Date of Award
Master of Arts in English Composition
First Reader/Committee Chair
Since the early 2010s, social media has been a powerful tool for protestors and activists throughout the world. In times of crisis and political uprisings, users have pulled out their phones and taken to platforms like Twitter, Facebook, and, more recently, Instagram, to capture “the revolution” in real time. Although originally intended for networking purposes, social media has provided people with a digital space to share their stories, disseminate resources, and broadcast live, allowing them to share their efforts with millions.
While social media has helped assemble protests, amplify marginalized voices, and educate the public, it has also become a heavily monetized space. Rhetorical work on social media emphasizes how these apps are, above everything else, “corporate spaces” that were designed to promote “capitalist values.” This can be seen throughout social media today, especially with Instagram’s most recent addition of a “shopping tab,” which now allows users to shop for products without even having to leave the app. An article published on salon.com criticizes the update, arguing that the app capitalizes on users when they’re feeling most vulnerable.
This brings me to my research question: Can we effectively use social media to create systemic change, or do these apps only further embed us into the very system we’re trying to dismantle? My thesis focuses on Leah Thomas, an “eco-communicator” who previously used her platform to write and speak about the environment. After she designed and posted a simple graphic, “Environmentalists for Black Lives Matter,” her modest following on Instagram skyrocketed overnight and attracted the attention of corporate brands looking to further promote their sustainability initiatives. Thomas’s social media used to not be monetized – it used to be filled with personal posts about her experiences as a black woman, and informational posts about the environment and what actions she’s taking to lessen her impact. But now, almost half of her posts are advertisements, many of them for companies with questionable motives and manufacturing histories. Her partnerships with certain companies have made many of her followers uncomfortable, and rightly so, because it emphasizes “commodity activism” – shopping to create change, or to support certain causes. By buying from any one of the brands Thomas promotes, consumers can feel like they’re doing their part.
Although Thomas is doing important work forwarding conversations about race and the environment, I argue that these brands have ultimately commodified Thomas’s identity as a black activist and are using her to sell consumers a certain lifestyle. These brands are not true allies of the Black Lives Matter movement, or any social justice cause in general – they’re practicing “performative allyship,” which means they’re showing support in ways that really only benefit them. Social media users walk away from Thomas’s feed not necessarily thinking about the environment, or social equity, but rather, what Thomas wears, where she shops, and more. I argue that we can’t create sustainable change through shopping, because it keeps us embedded in the system we’re fighting against.
McKellar, Emily, "SHOPPING FOR A CAUSE: SOCIAL INFLUENCERS, PERFORMATIVE ALLYSHIP, AND THE COMMODIFICATION OF ACTIVISM" (2021). Electronic Theses, Projects, and Dissertations. 1377.