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Dispatches

Vacay, Margeaux Walter, 2012. Courtesy the artist and Winston Wachter.

How the Other Half Shares

When the media talks about social media, it’s always about young, white Americans. We spoke to a wider sample—including a sex worker, a pastor’s wife, a rapper—to see why people do what they do online.

Back in early January, to brief but loud fanfare, then-19-year-old Andrew Watts published a 14-minute read on his Medium page, detailing his views on how teenagers use social media. Backchannel, one of those maybe-probably-paid Medium channels, republished the post, and it got tossed around tech Twitter for a couple days. It reached 750,000 pageviews by the end of the month. By January 12th, though, the conceit had worn off; Watts published a less warmly-received follow-up directly onto Backchannel that he notes only received 9.5% of the response that his initial post did.

On the same day as his follow-up, Danah Boyd, a researcher at Microsoft, shot back on Medium that Watts had failed to take into account the fact that “[t]eens’ use of social media is significantly shaped by race and class, geography and cultural background.”

But it’s not just teens—everyone’s use of social media is significantly shaped by race, class, culture, and where they live. And yet, only young white men are having blog posts on their thoughts on Snapchat amplified by people within the tech industry. As Boyd notes, Watts is not unlike people in the tech industry—in which he now works—and it is well-known that the tech industry is nearly monolithically young, white, straight, male, and cisgender. This is at odds with most social media users in America, and yet diverse voices are still rarely heard from.

In an attempt to provide some balance to the boring-ness of the discourse, we spoke to seven people who don't fit the typical mold about how they use social media.

 

Thel S., 30, is a trans woman and writer in the San Francisco Bay Area.


When did you start using social media?

For me, that’s an easy one. That’s LiveJournal. I was 13 or 14. 14 for sure, actually. I grew up in Seattle, and LiveJournal was kind of a Seattle phenomenon. There used to be LiveJournal picnics, where the developers of LiveJournal would come and hang out.

What got me into it was the fucked-up wannabe Riot Grrrls that I wanted to hang out with, and what kept me in it was other communities that I found, like people who played Go, people that yelled at each other about philosophy, people that were sad and gay and weird, and it was good. LiveJournal in Seattle in 1999, 2000, was kind of an in-person community, and I really came into it that way. I was like, “Wow, adults will hang out with me without even knowing that I’m not 18, or I’m not 21,” or whatever, so it was a way to sneak into an adult world.

What various platforms have you used over the course of being online?

I actually used all of those stupid sites, like Friendster and shit, but I didn’t really get that into it. Facebook was there when I was in college for a little bit, and then as far as Twitter is concerned, I actually worked at Twitter in 2011, and didn’t really use it. I started making tweets during the interview process, because I was like, “Fuck, hire me!” I’d pretend that I liked it. Even when I worked there, I would tweet once every two weeks, or just retweet something. I was just reading.

At the time, what I really liked was to read Tumblr, just strictly lurking on Tumblr because I wanted to read all these badass—in retrospect, really scary and really wrong—hardcore Marxist trans women; they had a perspective I was really curious about. I like to find little corners of the internet, with people I can actually relate to. The idea of actually participating in social media came much later, probably 2013. I had a job that I really fucking hated, and I had a really long commute—I didn’t hate the job that much, actually, I just hated myself for not hating the job enough, but I definitely hated the commute, it was an hour each way. At that time, I just started storming on Twitter, Facebook, whatever. I think I even started a Tumblr then. I’ve gone through a few different online identities.

I like to find little corners of the internet, with people I can actually relate to.

What do you use now?

I have a couple Twitter accounts, one for me and one for my zine. I have a Facebook account now that’s super-active, though most of the stuff is behind filters or in secret groups. It has good privacy settings, and I use it with a lot of my trans friends. I do Tumblr, too. Tumblr is kind of a disaster. I love to read Tumblr. Even the parts of Tumblr that are scary to me, I can’t look away.

You recently came out publicly as a trans woman. Have you noticed a change in how people interact with you on social media?

Yes, definitely. Mostly in a positive way. Some stuff is a bit weird. I was kind of worried that I was gonna get a lot of fetishistic sexual interest in me, and I don’t get that, because I’m not that cute. What I get is a fair number of people who are pretty interested in transitioning themselves, or are at the beginning of that, and because I’m doing it in a relatively visible way, sometimes I can get pressed into what can feel like therapeutic or mentoring roles. I think that anybody who knows me would not ask me for advice, about anything in their life, so there’s that kind of stuff. That’s kind of new.

Generally, it’s been a very positive thing, because I feel like there was this community that I was like, “I know I’m supposed to be a part of this community, but I can’t really put my chips on the table just now.” I felt that way for years, so it’s a sense of being welcomed. I haven’t had a lot of bad experiences on social media, to be honest.

Do you think you will burn out from using social media?

I think that the goodbye to social media post is a childish and pathetic thing. Like, I may rage-quit the forum, but I will try not to leave a goodbye post that settles all scores. I think that’s a really pathetic behavior. I also think in some ways, it’s kind of a way for people to boast about their offline life, and ultimately about their offline wealth. I don’t respect that. As far as needing to get distance from certain media here or there, or close an account, I’m actually planning on taking a few weeks away from this shit later on this summer. That’s more motivated by curiosity than anything else. I think that I have a pretty healthy and lighthearted engagement with social media, so it doesn’t really drag me in too much.

 

Slug Christ, 24, is an Atlanta rapper and a member of AWFUL Records.


When did you start using social media?

I’m just a product of the 21st century backwards dystopia. That’s all I gotta say about that.

What kinds of social media have you used in the course of being online?

A lot of them.

What kinds have you quit using?

MySpace, lol.

Has newfound fame changed the way you use social media? Does it make it more difficult to use Twitter for personal reasons?

Yeah, I mean nowadays people tell me to kill myself ‘cause of an eight-bar verse I freestyled, lol. But I’m the ocean, you can pollute me. But I’ll always be there.

 

Gail P., 52, is a homemaker in a small, rural Indiana town.


What got you started using social media?

I began using social media with a Xanga blog that our family shared. The older kids were high-school age and wanted to be on Xanga so we also started out there to be part of it and help keep them safe. The older two had their own separate blogs. I resisted Facebook for them and myself for quite a while fearing the time factor it would play in our lives, but when my oldest was heading to college she went onto Facebook and my next son followed pretty quickly, too.

What do you use now?

Facebook is where I keep connected with family and friends. We have high school, Navy, and previous church friends as well as seminary friends, missionaries, etc., that we keep in touch with. I come from a large extended family and some of my cousins and second cousins are also on Facebook. Folks use Facebook Messaging to get ahold of me quicker than email. I share stuff with my kids that live away from home, and I’m able to see some of what is going on in their lives—more so a few years ago—they’ve switched more to other forms of social media now.

As a Christian, especially as a pastor’s wife, I am very careful about what I share.

I also participate in a few specific groups related to homeschooling, my kids’ swimming, previous seminary wives. I’m able to share and encourage others and get and share information. I read blogs posts that people share, though I try not to get sucked into controversy and commenting too much. I find it helpful to see what others are reading and being influenced by even if I don’t agree with all that they are sharing.

Splitcoaststampers is where I enjoy a creative outlet. I have an account there that allows me to post pictures of cards and other projects that I make, and receive and give feedback. I participate in challenges and have been on design teams that make samples for the daily challenges as well as being a challenge hostess during an annual challenge for breast cancer awareness. I find lots of new ideas and the motivation to try them through this community. I also enjoy the camaraderie of fellow hobbyists, and exchange thoughts and ideas about trends in the hobby.

Pinterest can be a real time waster for me, but I find recipe and craft inspiration there. I also pin things I want to be able to find later.

One of the things I find most fulfilling is being able to keep track of the health situations of family and friends through Caring Bridge and the like. Being able to pray more specifically for these situations or to get involved in support in other ways is a real benefit to using these sites.

With my mother’s cancer situation, being able to write once rather than having to have multiple conversations over and over, repeating bad news, is a real plus as well.

Do you feel you are treated differently than the general population of social media users because of your identity?

As a Christian, especially as a pastor’s wife, I am very careful about what I share. I once linked an article that I later found to be false, and it caused me to be way more careful to check things out before sharing. I also feel a responsibility that I’m identified with whomever or whatever I’m linking or even liking.

Do you think you will burn out from using social media?

I go through seasons with my use of social media and have certainly had times where I’ve been much more active than I am at present. I grow tired of the extreme positions and lack of tolerance for differing opinions, and have times where I wish social media weren’t such a big part of life, but it seems here to stay and so I’ll stay with it too.

I feel called to be in the world, to make a difference as salt and light, and being part of the social media world is part of my calling too.

 

Rooftop Rays, Margeaux Walter, 2012. Courtesy of the artist and Winston Wachter.

Marianna I., thirties, is an ophthalmologist in Moscow.


What various social media platforms have you used?

Facebook, VKontakte, LinkedIn.

What do you use now?

I use it for work (LinkedIn) and for chatting with friends (VK, Facebook). I have a Twitter account, but I use it extremely rarely.

Do you prefer VK to Facebook?

I like the user-friendly interface of VK much more than FB. Also organization of music playlists is much easier, video and photo content. FB equals VK, but VK I like more because interface is simple and intuitive.

Do you feel there are inherent problems with social media in Russia? For instance, earlier this year, the then-CEO of Twitter acknowledged that Twitter is very bad at dealing with harassment, particularly that of women.

I have no idea about that. I don’t consider myself as a victim of harassment at the moment.

Any final thoughts about social media?

I feel like the world of people is in the phase of singularity transformation—complete transparency, almost no privacy, instant information share, and all the consequences we face. Disruptive innovation. Values changing. Something is definitely going on.

 

Dominic R., 21, is a sex worker in the Southwest.


When did you start using social media?

In general, I think I started using social media when I was around 14, maybe. For sex work, I started using it pretty much as soon as I started, when I was 18.

What have you used?

When I first started, I was using Twitter, Tumblr, and Facebook as social media platforms for my work, then I stopped using Facebook; I mainly just use Facebook for personal use now. I just have Twitter and Tumblr [for work]. Facebook was too personal. I’d have customers using the platform to message me and get in contact, and ask me things that were not appropriate, so I prefer Tumblr and Twitter, because they’re a little less personal for that.

Do you think social media users in your profession are treated differently or face issues that others do not?

Totally. That happens all the time.

One of the things that happens, especially because my Tumblr is full of nudity, a lot of blogs will find my work and sometimes redistribute it, or they’ll make comments about it. On one hand, [those blogs] will use [my] work, and on the other hand they’ll demand it be free. And they will talk down on [sex workers] for charging for it. So, that happens. With email, I can tell someone one-on-one, “This is what I do, these are my prices,” and if they don’t like that, I can just block them. Same with Tumblr and Twitter.

For me, social media is very important because it sort of makes me real.

Do you think you’ll ever have enough and just leave social media?

For me, social media is very important because it gives me… it sort of makes me real, if that makes sense. What happens when I use social media is, the more social media presence I have, the most customers I get, which is very good for that. I would stop using social media if those social media platforms stopped working with me, so to speak.

For example, recently, there were a lot of scares about Tumblr and Twitter deleting sex-work accounts, because they don’t support sex work in general. If that happened, where it was a widespread deletion of sex-work accounts, I would definitely get rid of mine for that reason.

What social media platforms have you quit using?

Something like Skype, for example, is really personal. If I have a customer who has my Skype account—just for an example, when I logged into this account, because I don’t often use this account, a previous customer called me three times in a row. I ignored the calls, and then they messaged me another three times, just ‘cause I logged in. And I didn’t schedule anything with them, so it doesn’t make sense for them to contact me. That’s sort of what happened with Facebook. I’d just get on and update stuff and give people information, and then I’d have a bunch of personal messages and it just wasn’t necessary. It wasn’t something that I needed. When people want to get personal on Twitter or Tumblr, it’s easier to ignore.

 

Frank D., 49, is a hospital clerk in Chicago.


When and why did you start using social media?

I started using social media in 2006 because almost everyone I knew used social media.

What have you used?

Mostly Facebook and sometimes Twitter.

What do you use now?

Facebook, because it’s entertaining what people post and the responses they get, as well as feedback with what I post.

Do you think social media users in your age group are treated differently?

Yes, I think some people in my age group are treated differently. We share different principles and philosophies. As you get older, you gain knowledge and experience, and you see life as the big picture. You won’t know until you get there.

Do you think you will burn out from using social media?

Being on social media is like watching TV or reading a book. I don’t think I would ever be burnt out using social media.

What social media platforms have you quit using?

Again, social media is like watching TV. I would never quit using it.

 

James M., 23, is a graduate student in Brighton, UK.


When did you begin using social media? What made you start?

I’m 23, and spent most of my life when the internet was a thing living in the awful white enclave surrounding Salisbury, Wiltshire, UK.

I think the first dedicated social media site that I used and actually maintained an account on was Bebo, simply because it was what my friends were all doing. I didn’t use it that much—my internet use was restricted a lot at home; I forget why, but I would imagine my mother’s deathly fear of technology had something to do with it—but I did regularly check it. Maybe before that time, I got heavily into the (I believe now defunct) MSN groups as I was an embarrassingly vocal Buffy the Vampire Slayer fan and spent a lot of time on various Buffy fan groups, and there was an element of social there but more media I guess. Bebo was for IRL friends only and MSN groups was for chatting to strangers but I didn’t make any real connections—like, I can’t remember anyone’s username, and I don’t think I ever had someone with whom I was on “real name” basis. I had a MySpace but never really used it, as within most of my circles at the time, Bebo was the social media site du jour.

My first real full-time power-user type experience with social media was—as I would imagine it is for a lot of people my age—Facebook. As far as I can tell it was around July 2008 that I made my account. Oh god, I’m so old, there are pictures and everything, oh god. Which I did after going on a tour to Germany with the local youth music group, and my “web,” if you will, expanded beyond my direct peers to people older and younger than me, and some from different schools, etc. But fundamentally it was just a better-designed version of Bebo that coincided with the expansion of my social circles in real life.

My “persona” as wild party boy/drug addict/bisexual narcissistic nihilist has been crafted by the fact that it’s literally a description of me in my raw and uncensored form.

Can you specifically talk about your Tumblr persona?

Ahhhh Tumblr, my old friend, my achilles heel, my—honestly I don’t know what the fuck Tumblr is to me.

I made my Tumblr in April 2011 just after breaking up with my girlfriend of two years. I think my original intention was to use it to motivate myself to learn how to make noise/power electronics type music via networking with current artists. Ha ha ha, how the best laid plans turn to dust.

Tumblr has become the (relatively) non-judgmental wall that I can throw my ideas at. Anything from top-of-the-head puns about memes and communism to detailed discussion of recreational chemistry. I guess I do have a sort of Tumblr persona, but not in the traditional sense. My Tumblr persona is just me with the brakes cut and a megaphone. All my friends on Tumblr are ones whom I met on the site and as such they know exactly what to expect from me because I just speak my mind. I feel like my “persona” as wild party boy/drug addict/bisexual narcissistic nihilist has been crafted by the fact that it’s literally a description of me in my raw and uncensored form, if that makes sense? I feel like it’s usually clear when I’m joking, but when I’m speaking seriously, I’m not embellishing things or acting in a certain way to affect the way I’m perceived; I’m speaking my mind.

I have so many amazing friends who I met through Tumblr and who I can be honest and open with, and who, because that’s how these things work in social networking, share my interests much more than almost all my friends in real life.

For example, this morning I received a batch of research chemicals, “upmarket bath salts” basically, and I posted a picture of the bag on my blog. The rocks look just like cocaine it’s beautiful, ahhh, but I digress. I have somewhere between 950-1000 followers and I’m fine with them seeing that, and the ensuing discussion regarding the drugs was part celebratory—yaaasssss go in—and part educational—what actually is that stuff tho?—but nobody tried to pull an intervention on me or call my mother, because they paid for their seats and they know what they’re here to see.

In contrast, there are only two or three in-real-life friends whom I would have similar interactions with, and thus far I’ve only sent the picture plus a gushy—oh god it’s so beautiful—message to my IRL best—probably?—friend. She’s had the experience of my blog first hand on a number of occasions and is very much like my best Tumblr friends. We’re both damaged in our own ways, we’re both generally pessimistic about life, we’re both very intelligent graduates, and—the real winner—we both love American sports. She’s also had the privilege that only a handful of Tumblr friends have had: multi-day, one-on-one, set-the-world-to-rights discussions soundtracked by loud music and fuelled by copious amounts of drugs. She’s the sort of person that I would have become similarly close with if I’d met her on Tumblr instead of in real life, but I was lucky enough to be able to hang out with her for two years of my time in college. I feel profound platonic love for her as a friend. How often do you get a phone call at one a.m. from someone who’s been ignoring your texts all day only to have them say, “Oh hey, sorry I was asleep, we had a mad one last night. Do you wanna come over and hang out? I think we have at least four grams of ketamine in the house?” How often are you then able to reply, “Oh cool sounds good, I just picked up £120 worth of cocaine because of this thing, it’s a long story I’ll tell you later, uh, bus coming in five so I’ll be there in 20 minutes?” And how often does this exchange result in one of the best friend-bonding experiences possible, two people with a laptop sitting at a kitchen table talking openly, listening to great music, and snorting lines of coke until about eight a.m. when it runs out only to move on to the ketamine and end the session at about two p.m. after watching several episodes of CSI while extremely dissociated? Not very often.

The amazing thing about Tumblr is that the friends I’ve met in person, that I first met online, have all been wonderful and we’ve shared a lot of similar experiences of (usually) alcohol- and drug-based bonding. I have more Tumblr friends whom I’d call “true genuine friends” than I do in real life, and I’ve had the privilege of meeting up with a few of them in what have been some of my best experiences of the last few years. I even hooked up with one in a casual way and the sex was amazing—as we’d both discussed preferences, experience, etc., online before and knew how to push each others’ buttons—and it stayed casual, we’re still really good friends, and just today have exchanged several “love u,” “love u more!!!”’s.

I think that the idea of a Tumblr persona as a person living out their fantasy ideal life online with people who don’t know the real them is probably relevant to us all to some extent. For me, the fantasy is simply to be able to honestly discuss things like my substance use/abuse/addiction, talk about my bisexuality absolutely free from bullshit, talk about my feelings, write long rambling posts as I try and express my opinion on something with people who will give me constructive criticism instead of questioning why I’m thinking about x in the first place. Tumblr is also a place where I can make as many bad puns, dick jokes, very obscure cross-referenced jokes that make sense to me and, like, two other people, and post memes and Skrillex songs. Tumblr is, in essence, a playground full of my friends.

Furthermore, and this is very important, Tumblr has taught me a lot about issues of race, gender, sexuality, etc. I “came out”—more like “realized,” but eh, semantics—as bisexual, I think, a few months after I made my blog but before I’d started to be a serious everyday user with a large friend group. I didn’t know that pansexual was a thing when I identified as bisexual. The term could be used to describe me but I use bi simply because it was the word I knew at the time and feel comfortable with. Now I know enough that I can discuss this choice and the distinction I make between the two eloquently and inoffensively. Being a far-left type at college had already made me aware of the fact that gender is merely a construct, but until Tumblr I hadn’t encountered people who actually identified as trans, or agender, or anything like that. I’d never had to think about which pronouns to use for someone based on what they felt comfortable with as opposed to which—of the two binary genders I’d previously thought were the only “choices”—I thought they were based on appearance.

I used to be a much bigger dickhead online than I am now, but it seems to me that most people were the same and everyone has matured together and will now call each other out in a friendly—if possible—or public—if necessary—way if they overstep the mark, which is a good thing. I’ve gone through various “legit” addiction phases while blogging, and even outside of those periods most of the time I blog (and live) high or drunk so I used to forget myself and say some awful shit. I think I mostly keep myself under control now although I’m human and will likely slip up. But I think I’ve learned how to appropriately deal with that, should it happen now. A combination of “joke that only I think is funny but is actually horrendous and offensive, and I’m too high” with “responding to very justified criticism in a way that I now see is inappropriate” has lost me some longtime Tumblr friends, and I’m very sorry that those things happened. Obviously, I can’t take back what I said or did or how I acted in the past, but now I’ve learned how to conduct myself, and what is and is not appropriate for me, with my laundry list of privileges, to talk or joke about.

For all the negative effects that it’s had—spent too much time on the internet, probably enabled my habitual behavior, etc., the usual shit people say about social media—my—oh god—nearly four years on Tumblr have been very good for me. Having a place for my “persona” or rather “lack of a persona,” to hang out with like-minded people and build knowledge and friendships and generally become a better person (I hope) has been excellent.

Honestly I don’t know what I’d do if I didn’t have my blog for venting or celebrating or just testing out jokes. I’d probably have a masters [degree] by now though, ha ha. Either that or I’d have killed myself. I don’t know. Tumblr is, while far from perfect, a pretty cool thing to have.