Why do you use social media?
My top three reasons are:
- keep up to date with friends and family
- for work (content creation and curation, community management, networking) and uni research purposes
- to learn and keep up to date with what’s happening in the world/specific areas of my interests
That’s a great thing about social media – the free, open access to people and information. It’s quite amazing, really. We have the world in the palm of our hands. We can visit cities across the world through screens, track social movements through hashtags, build communities of learning. Recent months have seen several high profile social justice movements rise to prominence through social media activism – not least Black Lives Matter, support for Lebanon and educating on the situation in Yemen. Infographics, videos, Instagram Lives, TikToks and other social media tools are being spread far and wide – often crossing platforms – to educate, inspire and encourage action.
But at what cost?
How often do we pause to think about the cost of creating these resources? Or the knowledge that fed their creation? What is the cost of social media activism and education?
Firstly, there’s the cost of labour.
I’m talking the time, energy, tools, resources and knowledge required to create infographics. All too often, there’s an emotional labour cost put on marginalised activists and educators too. None of this is reimbursed in any way because social media platforms are non-monetised unless you run/engage in advertising. So all this work is being done for free.
We have gotten so used to getting things for free, we don’t even stop to consider the real cost of the information. And, in turn, we devalue the knowledge and skill of those who disseminate it.
And what about boundaries?
When we identify specific people as The Educators for certain topics, we often see comments demanding more from those educators or content creators to cover X, Y and Z on that topic (or, even totally unrelated things – because they’re The Educators).
We see people holding individuals responsible for knowledge dispensing – something which also highlights potential issues down the line with knowledge gatekeeping – and pressure being put on content creators to post/talk/educate on topics that platform users want to see prioritised, regardless of the account owner’s own knowledge, interest or feelings on the matter.
Basically, what I’m saying is that by identifying The Educators, we’re becoming more demanding of their time, effort, knowledge and energy. And (back to the point on cost) we’re doing nothing to compensate them for this. These social media platforms are free, predominantly open access, or partially open if they screen followers. But the fact remains that instead of us going to Google to do our own research, we’re relying on the labour of The Educators to keep us up to date with all the current hot topics in a well-rounded way without engaging in these conversations ourselves with any analysis, criticism or reflection.
The crossing and ignoring of boundaries is particularly prevalent in the experiences of Black women and other marginalised activists and educators, from what I’ve seen. Ericka Hart, a sex educator on Instagram, posted this week about their experience of boundaries being crossed and gaslighting via DMs off the back of their Instagram Stories on colourism. Fashion sustainability activist Aja Barber has posted an FAQ about her space to her grid the other day, yet again, reaffirming her boundaries for her platform because people do not listen or take the time to understand how she is willing to engage with people on her account.
There’s a huge collective understanding of agency missing from social media users, I think. We forget that because these activists, educators and content creators have a platform and that they can be reached personally, that you are entitled to their attention. The accessibility of social media in widening participation in these conversations has come at the cost of recognising the individual as a person with their own boundaries, needs and limits. We see these people as a fountain of knowledge that we can endlessly fill our cups from, but we don’t do anything to replenish the fountain.
Which is why, understandably, more of The Educators are beginning to paywall some of their content on platforms like Patreon. There’s a personal safety element to that move, as well as a rebalancing the scales of power – paying for the labour of educating is a fundamental way of empowering The Educators, especially when they are Black, Indigenous, People of Colour and/or from marginalised communities.
And I want to say something briefly on the point of knowledge.
How often are these content creators given status or recognition as a Knowledge Haver and Distributor without any real understanding of their experience to do so? How critical are we of our educators – where they got their knowledge, their lenses of reflection and analysis, the work they’re doing behind the scenes? It’s great to see social media accounts like Simple Politics and So You Want To Talk About popping up in the last few years – they largely take on complex issues in more accessible and easily digestible chunks, often provide sources lists and further reading lists for the issue at hand. However, a content creator (or team of creators) cannot be expected to be experts on every subject they cover if they don’t narrow their focus.
Social media platforms are not built for deeper reflection and analysis of complex subjects. They (sometimes) let us link to external resources, but how often do people actually click through to further their education? How often do they just keep scrolling and internally tick their Education box because they saw some images on an Instagram Story or watched a couple TikToks about the issue. Social media is not condusive in its current form to meaningful reflection. That doesn’t happen through pastel coloured squares with doodles and aesthetically pleasing fonts.
Pay up and pay forward
In my opinion, social media platforms are not the best places to get your education. Paying educators by buying their resources (books, films, documentaries, podcasts, newsletters) offers a more sustainable, more rounded approach.
Of course, not everyone can afford to subscribe to Patreon or buy the latest books on their reading list each month. To keep it accessible, consider paying forward a subscription once in a while to help those with less access to funds. Donate or lend your books and resources to others when you’re finished. There are ways to keep community activism and education accessible – most often its those who experience boundaries to access who lead the way in accessible education and resource sharing.
Social media can be a great tool for exposure to and community building around activism, passions and other knowledge. It cannot be the sole venue of learning. Many activists and educators have websites, newsletters, workshops and other platforms that are not social media-based, where it is much easier to link to more resources for learning and providing a more in-depth understanding of an issue or situation. And paying for that education, reimbursing these people (including organisations – many of these accounts are run by charities or non-profit orgs that rely on donations to keep producing content) is a powerful way to truly recognise the value of the knowledge these people are sharing on non-monetised platforms.