Sarah Illingworth: We the media (hashtags & Jay-Z)

Sorry if this reads like a bit of a media studies nerd essay, but this week I’ve been thinking about hashtagging and Jay-Z. I was finding the #BringBackOurGirls stuff kind of creepy and unsettling — not because I don’t think it’s really important attention was (and is) drawn to the kidnapping of the girls who were taken by Boko Haram, and their recovery — but because of the way we’re so quick to rearrange a horrific event like this as a tidy campaign. Then I saw this image, and my brain exploded a little bit.

Jay-Z Bring Back Our Girls

On the one hand the nerd in me loves this as a loaded example of what the media is today, on the other I find it totally gross. To me, it takes the weirdness of packaging a kidnapping for ‘shareability’ (well-intentioned though that was), and steps it up a notch. By creating a meme mash-up of the two most shared news stories of last week, its creator both strips the kidnapping of any remaining humanity, and delivers a loaded comment on online culture and the way many of us interact with and consume media.

Similar to the KONY 2012 campaign, #BringBackOurGirls is an example of the way in which we, in order to connect with issues, tailor them so they’re palatable – or require them to be so tailored before we pay them any attention. It’s a bummer of a reality that it’s only when issues like these are prettied up that they grab the attention of a mass audience, aka go viral. While this may seem to be effective as far as raising the profile of something goes, to me all it really does is totally dilute the very real struggles of others. Often, rather than go deep on the issue in a real-world sense, and follow it up with action, we consume it as a piece of media and move on.

What I found most interesting about KONY, was that a lot of the subsequent discussion around it critiqued the campaign itself (for similar reasons I feel uncomfortable about #BringBackOurGirls), but skipped over the fact that in many senses it worked. Even though that campaign also creeped me out, because it was so glossy and commercial — which to me dulled the horrific nature of the issue itself — I felt like its real power was to show us up as consumers of media. Invisible Children, the organisation behind the campaign, had been actively opposing the LRA for years before producing that video, and in a very grassroots way. They would go to communities, deliver talks, try to draw attention to something they felt deserved international attention (and rightly so). I have no idea how the video really came about, but I can imagine how frustrating it would be to work in this way for an extended period of time, then — at wits end — go, ‘fuck it, let’s try and make something that’ll be shared.’

Which may not have been what was actually said but it makes sense that, after years of slogging away trying to draw attention to something and have everyone ignore you, you would choose to instead put your time and resources into creating something for release online that was shiny enough people would give it a chance, and then putting it out into the world in the hope that maybe this would garner attention. And it totally did. Because it was easy to click on a link, and the video was well-produced enough we didn’t shrug it off because it was hokey. And then we critiqued it, and then the guy lost his mind a bit, and then we shared the video of that, and completely forgot to follow up on the issue that grabbed our attention in the first place.

To me both KONY and #BringBackOurGirls encourage reflection on the role we all play in creating and sharing media content. I really do think any person who engages in social media is a member of ‘the media’, just as smartphones and Instagram have blurred the line between who qualifies to call themselves a photographer, and as other services and technologies have changed the industries they’re offshoots of in similar ways. There are plenty of pros and cons to this, which I won’t go into here, but it’s an idea that makes Impolitikal interesting to me; the changing nature of who qualifies as ‘media’, and the ever-shrinking gap between ‘names’ and regular people — many of whom are expert in their field, but aren’t often given an opportunity to share their perspective.

It also encourages reflection on the blurring of the line between what qualifies as entertainment media and news media. The ‘official’ media pick up on and reproduce stories, often focussing on the same personalities, and referencing the same experts and sources. Often this happens because time and budgets are limited and the demand for content is high, but on the flipside longform news content is often not read or watched by enough people to justify the cost of producing it. We don’t give the thorough stuff the attention it deserves — and then we slam the media for being trite.

We need escapism, we need funny, and fantastical and ridiculous, but I think as active participants in the media — or at least, more active than people have ever been before — it’s important to engage with it in a conscious way, to ensure that if we really do want a Fourth Estate that address serious things in gutsy ways, we don’t castrate it by only responding to and popularising the light stuff. That we stay aware of our role in the production and sharing of media, and how that really does shape the non-virtual world.

Again, we are producers of media as much as we are consumers, so when we critique it — and this also happens with politics, but I’ll resist the urge to wander off on that tangent — for being superficial, and focussing on issues that aren’t important, we have to acknowledge the fact that the line between creator and audience is at this point totally blurred. As consumers and sharers of media we shape the way it operates, for the simple reason that the kinds of ‘news’ stories we respond to are the ones most likely to be told.

In closing, just to play devil’s advocate against myself, this Slate article has some interesting comments on the role and impact of hashtag activism.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.