Digital Storytelling As Resistance
On Gossip, Rumors & Emotional Archiving
“What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.”
- Muriel Rukeyser
Gossip is Power
Ronald de Sousa, a Canadian philosopher, writes in his chapter, In Praise of Gossip: Indiscretion as a Saintly Virtue: “Gossip has been the object of much malicious talk. But then, so have all forms of power—and gossip is power” (Goodman & Ben-Ze-Ev, 25).
Gossip and rumors are often conflated when they shouldn’t be. The first can be considered informal chatter amongst like-minded people, while the latter is typically a falsified narrative shared to whomever, whenever, and wherever. Both have power, though. According to Dr. Karen C. Adkins’ research on the etymology of “gossip,” “The word ‘gossip’ derives from old English’s ‘god sibb’ or ‘god-related,’ a relative or close friend of the family, someone who could act in a parental or guiding role, should the parents die… In short, originally, to be a gossip was simply to be a confidant, someone who was a trusted close companion” (Adkins, 274). According to Adkins, the vilification of gossip only started in the eighteenth century.
Storytelling and gossip are interconnected. Women’s stories were (and still are to a degree) referred to as “gossip.” This gives these stories a tone of frivolity. Gossip was only given a bad rap by those in power (specifically white men), because they didn’t want (or care) to understand it–and because, of course, they deemed anything women did as small and unimportant. Citing the work of sociologist Jorge R. Bergmann, Dr. Karen C. Adkins writes, “...the reason why women (and old people, and working-class people) get saddled with the pejorative of ‘gossips’ is that gossiping is (was) done by the working classes, by the (female) domestic servants, about the upper classes (their masters)” (Adkins, 44). Adkins is clear to say this is problematic since it assumes people with/in power don’t gossip, which is obviously untrue.
Everybody gossips; the difference is the way in which marginalized groups have utilized gossip as a form of oral, written, and digital resistance through the inquiry and dissemination of information.
Much has been studied and written about gossip and the reclamation of it. In Dr. Maryann Ayim’s oft-cited essay, Knowledge Through The Grapevine: Gossip as Inquiry, she writes ”I believe that women frequently do use gossip, as well as other vehicles, to perpetuate the very norms that disadvantage them. Given the obvious danger posed to those in positions of power by powerless people grouping and talking together, the uneasiness surrounding such talk is readily understandable” (Goodman & Ben-Ze-Ev, 94). Ayim discusses how the stories we tell can be quite damaging to others–specifically those in power. For this reason, she writes, “Black slaves were not permitted to converse in their African languages by American slave owners” (Goodman & Ben-Ze-Ev, 95). Even today, we see the ways in which white people try to enter Black digital storytelling spaces (i.e. Black Twitter) to either eavesdrop or co-opt the language (AAVE) used.
Queer femme creatrix, Karina Hagelin, writes in their thesis, “Gossip is a site of resistance, productive power, and platform for sharing experiences for marginalized communities, especially survivors of sexual and interpersonal violence, who are denied access to traditional information institutions.”
When I think of #MeToo, I see how these stories, often referred to as “just gossip” by conservative media, are locations of resistance and transformation for survivors of sexual violence. Hagelin continues:
…when we are actively and historically excluded from traditional information institutions, such as the media, our education system, and political sphere, it can become one of our only and last resorts for not only resistance–but sharing life-saving information with each other.
The ways in which all genders may utilize the power of gossip to spread pertinent information across the globe is an important part of digital activism and community.
The telling of the story can be done for a variety of reasons. Whether to shed light on something, to gain more visibility on an issue, or to just get something off your chest. We tell stories to relate to one another–to be in community with each other. However, sharing stories of trauma or hardship can often revictimize the storyteller. How many women who added to the #MeToo tag felt retraumatized afterwards? Were they able to seek help if they needed it? How many trolls who joined in on this hashtag further harmed survivors? Do the digital displays of solidarity outweigh the harm of revictimization? I can’t answer these questions, but I can say that being able to tell your own story on social media is empowering for many of us.
Cataloging Stories a.k.a. Hashtag Activism
Hashtags not only catalog stories, but they also act as emotion archives, like in the case of #MeToo, #BeenRapedNeverReported, and #ShoutYourStatus (an STI+ tag that I co-created). Trauma doesn’t fit into 140 characters; trauma rarely “fits'' anywhere since it’s so vast and varied. As someone who has contributed to more than one viral traumatic hashtag, it feels a bit like you’ve had hot coffee spilled over your heart. The burn is slow and excruciating, and you question why you did it. Yet another layer of victim-blaming.
Of course the answer to why you added to the hashtag and why you decided to open yourself raw on the internet is, for most of us, to be heard. Telling the story may bring about another round of trauma, but we do it to reclaim what happened to us. We do it so others who’ve gone through similar things know we’re out there. Our stories won’t get told the way they deserve to be if we aren’t the ones to do it.
Digital storytelling has the potential to build community online, but more so, it has the potential to build community offline. I write later about the difficulties of community-building as someone with a large following, and how this is more of a parasocial relationship with an audience (following) and performer (content creator/leader). However, if you are someone online with a modest amount of followers and you engage in digital storytelling, finding or creating online community can certainly happen. For example, I have witnessed online community-building occur amongst survivors of sexual violence. I have witnessed online micro-communities finding each other offline in their specific locales. The way in which digital storytelling can be used as solidarity, community-building, and even platonic meet cutes is exciting. Storytelling online allows for increased visibility and support around issues affecting marginalized communities. We can then take this work offline in our own communities.
After I added to the #MeToo tag, I received vitriol in public, but also in my direct messages. I actually had a conversation with one guy who messaged me. I asked him why he was doing what he was doing. What was the point of it? He simply responded: “I dunno. I guess I’m just bored before work.” When boredom is your reason for harassing someone online, you clearly have some issues to sort out on your own. It’s also just par for the course of white male entitlement and white male rage. Anytime they feel their existence is under threat, which, let’s be real, seems to be a lot these days, they react by using their arsenal of antiquated tactics.
The good and bad of digital storytelling (and archiving) is that people can add to the living “document” at any given time. It’s public sharing of deeply personal matters, and a survivor can be revictimized over and over and over again. What was once said in private, in-person conversations, now happens as a public-viewing spectacle on social media. And while, yes, people can simply scroll on by, many trolls decide not to unfortunately. Just like in our offline worlds, our personal stories may also be questioned or attacked online. The difference with this being done online is the frequency and rate at which you have people coming after you—and the potential of thousands of heinous things you might end up reading. Something I often question is: do people who add to a viral hashtag understand the potential ramifications of this? Do we know what we’re getting ourselves into?
Will we ever be able to tell our stories without fear of trolling and harassment?
If you feel comfortable sharing, what has your experience been like sharing your personal stories on the internet? How do you keep yourself safe?