While the intended use of most social media platforms is to connect and communicate with others, the affordances of social media have allowed it to be used for so much more. Meikle’s definition of social media is “networked database platforms that combine public with personal communication” (6). Perhaps one of the greatest things the affordances of “public communication” has done on these social media platforms, is allowed people to bring protest and social activism online. It is rare to spend a day on any social media platform without coming across some form of social activism. One of the most prominent protests online today is the Black Lives Matter Movement. While this movement can be found all over the internet, one of the places it is very prominent is the social media platform Tumblr. Tumblr has allowed people to peacefully protest in order to bring about offline change on an online platform (Clark et al. 13). Tumblr’s interactive affordances enable prosumers to engage with online activism and bring the Black Lives Matter movement to global attention.
According to Gibson, “affordances are the possibility that something offers for an action.” While Gibson’s definition of affordances is intended to be exclusively for living organisms, Hutchby takes this definition and argues that ‘things’, environments and artefacts, can also have affordances (443). Tumblr has many different affordances which allow its prosumers (producers/consumers) (Jurgenson and Ritzer 14) to use the platform in many different ways.
One of Tumblr’s greatest affordances is the hashtag. Some other affordances of Tumblr include user profiles, uploading photos and text posts, reblogging, messaging, trending post, and the ability to follow other blogs. Theses affordances have all been vital to helping the Black Lives Matter movement to become as big as it is today.
Prior to taking off as a movement in 2014 (Clark et al. 5), Black Lives Matter started out as a hashtag on Twitter before it became big on other social media platforms. The hashtag, created in 2013 by Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi, came about after the Trayvon Martin case highlighted how black people were being unjustly targeted as a result of white supremacy (Garza, 1). The hashtag was created with the intended purpose of connecting those who wanted to learn more about and fight against racism and inequality towards people of colour (5). Since the Trayvon Martin case, #blacklivesmatter has been used after big events such as the Fergusson protests and the Michael Brown murder and as a response to all other injustices towards people of colour. Along with the #blacklivesmatter on Tumblr, the black lives matter movement has also inspired other hashtags to arise such as #handsupdontshoot, #hoodiesup #wearetrayvonmartin #noangel and #iftheygunnedmedown in relation to specific events (Yarima, Bonilla, and Jonathan, Rosa 8).
While the #blacklivesmatter hashtag has been used in response to many different events of horrific inequality towards people of colour, it has played a huge role in bringing police brutality in America into the spotlight (Clark et al. 7). Clark et al. state that “BLM’s high visibility and success in eliciting elite responses have positioned it at the centre of the national conversation on police misconduct.” This success of the hashtag is due to the affordances of the social media platforms in which it is used. Tumblr’s affordance of has hashtags has made people far more aware of police brutality and is creating global conversation around the issue.
The Tumblr hashtag allows all posts using the same hashtag to be grouped together. This also means that the number of posts using the same hashtags can be counted and can then become a trending topic if enough people are talking about them. As posts with the same hashtag can be grouped together, this affordance of Tumblr allows the hashtag to act as an organisation tool and also as a kind of search engine enabling relevant topics to be searched using a hashtag (Barnes 1). The #blacklivesmatter hashtag has allowed the movement to become a trending topic worldwide on many different social media platforms including Tumblr, bringing it to a global awareness.
While many different people use Tumblr for different reasons, Tumblr has become known as the place for “social justice warriors” or “SJWs” (Turner 4). It is likely that one of the reasons Tumblr has become such an important platform for protest and social activism are the affordances of Tumblr’s user profiles. Unlike other social media platforms, Tumblr has a greater sense of anonymity. A user’s profile can be called anything they would like and users do not have to include their name or any other personal information.
This anonymity that Tumblr gives it follows, allows people to create their own identity. Because users are not engaging solely with people that they know, this gives them the ability to be who they are and share how they feel in a more accepting environment (Safronova). People using the #blacklivesmatter hashtag, are able to find people who share their beliefs of racial inequality and use Tumblr’s affordances to state their thoughts and feelings about the issue, back each other up and bring the movement to a more public attention without feeling judged or unsafe. Because of these affordances, users feel that they are not alone in their thoughts and are part of a community without having to disclose any personal information about themselves.
Another way that Tumblr keeps the user anonymity is by using a follower system instead of a friend system like on Facebook. This means that Tumblr users can communicate with one another both publicly and privately without knowing one another and without exposing their personal identities. Because of this follower mode, it is also much easier for people to create an online community. This is because they can find and follow a blog that they identify with without having to request permission from the host or send a friend request like on many other social media platforms. (Larson and Meredith)
These affordances around privacy and anonymity allow people to peacefully protest in a much safer space. It also allows prosumers to create a much broader network of like-minded people to engage in discussion with. This creates an establishment of wide communities of users with shared beliefs. This means that the movement then spreads as it becomes more and more talked about and is brought to global attention.
Another reason that Tumblr is a great platform for activism is that all of the different types of content it affords people to engage in/with. Tumblr enables people to blog and reblog media in all different forms including photos, art, text, videos, gifs, and music. (Safronova) As a result of Tumblr allowing its users to engage in these various forms of media, it helps people to get their message across in a form that they identify best with.
When searching the hashtag #blacklivesmatter on Tumblr all sorts of various forms of media pop up. The text posts, images, gifs, and art that come up are all extremely different but all fighting for the same cause and all connected using the same hashtag. As a result of this, it allows the movement to reach people with different interests. People who have an interest in art and follow mostly art blogs on Tumblr will come across #blacklivesmatter as the versatility of the Tumblr platform affords people the ability to bring the movement to so many different individuals.
It should also be noted that there are not many things that cannot be uploaded to Tumblr. While a lot of the #blacklivesmatter content on Tumblr can be uncomfortable, it is so important in making people aware of how big of an issue racial inequality is and how much it affects those subjected to it. Videos of police brutality and violence are constantly shared around Tumblr forcing users to be aware of what is going on and be unable to ignore it. On other social media platforms, posting this sort of thing may go against the “social norms” of that platform or may not be allowed to be posted at all or be taken down. Tumblr affords its users the ability to post these harder-to-see but more influential posts in order to create awareness and bring about change.
As stated before; Hutchby’s definition of affordances is that things can offer the possibility of action, and this is true in Tumblr’s case. Tumblr affords many possibilities for action especially in terms of social activism and online protest (443). The many affordances of Tumblr have allowed the Black Lives Matter movement to be talked about on a global scale. Tumblr has afforded this not only through the use of the #blacklivesmatter hashtag but also through its many other affordances which allow it to be such a great platform for online activism. Tumblr differs from other social media platforms as it allows its users a sense of anonymity, safety, and the ability to use and mix many different forms of media to share the black lives matter the message. It also allows users to share the kind of content that will get people talking which may not be allowed on other social media platforms. While injustices towards people of colour, such as police brutality, continue to occur, it is clear that from the use of social media platforms such as Tumblr, people are beginning to become more aware of the issue. By creating a global conversation on these social media platforms, users are aiming to bring about change and justice.
Barnes, Shana. “Affordances of Hashtags in Social Networking”, New Ways to Communicate Online, BlogSpot, 2011, http://newwaystocommunicatecmc.blogspot.co.nz/2011/09/affordances-of-hashtags-in-social.html
Clark, Meredith D, et al. Beyond the Hashtags. #Fergusson, #Blacklivesmatter, and the online struggle for offline justice, Centre for Media and Social Impact, 2016
Garza, Alicia. “A Herstory of the #BlackLivesMatter Movement”, 2014
Hutchby, Ian. “Technologies, Texts and Affordances”, Sage Journals, 35, no. 2, 2001
Jurgenson, Nathan and Ritzer, George. Production, Consumption, Prosumption: The nature of capitalism in the age of the digital ‘prosumer’
Larson, Kyle and Meredith, Taylor. “Why Tumblr?”, Researching Tumblr Feminism, WordPress, https://researchingtumblrfeminism720.wordpress.com/why-tumblr/
Meikle, Graham. Social media; communication, sharing and visibility. First Edition, Routledge, 2016
Safronova, Valeriya. “Millennials and the Age of Tumblr Activism”, New York Times, 2014, https://www.nytimes.com/2014/12/21/style/millennials-and-the-age-of-tumblr-activism.html?mcubz=1)
Turner, Michael. “Structures of Participation and Contestation”: Publics and Protest on the Tumblr Dashboard. George Washington University, 2016
Yarima, Bonilla, and Jonathan, Rosa. “#Ferguson: Digital protest, hashtag ethnography, and the racial politics of social media in the United States”. Journal of the American Ethnological Society, 42, no. 1, 2015, pp. 8