Can you iChat social change?

By Daisy Hernandez Aug 10, 2007

This month in ColorLines Magazine, Daisy Hernandez explores media consumption habits in communities of color. **** I don’t read blogs. It feels like something I should whisper to a priest in a confessional booth. I could make the sign of the cross and blurt out: “I don’t watch television. I’ve only been on YouTube once. I don’t own a cell phone that has…a keyboard.” In this age of digital everything and gluttonous amounts of information, we have more choices than ever. I’ve got my pick of blogs from white geeks and sassy Latinas to Internet sites for the old-school Primer Impacto, a Spanish-language TV show. I’ve got a newsletter on immigration issues from Minnesota and forwarded emails from friends about racial justice, reproductive rights and gay marriage. I can skim a newspaper online and in one scroll read that thousands are now dead in Iraq and that in local news Naomi Campbell was found guilty of throwing a cell phone at her maid (I bet it had a keyboard). So how do we choose our media? How do we get our news? Lots of people are concerned about this issue, and I’m not talking about Wall Street duds, the folks making new gadgets at Apple or the magazine editors running after the next millenial trend. How people choose their media outlets is an important question for anyone doing social justice work. What you do only goes so far if people don’t hear about it. But can we really Ichat our way to political change? Maybe. With all the information available to us, people are creating personalized media systems. These days, we yank data from instant messaging, podcasts and blogs and call that “information.” You call a friend from the nail place to say you just heard about a good movie and your friend texts her five closest friends. We Ichat about a magazine article we read last night while biking at the gym. We finish reading a book and then Google it, posting the details on our blogs. Having the power to tune in to what you want is especially significant for communities of color. Even with fewer resources and institutional racism against us, we can stay connected these days. In case you missed it, last year kids didn’t hear about the immigration protests over their school loudspeakers—they got it on myspace and as text messages. Their parents heard about it the old-school way: on the radio. The point, then, isn’t that one medium is usurping another. It’s that different people are going to use different methods to create a media system that suits them. **** Just how do we create our own media systems? Most of us have it but don’t know it. A good friend of mine ended up in the hospital last year. She couldn’t get Internet in the room, and she refused to pay for cable TV. In less time than it would have taken to IM me, she had been reduced to the New York Times and local TV outlets. She was devastated. Without her blogs, her forwarded emails and her listserves, she was at a loss. “No wonder this country is fucked up,” she said. “This is all tnews that middle America gets.” I doubt it. People who blog are not the only ones getting the information about the next big thing. My parents aren’t middle America, but they are middle immigrant America. They live in South Florida, land of Christian Republicans and Fidel-obsessed Cubans. They get news from word-of-mouth and TV shows that highlight the best independent films coming out of Cuba. If they wanted to, they could give me information about the island and Latin America that would take me an hour to find on Google. Just because people aren’t iChatting doesn’t mean that information’s not moving in our communities. My auntie’s another one living in middle immigrant America. She reads the local papers and watches TV. But before I saw anything in the mainstream press about the spike in suicide among Latina teenagers, she was telling me about the kid that jumped out a window and killed herself in the neighborhood. I consider my family to be part of my personal media system. Am I using all my personal connections to further my own media work? Yes, and it’s not limited to them. With information coming at me every day, I’ve learned to maximize my use of who knows what in my life. That is, every one in my world is plugged into a key subject area. When I need information on child welfare, I email my sister, a social worker. Want tips on the latest Japanese anime? I reach out to my cousin in Colombia via Gmail. I rely on one friend for her forwarded emails on reproductive rights and a colleague for this week’s stupidest racist comment from a public official. But I don’t just use people’s individual knowledge. Like most folks nowadays, I use listserves. When I was doing reporting on queer activism in people of color communities, I found a listserve for queer Muslims. It’s the best of both TV and blogs: information comes to you. You can just sit back and wait. What about people, though, who avoid media? Yes, we need to talk about something that especially concerns people of color: bad news saturation. Perhaps nothing else has affected media in our communities more than this. One of my ex-girlfriends, for example, is a tech geek who’s not interested in tnews. It’s so dreary. So boring. She already knows the world is terrible. Why get the details? So, how does a Black woman like her keep up on the last election? “I watched the Daily Show,” she said, referring to the popular show on cable TV. “I need my news through a filter of satire and humor.” Another friend told me that she sees injustice every day in her life as a Latina. Why read about it, or worse, watch it on the cable? She’d rather pick up a good novel or watch a film with her children. Besides, if tnews is that bad—like the Black man getting shot by cops before his bachelor’s party—she’ll hear about it from friends. In a world where killing within and outside our borders seems to be on the rise, personal media systems are a buffer zone. When Katrina struck, I refused to watch it on TV. Having watched the airplanes hitting the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, I knew that the instant replay only got me one thing: repeated nightmares. I recently talked to a Mexicana journalist who had said something similar. Like me, she used to wake up to radio news. Since Sept. 11, she listens to jazz. **** Once I learned to speed read and also to manipulate—I mean network—my personal and professional connections in pursuit of my personal media system, I could actually step back and go deeper with things that mattered to me. These include magazine stories in print, audio books and cell phone conversations with friends across the country. I like the luxury of browsing through local newspapers online where there’s always something political happening that doesn’t make it into the mainstream press. And with my little system in place, I can have the benefit of browsing gay activist websites from places like Mississippi and Mexico. Despite my speed reading and personal media system, I don’t do the blogs. We all have our limits. I also don’t text message. Or at least, I didn’t. Nothing seemed more annoying than standing at a bus stop listening to a brown girl scream into her cell phone, “Can you hear me? Text me, ok? You hear me? Text me!” I swore that I’d never send a text message. I prided myself on being above that. But then, I fell in love. Suddenly, I couldn’t scramble through my cell phone’s keypad quickly enough to type: Luv u… U up? Call me! Finally, a Sprint/Nextel operator told me the truth. “You’ve sent 20 text messages in the last two days. Do you want to sign up for a plan?” Her question reminded me of a key component to creating a personal media system: I move on need and desire. I hadn’t needed to text before. All those kids last year who texted each other about the immigration protests had long been using the text feature. They had to. How else do you communicate while the teacher’s talking? But I still don’t want blogs, myspace or YouTube. The single time I wanted YouTube was to check out reggaeton music star Ivy Queen’s music video. It was a few weeks before the site blew up in the media, so I wasn’t surprised when it happened. YouTube’s the epitome of what you can do today with media, of how desperate we are for connection and information on our own terms. I tuned in to YouTube to watch a really bad video that someone had made by videotaping the Ivy Queen video on their TV. I wasn’t about to shell out money to find a real quality video, so in two seconds I had want I wanted. Pathetic but powerful. Daisy Hernández is Managing Editor of ColorLines.