Above illustration: ‘Digital Social Life’ by Rocio Egio (2021)
I have been interested in digital media and people’s experiences of the internet since first finding moments of enjoyment, escapism, and entertainment online at the turn of the 21st century. My memories of digital technology and internet culture back then include the myth of the millennium bug which was predicted to wreak havoc in computers with the anticipated arrival of the year 2000. Arguably, the concept of the millennium bug captures panic that is often sparked by significant digital developments, including legitimate fears regarding a potential loss of agency and autonomy. Still, not all my memories of new millennium digital discourse and dalliances are marked by feelings such as the nervousness and confusion which were invoked by the dreaded bug.
Around that same time, films including Disney Channel’s Zenon: Girl of the 21st Century (1999) playfully imagined what digital technology (and outer space!) might be like in the future. The film left me in awe of the idea that people could be beamed into each other’s homes in ways that, in hindsight, resemble many energy-draining present-day video calls. For some people, or at least, a pre-teen and teenage me, the online world of the early 2000s was a source of much excitement for many reasons. However, there was always a sense that despite some digital spaces being sites of peace, play, and personal connections, being online also involved navigating many dangers. As the years rolled on, I found myself thinking about how who people are and others’ perceptions of them impacts their digital experiences. Specifically, I reflected on and subsequently researched some of the intricacies of the digital lives of Black women in Britain (Sobande, 2020).
In Spring 2020, when working on the concluding chapter of my book, The Digital Lives of Black Women in Britain, I was struck by the distinctly different digital and daily experiences that people were dealing with during the COVID-19 (coronavirus) pandemic. Not everyone had access to the internet, a computer, or a digital device that organisations were demanding be used to access essential information and services. Assumptions about people’s “home” environments and material conditions abounded, and, at times, political positions seemed to be performed via carefully curated bookshelves which perhaps revealed more about the practice of self-representation and idealised aesthetics than the person whose background they featured in. Since then, sweeping statements about the role of digital media and technology in the daily lives of “everyone” have obscured the realities of many people. Furthermore, such statements seed an unhelpful universalising framing of life during the COVID-19 pandemic, which denies how structural factors related to race, gender, class, and intersecting oppressions have resulted in the specific circumstances that different individuals have been facing during this time of crisis.
When trying to figure out what the closing thoughts and words shared in my book would be, I ended up reflecting on the politics of digital experiences amid the COVID-19 pandemic. Questions that I sat with included the following: Who is making themselves more visible online right now, without fearing the possibility of online harassment? How will people’s personal boundaries be maintained and tested? What will UK universities do to support structurally marginalised and minoritised students and staff whose online experiences may involve encountering racism, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, transphobia, colourism, Islamophobia, and other intersecting oppressions, including while learning and teaching? In the months that have followed, while some people have flippantly referred to the “pivot to online” strategies of institutions (e.g. healthcare, education, political, employers) and participated in such efforts in relatively unscathed ways, others have suddenly been expected to make themselves very visible online, without any indication of how institutions will support them if they encounter online abuse and harms.
Vital scholarship on Black cyberfeminism (Gray, 2015, 2020; McMillan Cottom, 2016), “Black women’s digital resistance” (Bailey, 2021), and the oppressive nature of algorithms (Noble, 2018) is central to my understanding of the structural challenges involved in Black women’s digital experiences, in addition to their creativity, collaboration, and innovation that is present too. Relatedly, although many institutions express an interest in protecting the privacy of people, including when using and storing their data online, very few institutions express an understanding of privacy that accounts for how it is shaped by inequalities and interlocking oppression such as the antiblackness, sexism, and misogyny (misogynoir) that Moya Bailey (2021) has extensively researched and written about. Thus, something that has stayed on my mind over the last year is the invasive expectations of institutions, and sometimes individuals, regarding access to private aspects of people’s lives, especially Black women, under the guise of “digital connection and community”.
As public discussions of the pandemic have surged since March 2020, so too have conversations concerning Black Lives Matter (BLM). However, few institutions appeared to join the dots between both. Crises do not exist in isolation. Institutions that were quick to issue their summer statements in support of BLM and have continually claimed to recognise that “we’re” experiencing a time of crisis which is far from “business as usual”, were also quick and consistent with the way that they pressured Black women to be hyper-visible online as part of their institutional response to both crises (COVID-19 and structural anti-Black racism). As such, when turning to social media and different digital spaces in pursuit of moments of play and peace in a personal capacity, some Black women have been met with the entitled messages of people who indignantly demand Black women’s engagement and who represent their lack of care for Black women’s boundaries as an alleged mere effort to self-educate by “reaching out”.
The boundaries between public and private lives have always been blurred, but since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic the encroachment on people’s private lives and personal spaces has been especially pronounced. Examples of this include institutions upping their monitoring of employees’ social media profiles and contacting them directly there in inappropriate ways, as well as individuals instructing others to “turn your camera on” and then making scrutinising and classist comments about what is or is not in the background of someone who appears on a video call. The personal safety and wellbeing of people is treated as an afterthought by institutions and individuals who insist on others making themselves visible online in ways that they are not comfortable with. There are a lot of reasons why people are cautious about becoming visible online, particularly if they are survivors of abuse and violence. Yet, I do not know of (m)any organisations that have carefully considered this when calling for people to “pivot to online” overnight, and when, assisted by digital technology, peering into the personal space of someone for whom it may not be safe to make visible.
Although digital culture can offer enriching enclaves and vital moments of connection, which are lifelines for people, such spaces can also home abusive hostility and expressions of entitlement. Digital experiences are raced, gendered, classed, and everything in between (Daniels et al., 2016). “Zoombombing” and other iterations of online harassment that predominantly involve the targeting of racialised people, particularly Black women, signals that digital peace and digital disruption is molded by white supremacy, antiblackness, sexism, and misogyny. Institutions’ expectations of “digital engagement” and “digital presence”, not only over the last year, often necessitate shades of self-disclosure and self-exposure that involve a considerable amount of risk for those who are most marginalised in society. Moreover, interconnected inequalities influence people’s experiences, or lack, of digital peace and privacy during the COVID-19 pandemic. The ascent of institutional messages that promote calls to “amplify Black women” and “listen to Black women”, but without responding to the dangers that Black women face when they are hyper-visible online, reflect the surface-level and self-serving ways that many organisations engage with Black women and their work.
While digital media and spaces can involve meaningful connections and conversations, the formation of transnational solidarity, as well as joyous forms of play and ephemeral feelings of peace, part of what makes that possible is the opportunity for people to explore different ways that they feel comfortable communicating with others and sharing who they are. As institutions continue to both directly and implicitly call for the increased online visibility of people, particularly Black women, there is a need for such institutions to take seriously the extent to which they are (or are not) respecting personal boundaries and tackling online abuse and oppressions.
Francesca Sobande is a Lecturer in Digital Media Studies at Cardiff University. She is the author of The Digital Lives of Black Women in Britain (Palgrave Macmillan, 2020) and her work has appeared in a range of publications including European Journal of Cultural Studies, Celebrity Studies, European Journal of Marketing, Marketing Theory, Television & New Media, and Communication, Culture & Critique.
Bailey, M. 2021. Misogynoir Transformed: Black Women’s Digital Resistance. New York. New York University Press.
Daniels, J., Gregory, K., and McMillan Cottom, T. (Eds.) 2016. Digital Sociologies. Bristol: Policy Press.
Gray, K. 2020. Intersectional Tech: Black Users in Digital Gaming. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press.
Gray, K. 2015. “Race, Gender, and Virtual Inequality: Exploring the Liberatory Potential of Black Cyberfeminist Theory”. In R.A. Lind (Ed.) Produsing Theory in a Digital World 2.0: The Intersection of Audiences and Production in Contemporary Theory – Volume 2, pp. 175–192. New York: Peter Lang.
McMillan Cottom, T. 2016. “Black Cyberfeminism: Ways Forward for Intersectionality and Digital Sociology”. In J. Daniels, K. Gregory, and T. McMillan Cottom (Eds.) Digital Sociologies, pp. 211–232. Bristol: Policy Press.
Noble, S.U. 2018. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: New York University Press.
Sobande, F. 2020. The Digital Lives of Black Women in Britain. Cham: Palgrave Macmillan.