Sometimes when I see fleeting references urging people/celebrities to “use their platform” on social media I see a singular image in my mind: that of John Cusack in Say Anything standing outside his love’s bedroom window, boombox above his head, Peter Gabriel playing as he does.
Cusack holding the boombox trying to get his lover’s attention and the hollow pleas for our entertainers to post us out of crisis: there they are, together, one and the same, rattling around in my cursed brain.
Apparently I think about this a lot (I don’t remember anything I’ve made) because this is a page from my book below that I largely still agree with - although I’m not sure I would call it “performed goodness” as much as I would something else, some new beast. Compulsory Posting as Proof of Morality, maybe, although that’s largely what I meant to begin with. But the idea here, that it’s used for sinister purposes, is equally true. What is so grating at times about the incessant demands for individuals to post correctly is the celebration or uncritical reception (although this is very much changing) of the entities, brands and such, that so bravely do take a “stand.” [If you want a stark example, see Ben & Jerry’s “We Must Dismantle White Supremacy” page that calls for an end to police brutality and the brand emphasis on “progressive values” while also making said ice cream in occupied territory—here’s from BDS: “In 2011, Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel began a discussion with Ben & Jerry’s in South Burlington, Vermont, concerning their long-standing contractual relationship with an Israeli franchise that manufactures ice cream in Israel proper and sells it in Israel settlements in the occupied West Bank and East Jerusalem. These settlements – fortified colonies for Jews only – contravene international law. Ben & Jerry’s knows this”.]
Naturally this leads me to the Meta Poster of our time, the man who holds posters he then posts, Dude With Sign. A while ago, I wrote about how much I hate Dude With Sign. You’ve maybe seen him around, although for whatever reason similar Signage Artists get more flack (balloon guy, assorted sign holders telling you a novel reason your normal desires are somehow corrupt, micro-analysis of vaguely annoying behavior and why it’s a mortal sin, etc) than he does. After all he is a Fuck Jerry project who has made the rounds on late night T.V. for boldly standing with his signs that tell Netflix we’re still watching, or whatever. It’s a totally devoid of meaning vessel that is ideal for brand partnerships and engagement pods to fawn over. But at the time I wrote about Dude With Sign I feel I made it deep in the wrong ways. I wanted him to be indicative of some moral failing, but it’s not really, just boring. I wanted there to be a good reason for my ire, but there simply isn’t one, because it isn’t specific to him.
The sort of hollow semiotic problem Dude With Sign poses (to me, I’m fine everyone) still resonates, particularly in who is asked to say what, and when. Sure, Dude With Sign says nothing of great import but—and yes I’m defending him holy shit—why does he need to? Take the flip side of what I wrote about in the original essay: “Almost everyone I know online (which is to say, mostly non-cis-men) have been messaged by strangers asking why they haven’t posted about this cause, or that crisis, as if 1) we don’t know and 2) people over a certain threshold of followers are inextricably bound to become spokespeople for… everything… irregardless of their actual knowhow.”
I’d add to this—people don’t necessarily have the resources to be speaking about...many things, especially to a large audience. Which is totally okay, why would we all be experts on everything, or even anything? But the pressure to SAY ANYTHING perhaps makes us all a bit more like Dude With Sign than we’d like to imagine. We desperately want to not be posting empty signage, to be talking about things that matter. To indicate caring by posting the right things at the right time, which is less contingent on “real” world events than it is the bubbling up of support that happens online like a wheel spinning. Ah yes, everything is chaos, this week it’s time for infographics about [spins wheel] this crisis.
Obviously this isn’t always true, often we’re reacting to “real” events. But one glaring issue is that so rarely are the events we are expected to post about on a given week ever confined to that time frame outside social media. The issues almost always predate and outlast the posting cycle, which makes the flurry of public support complicated.
It’s difficult to describe the sort of flailing and failing that happens in trying to Say Anything when speaking to more than one person at once—say, a couple thousand or hundred thousand strangers. What would likely seem like “simple posts of support” become microscopically scrutinized when posted, or not posted, by certain public facing people. The popular ones, the well-liked ones, or the irony-riddled ones, well they usually can truly Say Anything. But for everyone else, even standard sharing invites a swarm: people being upset about what they thought you meant, or for failing to include something they decided you needed to, of many people suddenly using you as a sign, an empty vessel, in which to launch their own, different version of things—using you and not the idea as the platform in which to spring from. Sometimes that feels fine, normal, how people communicate. Other times it just feels like a swamp of trying to Out Correct each other, the issue at hand submerged in social media semantics.
It’s curious how public facing entertainers of all sorts are encouraged—or trapped, maybe—into speaking on every issue, their “stances” coalescing into support for their existing work, while at the same time politicians post more and more like public facing entertainers, extricating themselves from blame altogether and obscuring their real world power by posting like newly awakened left-leaning tweens. Even bigger: you don’t have to scroll far to see the CIA or IDF chiming in with a sugary-sweet-tumblr-vibe-tweet to convince you war crimes are okay as long as they’re led by queer girl bosses, or something.
Which makes the demands we place on each other to speak out seem even more intense. Not because speaking out is inherently a bad thing, or hollow, or “performative” but because it seems for many, at least online, to create a simple and terrible equation: if you care, you post. If you don’t care, you don’t post. Perhaps the current issue will make it to the Instagram Feed and achieve a sort of pseudo-permanence, or maybe it’ll be a fleeting story or Fleet, gone within hours. Week to week the frenzy of “caring” as a discourse creates another terrible equation: that these are week-long issues. While none of these issues—Palestine, Covid in India, police brutality, anti-trans bills—are week-long issues, online they are flattened into seeming as such, not because people don’t care past that week, but because the speed of public conversation demands you post about the next thing over and over and over again. One post would never be enough, but social media pages are by nature not encyclopedic. Perhaps that is why so many (self included for a long time) try to make posts that matter, make an infographic, something that could be shared again and again—but does this help either?
It’s just a shitty paradigm to hold people to, to hold ourselves to. It is perhaps a new and warped version of putting people on pedestals, this time the ascent a compilation of their most succinctly worded or best-liked support tweets.
Subconsciously I suspect many of us feel at ease if our faves post about an issue we care about, or perhaps question if we love them quite as much if they fail to. (I’ve certainly done this, and still do, even if I’m aware of what’s happening.) I don’t know if this is net good or net bad, but I wonder how this changes our interactions with what they make. For what people make seems to be of increasing unimportance, while how they respond to what is made, to the world, to the news - is the barometer of whether or not we appreciate their presence.
And I worry too that the insistence influencers or celebs “use their platforms” i.e. SAY ANYTHING—and fixating on how well they do or don’t—undermines the ongoing, not-viral, beautiful solidarity taking place all the time, around the world:
Palestine Action @Pal_actionFire engines on the ground to assist police, but the Fire Brigade Union @LeicsFBU are intervening to prevent their members removing activists & enabling Israel's arms production in #Leicester. Solidarity with the #PalestineStrike now! https://t.co/vCMl9UDiYf
Here’s another excerpt from the original Dude With Sign screed:
Are we putting people on pedestals simply for speaking about our reality, our world, as if that’s enough? It speaks, perhaps, to the collective desire to make heroes out of nothing, too. To uphold nothingness. To resist engaging at all costs. To paint Greta Thurnburg on the side of a wall despite her repeatedly asking not to be made into an icon. To bow to painted Greta. To feel hope from consuming the absolutely empty image of supposed heroes instead of looking at the crisis itself.
I still think this is true, or parts of it. But I also wonder about the proliferation of empty signs—the Dudes with Signs—that seem to be saying something, the rise of this type of “art” amidst the increasing pressure on certain public people to Say Anything. More and more I see these types of signs. Not all of them are so literal, but the tone is always the same, whether it’s scolding us or reminding us that we are loved. In the turn of phrase written on pastel color gradients or cardboard or on a whiteboard or made of magnetic letters on a marquee-esque sign, everyone is giving us a guidepost about how to feel, how to treat ourselves and others, and all saying these at once.
Many of them conflict with each other, or if not, become a litany of fairly obvious phrases now retold to us as novel wisdom. What are any of them saying? Increasingly, and especially since taking more time off social media, when I return to these posts I find myself wondering what we mean by anything, what words mean, how easily we can say phrases as if they mean the same thing to everyone, how buzzwords can make a bad argument seem legitimate. And ultimately we must know the signs themselves are truly empty: it’s the person holding it that matters. People we follow are no longer people, they are placed on a pedestal by virtue of having a following, a swell of metrics used to indicate their supposed capacity to speak justly on world events though they likely got attention for being hot. Which sign holders do we listen to? Which do we scoff at? Is it really about how they’re saying things, or for how the person saying it seems to us, how it feels to publicly associate with them, to post their posts back to our own micro-audiences? They must not be people, they are our modern day Gurus, guiding us through the troubled times, telling us how to live, how to feel, how to love, how to care. They are our speakers, through them we indicate what we want to say without ever having to say it. The irony of doing this to people we are fans of is that it makes them less human, instead more static and statuesque. (Did you know I love statues? Ask me about Pygmalion.)
I’ve written about this a lot before. Here’s an excerpt from a newsletter about powerful public women:
Holding people as an emblem for everything, looking to them as your heroes, is dehumanizing—and flattens people on both sides: a big mass of stans, or the forever perfect idol incapable of doing wrong. People are fallible. To assume otherwise is absurd. Perhaps the obsession with protecting the moral integrity of celebrities is why “cancel culture” feels so loud even when it’s not a thing. Celebrities aren’t perfect. Fuck, celebrities have terrible opinions on most everything. They are just beautiful and famous and loud. We can love their work and also recognize they should not be the political voice of our times.
When I started writing this rant (hello thank you for reading if you still are) I very much thought these ideas were disparate—asking influencers to Say Anything and the emptiness of Internet Sign Art culture. But oh, oh my, do I see now they are connected, that this empty signage is part and parcel of contemporary online culture, and how that plays into an overall desire for all public figures—irregardless of whether they are entertainers or politicians—to have a clearly articulated stance on all issues, at all times. Even if it says nothing—perhaps especially if it says nothing.
Not because of what this might indicate about them, but for how it allows us, as consumers increasingly concerned with consuming correct content from morally unimpeachable creators, to feel okay about continuing to share them and like them openly. For if they posted wrong [according to who angrily DMs you about it]...our interest in what they created must cease, for our own sake.