Note: This post was written by a student in the course and reposted here. Source: My Newsfeed as an Archive: Recovery on Social Media and the Summer of 2020.
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Never in my years of growing up online have I experienced a period of time where every element of social media felt monumental. I clicked through Instagram stories with infographics about environmental racism, information about local demonstrations, instructions for what to do if after being tear-gassed, and nation-wide call campaigns to municipal/state leaders. On Twitter, I signed petitions through Change.org that were organized via viral threads. On Facebook, I felt a fierce responsibility to engage with high school classmates and distant relatives whenever they spread disinformation or bigotry to their own followers (even if the last time we’d talked IRL had been years ago). At every virtual turn, I saw #SayHerName or #ICan’tBreathe memorializing victims of police brutality and asking public discourse to think deeply about whether we as a society can honestly say we live by the truth that Black Lives Matter.
For most of this summer of revolt, social media was an archive. Its exhibits were short messages and photos that worked collectively towards recovering the humanity and inherent value of Black lives that for generations have been dehumanized and objectified. I know now that my experience online this summer didn’t just happen. It was shaped by Black activists using online social media platforms to reclaim their humanity in the midst of a global pandemic, economic downturn, and national racial reckoning.
This reclamation of humanity—called recovery in academia—is at the heart of Black digital humanities. Traditionally, recovery points to the literal reclamation of texts or other data that contain narratives that were historically silenced. In her article, “Can Information be Unfettered?” Amy Earhart talked specifically about the importance of DIY recovery projects in actually shaping digital humanities in a way that doesn’t reinforce institutional, canonical biases.
Outside of the realm of humanities data recovery, the meaning becomes less literal. More generally, recovery seeks to restore the humanity of Black people stolen through systemic global racialization and oppression. In a post colonial landscape, recovery is one of the most important facets of digital humanities. The powerful do not need to recover their own human-ness. It is for those who have had their power violently stripped away from them for generations that digital humanists need to prioritize recovery in every facet of their work.
Academia, though, is not often discussed in the same sentence as Twitter or Instagram (at least outside of university-community bubbles). This summer, I remember experiencing the two crash together. Black studies lectures were hosted on Instagram Live. Links to a PDF copy of Angela Davis’s Are Prisons Obsolete? were being passed around group chats. James Baldwin and Assata Shakur quotes were imposed over photographs and colorful backgrounds. Of course, the “real action” was not happening on social media platforms. But the nation-wide demonstrations were being organized using Twitter and Facebook (simultaneously harkening back to the early days of the Arab Spring and pointing towards a new future for political organizing).
Kim Gallon, in the article “Making the Case for Black Digital Humanities” wrote about the role of social media in facilitating the technology of recovery. According to Gallon, due to generations of oppression—through the eras of slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, and police brutality—Black lives in the United States are “ground zero” for recovery on social media. When writing the article in 2015, she went on to specifically highlight the #SayHerName, #BlackLivesMatter, and #ICantBreathe hashtags. It’s telling that these are the same hashtags that were often trending this summer after the murder of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. If it weren’t for social media, George Floyd and Breonna Taylor wouldn’t be internationally known. Demonstrations popped up in different cities around the world. Murals with George Floyd’s face were painted in Berlin, Germany (shown below).
Wandbild Portrait of George Floyd in Mauerpark, Berlin.Source: Wikimedia Commons
This summer taught me more than I ever thought I would have known about the capacity of social media for aiding and facilitating social change. Learning more about Black digital humanities has made it crystal clear to me that social media usage and the future technology of recovery are connected.
Debates in the Digital Humanities. “‘4. Making a Case for the Black Digital Humanities | Kim Gallon’ in ‘Debates in the Digital Humanities 2016’ on Manifold.” Accessed October 15, 2020. https://dhdebates.gc.cuny.edu/read/untitled/section/fa10e2e1-0c3d-4519-a958-d823aac989eb#ch04
Debates in the Digital Humanities. “‘Chapter 18: Can Information Be Unfettered? Race and the New Digital Humanities Canon | Amy E. Earhart’ in ‘Debates in the Digital Humanities’ on Manifold.” Accessed October 15, 2020.