Beyond the Digital-Diving Into the Digital

First posted here

by Maesy Angelina in the Digital Natives

Previous posts in the ‘Beyond the Digital’ series have discussed the non-virtual aspects and presence of Blank Noise. However, to understand the activism of digital natives also require a look into their online presence and activities. This post explores how Blank Noise’s engagement with the public in their digital realm.

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Action Heroes!

Through interviews and web-observations, I identified three ways in which Blank Noise and the virtual public engage with each other.

The first is by responding to the content provided by Blank Noise, such as commenting in posts or participating in polls or Facebook campaigns. There are cases where the comments turned the post into a space for intense discussion that raises interesting issues around street sexual harassment that are as significant for BN as it is for the viewers, such as Jasmeen’s aforementioned post of a harasser’s picture.

Yet, in other cases the comments ended up as a one-way communication that ignores thepossibility of turning into a public conversation. An example for this is Blank Noise’s ‘What does it take to be an Action Hero?’ event that I participated in. The event was hosted on Facebook from 25 June to 31 July 2010 and asked people to contribute a definition or a characteristic of an Action Hero, a woman who faces threat and experiences fear on thestreets of her city, but can devise unique ways to confront it. Blank Noise raised a potential conversation by asking questions for statements that tread on grey lines. A person who contributed ‘anyone who acts/protests against any form of behaviour which tends to outrage his/her sense of modesty’ was questioned on what modesty is and why it becomes a parameter, but it was not further responded. Furthermore, none of the other contributors attempted to raise or engage in such conversation.

I wondered what kind of meaning one could create from this limited way of participation and received several answers. It is a way to stay in touch and contribute to Blank Noise when one is not able to engage physically, as is the case for Laura Neuhaus after she left to continue her studies in the U.S. For others, it is a way to familiarize herself with the collective before deciding whether she wants to engage further. For the coordinators, it is to keep the momentum alive in between major interventions when they are committed to other priorities.

The second type of engagement is by actively producing content, like Rhea Daniel’s, a Mumbai-based design consultant, feisty poster contribution for theaforementioned online campaign or by sharing testimonials for the community blogs. Nandita Chaudury, a 29 year old researcher, wrote a story on her experience with street sexual harassment for Blank Noise Action Heroes community blog to show her support for BN but, more importantly, also to share experiences she wouldn’t share with anyone in real life.

Nandita said, “No one would want t share their most traumatic stories in public. I wouldn’t do it on my own blog, because I don’t want to come out yet, but I appreciate the space Blank Noise provides. After commenting in the posts and see how the discussion goes, I felt that it is a supportive space. Online contribution allowed me to stay anonymous while sharing my story to a wider public, so I felt confident in doing that.”

She further explained to me that reading others’ stories and receiving comments for hers made her feel less isolated and helped her healing process. Blank Noise’s cyber presence functions as a virtual support group for women affected by street sexual harassment, who relish a space where it is considered as a real issue and found more freedom to share given the anonymity granted by the Internet. Through their public testimonials, women demonstrate their agency in resisting harassments and undergo the transformation from victims into Action Heroes. Kelly Oliver (in Mitra-Kahn, unpublished: 17[1]) argued that writing experiences of a trauma, in this case street sexual harassment, helps the self heal by using speech and text to counter their emotions and exercise their agency;the process of empowerment that occurs hence establishes Blank Noise as a (cyber)feminist praxis. This is also a form of culture jamming: breaking the existing silence on street sexual harassment in the virtual public space.

Being a part of the virtual group helped Nandita to better cope with street sexual harassment in the physical public space, a sign that the virtual and the physical spheres mesh as reality for many of youth today. Nevertheless, this not the case for every youth. “Without real world activism, I would not have been able to deal with street sexual harassment in any real way,said Annie, who found BN through the blogathon and has since become a coordinator.

Nandita and Annie’s stories are examples of how the virtual and physical spheres mesh in their lives, but also that the link between the two has points of disconnection that they are fully aware of. While Annie was ready to address the issue on the streets, Nandita was uncomfortable with doing so – but they were both went through a personal change enabled by Blank Noise’s cyber presence. Furthermore, the choices they made could be accommodated by Blank Noise through its online and offline interventions. This also shows a linkage or connection between the virtual and physical spheres in Blank Noise’s activities.

The online presence of Blank Noise serves multiple functions. It is a site for organization, mobilization, empowerment, and many possibilities for engagement that can be chosen based on one’s interest and abilities. It has value in itself, but it does not stand alone. It resonates with the street interventions in its potential to facilitate personal change at the individual level and beckons those who encounter Blank Noise to also extend their participation at the physical space – ifthey choose to do so. Blank Noise presents possibilities, but it is up for people to use and give meaning to it.

This is the sixth post in the Beyond the Digital series, a research project that aims to explore new insights to understand youth digital activism conducted by Maesy Angelina with Blank Noise under the Hivos-CIS Digital Natives Knowledge Programme.

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