The Politics of Visibility

by Eunsong Kim

This position paper is a development of a previous article I wrote for Model View Culture, titled: “The Politics of Trending.”

Every time CNN points to “Trending” in order to discuss breaking news, we should laugh. That is, laugh at: CNN, journalists, experts, the simulacra. Smirking at the notion that privatized, opaque institutions of selective coverage are working with other privatized, opaque institutions of selective timelines to define what’s public, what’s visible, what’s universal.

Intellectual, digital and digitized labor is important, and too often dismissed. This interrogation of visibility coverage and trending isn’t a critique of online activism and discourse. Rather, I want to examine the political pontification around “trending” and “tagging” — the politics of Twitter algorithms as “visibility” the bird’s eye commentary of “surprise” and “dismay” at certain trends, and ultimately, alternative discourses.  

The Crisis of Visibility

#Solidarityisforwhitewomen was a hashtag created by Mikki Kendall in August of 2013. The tag situated a structural critique of global north feminism and the oppressive dynamics underlying white feminist understandings of “empowerment” and “progress.” #Solidarityisforwhitewomen trended worldwide and generated a multitude of responses.

A noted critic of Kendall’s tag was journalist Michelle Goldberg who wrote a response titled, “Feminism’s Toxic Twitter Wars.” In the article, visibility is the central concern for Goldberg — not the critique of white supremacy within feminism — but the visibility of critique. Goldberg’s attachment to the exceptional nature of such visible tags is that they are exceptional, singular. In her view, critiques of white supremacy within feminism are exceptional concerns so they should receive limited visibility. However, irrespective of material outcome (ie funding) they have received exceptional attention — and this and only this, must be rectified.

While visibility might be a central focus for white feminist’s like Goldberg, visibility is not always the central objective for trans, women of color, or black feminisms. Goldberg’s concern for visibility might be better interpreted as a PR concern — her critique centrally focused on discussions of certain tags and the ‘toxic’ presence of black feminists. The underlying argument seemed to be: Feminism is tenuous as it is — the visibility it receives is hackneyed and deployed haphazardly. Why is the focus on the wrongdoings of white women? Concluding that truly, #solidarityisforwhitewomen.

Questions of visibility have previously and are currently been taken up by black and woc feminists. At the “We Cannot Live Without Our Lives: A Conversation on Anti-blackness, Trans Resistance and Prison Abolition” forum at University of California, San Diego, activist and artist Reina Gossett problematized the function of visibility for black trans women. Gossett articulated that particularly for black communities, “Visibility is a pillar of criminalization, not a tenant of liberation.” In conjunction, Grace Hong has argued in The Ruptures of American Capital, that “[F]or women of color feminist practice, visibility is a rupture, an impossible articulation.” Hong writes that while some have articulated invisibility as unnatural, “[S]o too, is visibility is unnatural; it is also a kind of violence…visibility is not inclusion, but surveillance.”

Visibility–while perhaps essential in the grab for legitimized forms of violence and power (state power, representational power, corporate power)–remains one condition of the expressions of structure. What’s visible is crucial because it’s the surface representation of structure. But as Gossett and Hong have pointed out, to be exposed and figured in the surface has its own severe and violent limits. Critics like Goldberg fixate on ‘what has become visible’ to protect representations linked to the privileges of the status quo, rather than tend to the ongoing damage of structural violence.  

The Algorithms of Visibility  

Panic driven by visibility is predictable. ZeynepTufecki  has argued that too often digital humanities or scholarship around the digital, “[R]arely goes beyond exploring big data as a hot, new topic and an exciting new tool, and rarely consider issues of power.” The “analyst” in focusing in on the function of technology, completely fails to discuss the structures and dynamics of power materialized every step of the way by this tech, the data and its users.  And so it holds that while trends are provoking of such dismay and surprise, are so formidable, so worthy of journalistic inquiry and coverage, there is little to no critical analysis of “trending” itself.

#Solidarityisforwhitewomen and #Gamergate garnered attention for trending. So what are the algorithms of visibility? If trends are so formidable, so important, so worthy of journalist inquiry and coverage, let’s look at the phenomena that’s being looked at, by critically defining “Trending”:

We STILL don’t know why something trends. The algorithm is a locked secret, a “black box” (to the point where MIT professors have built algorithms attempting to predict trending tags. Fun fact: the same team have built algorithms predicting bitcoin prices: these are their explicit interests and concerns). The Fineprint: Trending is visibility granted by a closed, private corporation and their proprietary algorithms. As Tufecki says, “Algorithms have consequences.”

1. The visible trending box is supposed to vary according to personal preference. There are algorithms for localized trends, “neutral” US trends, global trends, and other a la carte options. The Fineprint: The Algorithms can and should be adjusted according to personal preference–we want our reach to be individualized.  

2. The little bit of information the private developers have released is that a ‘trend’ is based on a very specific definition of ‘now’ and ‘new,’ that us users do not have access to this precise definition. The Fineprint: something cannot trend for too long, this isn’t their definition of a ‘now’ and ‘new’. This is why Ferguson failed to trend after a few days even though it was one of the most widely used hashtags — trending for a few days excluded it from the possibility of trending.

3. Concerns about why certain HTs don’t trend (ie #occupywallstreet #wikileaks or the various other #occupy’s) will lead Twitter developers to tell you that perhaps something is not as popular as you think it is. The Fineprint: trending is what they believe is popular, a paradoxical assertion: private formulas declaring what is most public and ‘new’.

Trending is visibility granted by the algorithms of a closed, private corporation— De-exceptionalize it!

To further illustrate how much we don’t understand why something trends, I used Topsy to provide me with analytics on the usage of #FreePalestine, and compared it to the various on going trendings tags. This experiment was prompted by users throughout last summer and this year, observing how  #KillAllMuslims trended recently but #FreePalestine has been unable to trend.

In addition I have catalogued the usage of #BlackLivesMatter consistently, and its “inability” to trend continuously–regardless of usage. Countless, one time “tags” with half the usages will “trend” –while #BlackLivesMatters’s conversation is fiercely ongoing, will not trend.  I encourage everyone to look up usage analytics, but I think you get the picture. Basically, #BlackLivesMatter should be trending everyday.

I bring this up to interrogate the current framing of visibility via trending, and to point to how the  “journalistic scholarship” around visibility and trending is utterly misinformed, misframed. The exceptional attention given to hashtag discourse by critics, news platforms and journalists — to what they perceive to be evidence of visibility — takes the focus away from the spaces created by gendered and racialized users, and rewrites it as a singular confrontation racialized/gendered users are having with white audiences within a white space. This rewriting positions trending tags to be isolated explosions. Though this is clearly their fixation, this fixation should not prevent us from recentering the persistent and ongoing labors involving disobedience, disturbance and cyborg mutations: alternative discourses.   

Rather than treating trending as an exceptional event of well-directed, or misdirected energy (that can be channeled for other, and better purposes!) — I am suggesting that it might be more fruitful to frame current trend algorithms as expressions of de-exceptional events, and to inquire into the idea of the “commons” –a space marked for public debate and protest–instead, so that we may support the tools (information transparency, anti-doxxing, privacy tools to start) users need to claim this ground.

To exceptionalize trending takes it out of the realm of the commons. A trend should not be of public and broadcast interest because it is exceptionally racialized, exceptionally gendered — but because it seems to seamlessly fit into and inside sets of opaque algorithms. In the commons, there are leaps of politicalized conversations in what was supposed to be an apolitical, private sphere. Trending highlights what they want us to see, what they’re allowing us to see. But the commons is bigger than their grasp, and linked in uncontrollable ways.

Post Script: As Twitter’s shares continues to plummet–perhaps DH scholars can begin experimenting with what mathematician Joel Nishimura has described as a: Technology Dividend. Nishimura argues that “new” technology is made up of research and development that comes out of public practice, research and tradition–and therefore, a “tech dividend” that “functions exactly as an unconditional basic income (Nishimura)” could and should be implemented. I am interested in Nishimura’s proposal in that it brainstorms a way the public, visible and illegible engagement might be compensated as research and development–in that it rupture previous economic models of tech developmen & research and in doing so, decenters visibility.

Eunsong Kim is a writer & educator residing in southern California. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Minnesota Review, LIT, Iowa Review, Seattle Review, Denver Quarterly, New Inquiry, and AAWW’s The Margins, amongst others. She is a Ph.D. candidate at UC San Diego in Literature.

[Image “Though Process” by flickr user cmiper]

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