’t know if there is an answer to the question of whether performance and representation will lead to objective change. Still, I think it is a reflection worth having.


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