Reflections from Nowhere: Social Media Activism and the Strange Politics of Participation

Reflections from Nowhere: Social Media Activism and the Strange Politics of Participation

Chloë Bass

Five years ago, the hashtag #blacklivesmatter became a national rallying cry as we raged against Black Americans losing their lives to systemic, egregious police violence. Started by media activists Alicia Garza, Patrice Cullors, and Opal Tometti in response to the acquittal of George Zimmerman (Trayvon Martin’s killer)(1), the hashtag was used to develop a highly organized, mobilized system that relied heavily on Twitter and Facebook. Through these platforms, Americans collectively mourned Eric Garner, Alton Sterling, Michael Brown, and others, joining together both on screen, and in the streets.

Then we elected a Twitter president, and it turns out that social media is just media after all – although things looked hopeful at first. On January 21st, 2017, just one day after Donald Trump’s inauguration (which was either poorly attended, or the best attended presidential inauguration in United States history, depending on which feed you saw at the time (2)), the Washington Mall was overrun by people in pink knitted pussy hats (cat ears at the ready to raise awareness about women’s rights), who had been called together, at least nominally, through Facebook. On February 16th, 2017, Twitter’s CEO Jack Dorsey stated that American Twitter was having its “Arab Spring moment.”(3) However, these moments are defined not so much by the tracking of beliefs, as via patterns of data use: in order words, a mathematical mimicry that may or may not have ideological correspondence to any previous political movement. As a small diversion, it seems relevant to mention that Dorsey has accumulated his approximate 5 billion dollar net worth(4) from the abbreviated thoughts and links that most Twitter users contribute for free. In other words, the seeds of revolution really do amount to something, at least for someone.

[Figure 1]

That the law, in its execution, is an exercise in interpretation should come as a surprise to no one. Each legal case is determined by, and determinative of, precedent: a system in which the individual is largely left behind, supposedly in service of the collective. But as Sontag warns in Against Interpretation (originally published, lest you’ve forgotten, more than 50 years ago):

Today is such a time, when the project of interpretation is largely reactionary, stifling. […] In a culture whose already classical dilemma is the hypertrophy of the intellect at the expense of energy and sensual capability, interpretation is the revenge of the intellect upon [the world]. To interpret is to impoverish, to deplete the world – in order to set up a shadow world of ‘meanings.’

It turns the world into this world. (‘This world!’ As if there were any other.)(5)

Excluded from the process of the law, yet bound by its effects, we write think pieces about think pieces, adding layers of analysis to material that can mostly be explained by capitalism. Online platforms are the perfect stage for this endless and exhausting interpretive dance. Through social media, with all of its production around the moment (what is the endless scroll if not an ever-changing Now?), we start to see the law not as participatory, but rather as something like blockbuster film-making: it might have been beautiful on the page, but then the producers came in and mucked it all up. The writer’s desires are great, but just won’t sell. As in: we tested it with audiences, and. This level of control fuels a collective desire for the director’s cut to explain something better than what we originally got. I’m still seduced by the promise of four alternate endings, even as I become less certain that we even have a next year in our future.

In other words, it’s not so much what we actually achieve through social media platforms, as what we think we’re able to achieve. I believe that for many, the accessibility of online activism meant, at least for a moment, that we still had some control over an out of hand, deeply harmful political weapon of a nation. Ever American, we still believe in democratic space, no matter how much incontrovertible proof we have that our actual democracy is at best partial: managed not by vote count, but by shadier margins of representation, tidily managed to keep corporate interests safe. The democratizing force of participation has been repeatedly undermined by Cambridge Analytica’s underhanded and uncanny ability to use Facebook data representing what we imagined were our secret selves to harness and shift national politics (with international repercussions, both those at hand and those – I shudder to think – yet to come).

URL, as IRL, our performance of activism – let alone that performance’s results – is inconsistent. For a moment, it seemed like the most politic thing to do was to leave Facebook, although that flamed out quickly as well. But perhaps this inconsistency is positive: it remains, at least, a shiftiness that’s difficult to track. I still believe in social media as a space in which we share information: as the saying goes, knowledge is half the battle. But I want to state clearly that it is only half, and extending the metaphor a bit, in political contexts it leaves the glass half empty. If social media is meant to represent where we are as a society, we’re right to be worried: it’s the clearest manifestation of easy answers, poor fact checking, uninformed public opinion, and corporate-control of information. The question to me is not whether online activism is dead (or dying, or even rise-and-falling), but where we believe we still have access to public space, and what that public might collectively achieve in a system that seems well designed to weather the revolutionary interests of any particular movement.

[Figure 2]

It’s June 21st, 2018. For the past week, we’ve been outraged about the separation of migrant children from their parents at the border. Nearly two million dollars have been raised for RAICES, a nonprofit organization based in Houston, Texas, promising to work in support of migrant family services. We feel we want to really do something. In the meantime, we debate over who designed and built the shelters (does architecture have morals? And, if not, what does that mean for the rest of creative practice and its intersection with everyday lives?). We wonder what will happen to the children already lost in the shuffle. We muse, morbidly, if relevantly, whether it’s really two thousand detained, or twenty.

The moment is hot. There is no hashtag. The rest remains to be interpreted.


Chloë Bass is a multiform conceptual artist based in Brooklyn. Her work uses daily life as a site of deep research to address scales of human intimacy: where patterns hold and break as group sizes expand. An Assistant Professor of Art at Queens College CUNY, she co-runs Social Practice Queens with Dr. Gregory Sholette.


(1) “Black Lives Matter: Herstory,” (accessed June 20th, 2018).
(2) “Donald Trump had biggest inaugural crowd ever? Metrics don’t show it,” (accessed July 2nd, 2018).
(3) “Twitter’s C.E.O. Says It’s Having an ‘Arab Spring’ Moment in the U.S.,” (accessed June 19th, 2018).
(4) “Jack Dorsey, Real Time Net Worth,” (accessed July 10th, 2018).
(5) Susan Sontag, “Against Interpretation,” Dell Publishing, 1981.