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When Social Media Does Good
If you’re a certain age, you might remember the first time you heard about Friendster in the early 2000s: There’s this website that shows you who’s friends with whom! That was all it did, but it seemed pretty cool at the time. Then we all migrated to MySpace, which was downright mind-boggling. Not only could you see other people’s friends, you could post on people’s walls, get jealous about what people were posting on your crush’s wall, and, for a short, glorious time, set a song to play on a loop on your page. (Mine was Dashboard Confessional’s “Vindicated,” because I was in a dramatic phase.) You most certainly remember the dawn of Facebook, when it started as college-kids-only and then opened to the masses. I, personally, joined because it seemed like the easiest way to share photos with my then-college-aged sister, never imagining the long-term commitment I was making. After that came so many choices, depending on your sensibilities and goals—Twitter for the wordy, Pinterest and Instagram for the visual, Vine and then TikTok for the video stars among us.
In the beginning, it felt so full of possibility. We could be back in touch with our high school friends, DM-ing them to apologize for youthful slights. We could see what happened to the one who got away. We could share our achievements—half-marathons won, promotions attained, dance class routines mastered—and our life milestones—weddings, kids, divorces, remarriages, comings-out, cancer diagnoses, remissions. With each one, we could count on our online community to rally around us. We could connect with people around the world, understand other cultures, share memes across borders, send encouragement and help where needed.
For a while, it seemed possible for social media to be the ultimate utopia.
But it has not looked good lately. There’s Elon Musk’s takeover of Twitter and his laissez-faire attitude toward misinformation and abuse on that major platform as well as the erosion of democracy based on lies and incitement to violence. There’s also the more quotidian concerns like reduced attention spans, anxiety-provoking social comparison, and tech addiction. Underlying all of these risks is the very basic threat of widespread data theft.
Sometimes it’s hard to remember that social media can do good, too. Though we have plenty of serious social media problems to solve as a society, some storytellers throughout the last 20 years of its explosive growth have shown us that our utopian hopes weren’t completely foolish. These storytellers demonstrate the ways we can social media best—not merely to sell products or lifestyles, but to make a genuinely positive impact on real lives and the world at large. Here are a few of our favorites, from Peabody winners like Angry Asian Man and Feminist Frequency, which date back to the 2000s, to current influencers like “the internet’s best friend” Elyse Myers and ContraPoints’ Natalie Wynn.
Angry Asian Man
Phil Yu has been blogging about Asian-American issues—particularly anti-Asian racism in America—since 2001 on his site Angry Asian Man. He was among the first online personalities to harness the power of the internet to demand social change when, in 2002, he encouraged readers to contact Abercrombie & Fitch about its T-shirts featuring Asian stereotypes (including one advertising a made-up laundry service called Wong Brothers with the slogan “two Wongs can make it White”). The T-shirts were pulled after the outpouring. Unfortunately, Yu still has a lot to be angry about these days, including the recent Lunar New Year mass shooting in the Asian enclave of Monterey Park, California. Yu, a Peabody winner, continues to blog about everything from anti-Asian violence to Asian representation in media; he tweetsand Instagrams; and he co-hosts the podcast They Call Us Bruce, billed as “an unfiltered conversation about what’s happening in Asian America.” He also co-authored the book Rise: A Pop History of Asian America from the Nineties to Now. He’s always sworn he’s not (that) angry, but liked the idea of busting stereotypes with his blog name: “The idea of an angry Asian anything is kind of an affront to people’s general perceptions of Asians in America,” he told NPR. “I think a lot of time we get pegged as very subservient, docile, passive. You know we are often painted as the model minority. We’re to keep our head down and not make waves, not rock the boat. And I just thought the name ‘Angry Asian Man’ was a little bit provocative when people see it.”
Anita Sarkeesian launched Feminist Frequency in 2009, making online videos analyzing pop culture—and especially gaming—from a feminist perspective. Her work entered mainstream consciousness in 2014 as part of “Gamergate,” an online harassment campaign against progressivism and diversity that targeted prominent women in the gaming community. Sarkeesian had posted a video series called Tropes vs. Women in Video Games that stoked the ire of misogynistic gaming fans, who harassed her with rape and death threats and published her home address. As a result, the Peabody-winning Feminist Frequency made fighting online harassment a core part of its mission with a text hotline for emotional support, while continuing to break down stereotypes with its videos and a podcast called Feminist Frequency Radio. You can also find them on Twitter.
Elyse Myers first went viral in 2021 when she told a story on TikTok about how she ended up buying 100 tacos on a bad date. Now she shares her anxiety, depression, and ADHD freely on Instagram and TikTok—and has amassed 5 million followers, many of whom relate, and love to cheer her on. (Celebrities like Reese Witherspoon and Leslie Jones are among them.) Myers, a comedian and former web developer known as “the internet’s best friend,” is a sunny, uplifting presence even when she’s sharing her difficulties: new mom troubles, body image struggles, ADHD, imposter syndrome. “I’ve created this really cool community of people who see themselves in my stories,” she told People. “It’s been a really unique situation that I did not expect, but I’m really thankful for it.” She hosts a podcast, Funny Cuz It’s True, on which she interviews guests about “not-so-funny moments that have become funny over time.” You can also find her on YouTube and Twitter.
Natalie Wynn doesn’t do cheap takedowns. On her YouTube channel ContraPoints, Wynn posts long, elaborate, funny videos with gorgeous production values exploring internet culture and online hate movements with startling depth and empathy for all, not to mention baroque costumes and settings, classical music. It would be easy, covering topics like cancel culture, incels, and transphobia, to simply rage. But that’s not Wynn’s style. See, for instance, her tour de force video on author J.K. Rowling’s transphobic comments and the Twitter mob that came after Rowling; Wynn’s take is careful to consider where Rowling is coming from while still being scathingly critical, which makes Wynn’s points land better. She’s similarly deft when discussing incels, taking the time to acknowledge their pain as well as the destruction the movement has wrought. “If we can criticize people constructively,” she told The Guardian, “there’s a chance that these moments could actually educate people and potentially help the person that we’re mad at transform themselves. I try to take a more humanistic perspective when it comes to the topic of bigotry.” Called “the Oscar Wilde of YouTube” by The Verge and covered in The New Yorker, she’s racked up more than 88 million views with her videos since she started posting in 2016. You can also find her on Instagram.
Anita Sarkeesian’s Peabody Acceptance for Feminist Frequency
“At its core, Feminist Frequency was created because stories matter,” Sarkeesian said. “What are those stories telling us? What are the values embedded in that? And if we tell different stories, can we change our society?”
Where to Watch: PeabodyAwards.com