Saturday, September 29, 2012

Social Justice Warriors

I've been asked to do a post on what's known as SJW, or social justice warriors, on Tumblr. I have to admit from the get-go that my knowledge on what the SJW is/does is pretty limited. And so, like many cultural phenomenon I'm intrigued by, I turn to Urban Dictionary to give me a hand here:
A pejorative term for an individual who repeatedly and vehemently engages in arguments on social justice on the Internet, often in a shallow or not well-thought-out way, for the purpose of raising their own personal reputation. A social justice warrior, or SJW, does not necessarily strongly believe all that they say, or even care about the groups they are fighting on behalf of. They typically repeat points from whoever is the most popular blogger or commenter of the moment, hoping that they will "get SJ points" and become popular in return. They are very sure to adopt stances that are "correct" in their social circle.

The SJW's favorite activity of all is to dogpile. Their favorite websites to frequent are Livejournal and Tumblr. They do not have relevant favorite real-world places, because SJWs are primarily civil rights activists only online.
That was the only given definition on Urban Dictionary so unfortunately I haven't gotten one that paints a better representation of their actions. Though this site, Fanlore, gives a little more description.

In short, SJW is kind of a complicated term. It's both a pejorative and and a compliment, having good intentions at heart perhaps but rather harmful ways of conveying them, and not every SJWer is the same - some actually support what they are saying, others are just operating as trolls.

An image illustrating different thought forums on Tumblr - and a user's comment

This is where things with Tumblr start really getting complicated. For many, Tumblr is a great place for people to talk about issues they couldn't talk about with others face to face, don't feel comfortable addressing in society, or have no means of discussing in the world around them. And thus an online community filled with like-minded individuals discussing the same topics seems to be the perfect sphere for this.

But of course, it's the internet and, like the world around us, it is filled with the exact same problems as our non-cyber lives, perhaps in even more complicated ways because of mediation of text and images and anonymity, publicity/privacy, and copyright issues. It also seems that the internet allows for a wider expression of emotions that are concealed in our everyday lives (shown in fansquees' strong emotional actions expressed online to events in their favorite shows or activities of their favorite celebrities, and by social justice commentators in their strong reactions to each other's opinions). This is more of an observation on my part than a stated fact, but something I think is a prominent attribute to parts of the internet that focus in expression and forums (Facebook, Tumblr, LiveJournal, etc). Both a positive and a negative quality, this makes the internet even more complicated. For one thing, it's wonderful that people can allow themselves to feel a full range of emotions rather than whatever may be deemed publicly appropriate in our non-cyberspace lives. But at the same time, it seems that the lines between expressing oneself and remembering that other people are doing the same get rather blurred and often this erupts into controversy and unkind words. Bringing politics into the arena just adds an extra trigger for this sort of expression. I did some searching for exactly this but wasn't able to find much (social justice posts aren't exactly going to tag themselves as social justice or SJW, after all). However, I did find some postings on people reacting to SJW actions:

And this:

I also found this post, less about SJW but more about Tumblr itself and how quickly it changes:

Not the entire post - just what I found the most interesting and what I could manage to get for a screenshot

The idea of Tumblr being ahead of academia because of how fast it generates ideas is really fascinating. I am continually overwhelmed by how many posts can be generated in a day. With the ability to hit the "reblog" button, ideas can be spread around rapidly - whether they're accurate or not. For example, I saw something going on last week about Mitt Romney doing "brown face" at a event for Hispanic voters, with photos and video footage suggesting that he had painted his face as a ploy to "support" a certain demographic of voters. People were of course calling this racist and outraged that he would do this and claiming you could see the line on his chin or neck where the face paint stopped and his actual flesh tone began, but I never heard a word of this on any other media forum. Despite the alleged "video footage" (which I didn't watch and now that I can't find the posts, regret I didn't) I'm inclined to think it was tampered with by a savvy internet user. And yet no one on the post thus far had called fowl and mentioned that maybe, just maybe, this was fake. An image like this could generate thousands of page views in a matter of minutes and influence a number of people's opinions on Romney. Now, I'm no fan of Romney myself, but I don't think he would do this. Actually, I don't think any American politician in their right mind would do this. (Unfortunately, Romney did actually say the thing about it being necessary for airplane windows to roll down. I really hope that entire instance was a mangled attempt at a joke, because otherwise my entire "no politician would ever do this" idea is going to be weakened a great deal.)

And thus, Tumblr is sort of a maelstrom, a perfect storm between efficiency, emotionality, and expression for it to be both incredibly effective and incredibly dangerous. It is powerful, and I think that is greatly overlooked in academia due to the lack of study on it (seriously, all I can find about Tumblr is "how to market your business with blogging" or "how to use social networking." I find it hard to believe that no one's done a serious study of this network...) Because unlike Facebook, when you post an opinion about something, not only your friends can see it, but the entire world. However, unlike other blogs, it can be shared with one simple click of a button. And, unlike Twitter, Google searches show these posts like one would show links to a website. It is incredibly baffling - it passes by with no more relevance than the typical forum website to some, a useless technology to others, and nothing more than a porn site to far too many college boys (which makes mentioning I have a Tumblr to one of my friend's roommates incredibly awkward). But it also a blogging site, an escape from the mundane for some, a way to talk about problems amongst understanding followers, and a source of sharing fandom appreciation.

It's no wonder after nearly ten months of using Tumblr, I still don't understand it.

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