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The feminist think piece industrial complex
/ by Chanelle Adams

I can’t keep up. The latest issue escapes me, and I'm unclear where I should stand on the newest trending debate. I feel full, tired, and queasy from over-consuming content, as I start each morning thumbing through my social media feeds.

Maybe this just makes me a bad feminist. Not precisely in the Roxane Gay sense, but in a I-am-drowning-in-media type of way. After four years in feminist media, I can say with certainty that I’m not the only one bloated by feminist fatigue.

In my commitment to anti-oppressive feminist work, it seems obligatory for me to stay in the know just to remain relevant to the struggle. I’ve positioned myself as a loaded spring, ready to snap at any moment. Without completely rejecting the ethos of scroll-thru feminism, I want to make space for us to think more critically about the way we use digital tools, and the pitfalls of snapback culture.

I wonder if the very work of Internet feminism that is heralded as boosting our communities is equally, if not more draining and unsustainable. By Internet feminism, I mean the innumerable think pieces cranked out on the daily, posing responses to almost everything, participating in something akin to a think piece industrial complex. The product: live, real-time, package-able, consumable content that asserts its importance as the foremost, priority issue to pay attention to– for now, that is.

The think piece industrial complex exploits the young and digitally-native, provoking those of us who are fed up, feminist, and accustomed to unpaid intellectual labor into snapping back on public forums. This organic tone of immediacy and frustration has been made into a reproducible product for click bait and ad sales. Each article's tagline claims to be more feminist and more urgent than the next. As it pluralizes feminism, it also threatens to dissolve the importance of community restoration and regeneration, and the need to slow down and reflect, in addition to snapping back.

I fear losing community vision and priority when outrage over the latest Katy Perry cultural appropriation receives just as much airtime as the extra-judiciary murder of black and brown bodies in the streets. By this function, the think piece industrial complex corners feminists into a voice that is always in response rather than in charge. (The meandering tone of the new journalism has been replaced by a tone of certitude and rebuttal. Isn’t it obvious in my writing, too?)

I wouldn’t have always described myself as “over it.” For the past four years, Internet feminism has been a portal of autonomy away from the geographic and social limitations of a college campus in New England. I used to find purpose and pride being up to date and informed by feminist bloggers. Insomnia was a small price to pay for soothing the loneliness and isolation I experienced in an institutional climate of rampant racism, sexism and classism. I could rattle off a day’s list of content, report on the latest Twitter debate and explain the genealogy of feminist memes. I joined the hive of Internet feminists, writing with fervor and immediacy about Beyoncé, the side-boob and the Grammys. I did so mostly because people I admired (and still do) were doing the same.

I, perhaps too quickly, located the Web as the ultimate site of feminist dialogue. As a young feminist of color, I was dazzled by the way the web offered the prospect of being heard. With the vastness of the Internet, I hoped my writing would resonate with somebody out there eventually. Who cares if I was shouting into a void? I was finally being called in, rather than being left out of the movement. Likes, shares and views projected a mirage of community. As long as someone read my contribution to a conversation, I considered it an alliance. New followers each day encouraged me to build an avatar of myself, an Internet presence (or at least a more active Twitter).

Internet feminism's “think piece industrial complex” came into being sometime between Xanga and HuffPost Voices. After so many years of diffuse ‘90s feminism, criticized for its lack of direction and solidarity, I invested, along with many other feminists, in the Internet as a the solution to some of our movement’s shortcomings. Platforms such as WordPress, Twitter and Tumblr soothed my itch to visibly participate in lively discussion in real time. Communities on LiveJournal (and yes, GreatestJournal, too) provided avenues for blogging and finding like-minded kin.

Now, the think piece, originally sourced from the voice of personal blogs, has been co-opted by the profit making media machines. How can this system privileging virality and buzziness, incorporated into the modes of mass production (including unpaid labor), ever call itself feminist?

The public face of Internet feminism has metastasized into a system where, instead of offering a haven of collaboration and community, self-branding and individualism have won out. Marketed with a nod to FOMO, each article asserts that missing it is to open yourself to being called out for having passé opinions and/or an antiquated framework. As Ngọc Loan Trần points out, call out culture “without a way for us to reconcile hurt” enacts a “politic of disposability.” They write, “How we are treating each other is preventing us from actually creating what we need for ourselves. We are destroying each other.”

Turning off Twitter can endanger your credibility and community. I’ve seen activists with the same goals publicly tear each other down in the name of proving of-the-moment semantics. Remaining relevant means placing your stake in the endless news cycle daily. Lone activists are celebrated as the new celebrity, reenacting the violence of cultural histories that name heroes, not movements. Why feel invigorated to support a system that holds priority space for #woke celebrities and those with access to be watched as they (mostly white cis women) perform the new feminist media? At the end of the day, who is this all really serving? Who becomes visible for mainstream white media at the cost of their safety?

What does it mean to measure our relevance based on the competitive speed of content farming? At what expense do we sacrifice reflective (and reflexive) community for visibility and industrial scale productivity? What does it mean when we seize the means of production, start our own media empires, and follow the same destructive paths anyway?

"Productive" visible outputs from the think piece industrial complex are increasingly impractical to sustain, and unproductive in terms of community-building. As Mimi Nguyen responded when I asked her about these issues during an interview for bluestockings magazine:

“The more recognition we receive, the more that recognition becomes translated as approximating justice. It is impact, absolutely. But what does it mean to measure impact and influence through these viral measures, which collapse quantifiable recognition with evidence of political movement? Is community the consequence of success on the market?”

Mimi is right about this. Productive feminism right now means putting page likes and views before self-care and community. It means being reactionary rather than creative. Productive instead of generative. Spewing without ever finding time to do necessary re-grouping.

As conversations are opened up by authors, we all sprint towards writing and reading the next big thing, leaving much unfinished and unresolved. Deferring discussion enables the unreasonable production timeline, sacrificing reflection for response. Keeping its fast pace is what makes it all turn. Major platforms all know the advantage of publishing a think piece early in the game. It’s that the authors don’t have to read or reference what other people have to say.

At the same time, think piece acceleration values metrics of clicks and views, which in their own way do build community and coalitions. I’ve found myself attached to, and eventually mourning my favorite think pieces. There are many articles that have evolved my way of thinking. What would happen if we moved away from re-shares and turned towards restoring communities? Can we reconsider how we want to invest in our communities without rejecting the benefits of Internet feminism?

While the feminist think piece has done wonders to diminish or lift up public perception of experiences, ideas, people, movements and objects, it is not without cost. It unapologetically demands that capitalist products and popular media come dressed in feminist epistemology (the infamous click-bait question: Is XYZ a feminist?). But ultimately, I worry that the think piece industrial complex provides tools for exploitative enterprises to speak “feminism” and become more marketable in the future.

I want to move away from a politics of reaction and towards one that has more careful consideration to the terms of my engagement. For me, there is something profoundly empowering about opting out, if only temporarily; turning off my Twitter, leaving my RSS feed unchecked, deleting newsletters and staying off Tumblr. I want to do a better job of showing that I value care over content-farming.

Yet, as I turn my phone off, I’m isolated once again from my communities. When I get a blood test and the nurse tells me I can only circle ONE race, I still want to take my phone out and tweet about it.

I teeter between being separatist and also hyper-inclusionary of media. Between using it as a primary organizing tactic and using it sparingly as a strategic supplement. I think that it’s okay to be both / and. It’s okay for this think piece about think pieces to rest on a line of uncertainty.

Last fall, when I hit an intolerable threshold of exhaustion, I convinced a bunch of my friends to attend a seance at my house. We sat in a circle to discuss healing and fatigue. We needed to ask questions to which we did not know the answer. We needed to let our fears and uncertainties speak not as weaknesses, but as our truths. We needed to exorcise ourselves of devil’s advocates and other negative facets of our public lives.

For now, all I want from feminism (Internet or not) is a generative community that snaps back but also knows how to slow down. I want to take the time to stitch together narratives in conversation with each other, to splice speculative fiction into news reporting, and to be continually stunned by queer magic and moments of authentic connection. I want to remember people, places, and events for longer than a day. I want to write in a celestial hair salon that replaces radio static with sweet tea and restoration. Rather than allocating most of our energy on snapping back to the unrelenting speed of provocation, I want a feminism that prioritizes care, accountability, and creative potential.

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