It’s been a tumultuous week in America, filled with burning Targets, unhelpful celebrity responses, and valid black anger in response to centuries of suffering. But this morning, I woke up to a new trend that quickly and very obviously became a large sham—the #blackouttuesday challenge.
The concept is simple: post a simple black square and caption it #blacklivesmatter and #blackouttuesday to show solidarity. On paper, the concept makes sense—what better way to showcase widespread solidarity than to fill everyone’s social media with the same unrelenting hashtag? But the problem isn’t with the intent—it’s the impact.
As of the morning of June 2nd, most of the #blacklivesmatter hashtag is filled to the brim with black squares. This is extremely harmful; what used to populate the #blacklivesmatter hashtag were details on how best to protect yourself in the riots, links to bail funds, and informational posts about local black businesses to support. But now, all of these posts have been pushed out in favor of the blackout.
Attention economy, or the “‘bottleneck of human thought’ that limits both what we can perceive in stimulating environments and what we can do,” according to the Berkeley Economic Review, is essentially the amount of information that people can intake at any one given moment. In 2020, social media capitalizes on this; it’s why the entire practice of social media-specific marketing exists. On Instagram, the space you occupy on both someone’s timeline and the hashtags they interact with is attention economy at its finest, which makes the clogging of these hashtags all the more damaging.
When many of my mutuals realized this, they began to advocate for changing these captions from #blacklivesmatter to conversative hashtags like #trump2020 and #makeamericagreatagain. Their intention was simple: by blocking conservative hashtags from viewing relative information, conservatives would have to confront the Black Lives Matter movement. While this, once again, seems to be productive in theory—after all, wouldn’t inconveniencing conservatives on their hashtags offset the damage done to the #blacklivesmatter hashtag?—the argument falls apart once examined outside of its vacuum.
To go back to the concept of attention economy, the effectiveness of bombarding a hashtag heavily relies upon the subject matter of said hashtag. The more serious and necessary a hashtag is, the more damaging these blackouts become. Before conservative hashtags were overridden with black squares, most of what populated these hashtags were conservative memes. Did they carry a dangerous ideology? Yes. Is removing them from the hashtag completely removed from positive impact? Of course not. But this is a false equivalence; populating these two hashtags couldn’t be any different. One set of hashtags, once populated, caused conservative people to lose a space to see memes. Annoying, yes, but certainly not something that is important to conservatives right now. They can always view memes at a later point, or just go on Twitter or Reddit instead. On the other hand, the takeover of the #blacklivesmatter hashtag has culminated in the destruction of resources and information that would have been vital to rioters, protesters, and those at home. For many, the #blacklivesmatter hashtag was a hub of valuable information.
And that’s at the heart of this, really. Impact will always remain more important than intent. Even if the black squares were posted with the best intentions—I’m positive that no one who posted a black square intended to silence black men and women, trans and cis, who desperately require #blacklivesmatter for a level of centralization surrounding their movements—they ultimately served only to kick back against the movement. This is neoliberal nonsensicality at its finest: a focus on the destruction of conservative ideology without any thought given to the detrimental impact on black communities.
Currently, the largest petition concerning George Floyd is at 11,778,706 signatures. On Instagram, the #blackouttuesday hashtag has 24,071,314 signatures. That’s a deficit of 12,292,608 signatures minimum.
When harmful trends like these forego relaying actual, tangible change under the guise of raising awareness, the actual impact could not be any more harmful; there is nothing good that comes out of this. We are one week into the largest unified set of riots in the 21st century. If awareness is to be raised, it must be done so economically, sharing its space on the timeline alongside real resources that will help people better understand Black Lives Matter and the protests. Real solidarity is allowing black people to have access to the resources and information that will help them, not creating an ocean of empty posts interfering with the conversations to be had. These are not conversation starters.
Delete your black square. Post information and resources that spread actual awareness. Don’t sacrifice your contribution to the attention economy. Black Lives Matter.
By Kenneth Kim