Black to the Future Online

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Jason Johnson: This is a word, a podcast from Slate. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. Like so much of American popular culture, the Internet has been strongly influenced by black and other marginalized people and Podcaster Bridget Todd has made it her business to tell those stories of humor, activism and creativity on her show.

Speaker 2: I would say the through line of my work is really trying to find those perspectives and really amplifying that and centering them in a way that I think is meaningful and loving. To demonstrate that we were always there will always be here. And I guess I would say the through line really is trying to create the conditions for people who have been historically and traditionally marginalized in these spaces to feel ownership of taking up more space in these conversations.

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Jason Johnson: Bridget Todd, there are no girls on the Internet coming up on a word with me. Jason Johnson. Stay with us.

Jason Johnson: Welcome to a word, a podcast about race and politics and everything else. I’m your host, Jason Johnson. The worlds of technology and social media are driving the most important discussions in culture and politics. And the online space has given black and other marginalized creators a platform that past generations would have envied. But that doesn’t mean that the Internet is an even playing field, or a place where African-American voices and achievements are fully recognize and respected. But Bridget Todd is working to change that. She’s an activist and writer and the host of the podcast, There Are No Girls on the Internet. It’s a show about how black women, LGBTQ people and other marginalized groups have influenced technology and the online world. She joins us now. Bridget Todd, welcome to a word.

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Speaker 2: Oh, thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to be here.

Jason Johnson: For listeners who don’t know you, who aren’t familiar with you, what’s the meaning behind the name of your podcast? There are no girls on the Internet. Like, where did that come from? What was sort of the genesis of that?

Speaker 2: So it’s almost kind of like a private joke with myself. If you have been on the Internet for a while, you maybe heard of these informal rules of the Internet. And one is that there are no girls on the Internet. And what that means is either one of two things. One, that if you’re ever talking to somebody and they claim to be a woman or a female identified on the Internet, that person is just pretending they’re not actually a woman because the Internet is just full of men. The second iteration of that saying is the idea that your identity, you know, your gender or your your race or sexuality, those things don’t matter on the Internet that when you log on to the Internet, we’re all the same. And both of those things are not true.

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Speaker 2: Right. There are plenty of traditionally marginalized people showing up online, and we’ve been there from the very beginning. And it really matters. Our identity really matters. And we show up on the Internet. You know, our experience is our race or ethnicity. These are all things that we carry with us when we show up online. And so I mean that in both the negative ways that things like we’re more likely to be harassed or targeted for things like this information if you’re marginalized person, but also the experience of being online as a black person is really unique and really special and full of real creativity and art. And so I really wanted to create a platform where those experiences and that reality could really be centered on Twitter.

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Jason Johnson: It’s not uncommon if you’re having a discussion of, you know, Black Lives Matter or something like Affirmative Action or Guns or something, where you encounter people who fiercely claim that they are a marginalized person. It’s like, well, I am black and therefore or I am I am an Asian-American woman. And therefore, you know, you’ll have people claim these identities. Have you had those kinds of experiences? Because in the same way that you’re saying, you know, the genesis of your name is from the assumption that there are no people of color, there are no black women on the Internet. You have a lot of people who try to fake those identities in order to push conservative problematic and sometimes just out and out racist beliefs.

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Speaker 2: Absolutely. So that is a phenomenon I’ve definitely seen on the Internet. The cultural critic, Juana Thompson, she has a word for it. N-word, phishing when someone’s like catfishing. So she coined that phrase to describe it. And it definitely it is something that I have encountered it and it has, you know, a real, real big impact. A good example is one of my favorite episodes that we did of the show is about this woman’s Rebecca Hudson, who was just a black woman who, you know, going about her her life on Twitter, who realized one day that she was getting all of this strange activity from people purporting to be black feminists on Twitter. But people that she had never heard of had didn’t really have a lot of followers. And come to find out, these are just people, you know, in a coordinated fashion trying to pretend to be black evidence to spread chaos and confusion. And, you know, she reported this to Twitter. She thought like something is going on here. People need to know about this. And really, nothing was done. Nobody really listened. And so flash forward to the 2016 election.

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Speaker 2: Well, a Senate inquiry goes on to find that the number one group of people who was targeted for those kinds of disinformation campaigns, where you pretend to be a black person, are black American voters. And, you know, the number one way they did it is going online and pretending to be black folks, saying that we’re going to vote for Trump, you know, saying all this wild stuff about, you know, Republicans and conservative ideology. And I always wonder what would have happened if somebody when she reported what was happening before the election, if somebody might have done something to make that kind of disinformation campaign more difficult to perpetrate. And so we’ll never know what might have happened. And so, you know, I see that kind of thing all the time. People pretending to be a marginalized group to, you know, say wild things about politics or our democracy or the COVID vaccine or anything like that. And it has a very real world impact.

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Jason Johnson: So you talk about like a wide range of subjects on your podcast, like you’ll talk about Katie Brown Jackson and, you know, COVID scams and Missy Elliot. What sort of a thread that ties those kinds of stories together for you? Because, you know, a lot of times, you know, some podcasters say, this is my theme. It’s always going to be on education. It’s always going to be on the Internet. It’s always going to be on food or something else like that. What’s a through line for you and your work?

Speaker 2: I would have to say the idea of widening the lens to show that no matter what the conversation is, if it’s a conversation about the Internet and technology, there was a black woman or a queer person or trans person there all along, and their perspective should be at the center of the conversation. Right. And so I think that we have this attitude, that technology and the Internet is a white boys club and that people who are not white boys have been trying to break their way through, you know, since the beginning. And I told myself that for a really long time. But the reality is, is that we have been there the whole time. And so if you have not always heard our stories, not always our perspectives, that doesn’t mean that we weren’t there. Those perspectives were just not amplified and centered the way they should be.

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Speaker 2: And so I would say the through line of my work is really trying to find those perspectives and really amplifying them and centering them in a way that I think is meaningful and loving to demonstrate that we were always there will always be here. And I guess I would say the through line really is trying to create the conditions for people who have been historically and traditionally marginalized in these spaces to feel ownership of taking up more space in these conversations.

Jason Johnson: So you’re an activist and a Podcaster and these don’t have to be the same thing, right? How do you see yourself as an activist? Is it because you try to create space for marginalized groups? Were you an activist sort of on the ground and then decided to take those experiences to a podcast? How do you relate your sort of activism to your podcast work?

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Speaker 2: I have been sort of at the intersection of both for most of my podcast career. My first job in podcasting was just as a producer on a show called At the time, it was called The Flaming Sword of Justice, which I know was a pretty weird name. It was a podcast project of the political organization Move On. And so we had this idea that, you know, the stories of social change and social justice fights are exciting and they’re full of heroes and villains and ups and downs of the thrilling wins. And so if we could tell these stories in a way that really captured that, we could actually get people to take action. And so, you know, if we had a an episode that got people fired up and then say, okay, well, here’s what you should do. Like, here’s that the action that you should take.

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Speaker 2: So I really but at the intersection of podcasting and social change for most of my career, but these days, my activism work really looks like things like sitting down with the leadership at social media platforms like Facebook and TikTok and Reddit and really advocating for them to make what we think are going to be changes that will make those spaces, you know, better and more inclusive and safer for everybody. And so working with the gender justice group Ultraviolet, we’re a coalition of about 2 million people nationwide who care about gender justice. Through that work, I’ve really been, you know, in meetings with these tech leaders, really trying to carve out spaces that we hope will be a little safer for people who are traditionally marginalized.

Jason Johnson: We’re going to take a short break. And we come back more with activist and Podcaster Bridget Todd. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned. This is Jason Johnson, host of a Word Slate’s podcast about race and politics and everything else. I want to take a moment to welcome our new listeners. If you’ve discovered a word and like what you hear, please subscribe, rate and review wherever you listen to a podcast and let us know what you think by writing us at a word at Slate.com. Thank you. You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today. We’re talking with Bridget Todd, host of the There Are No Girls on the Internet podcast. So I got to ask you, you used to teach classes at Howard. What led you to teaching at Howard? What did you teach there and what did you get out of it?

Speaker 2: It was my dream job. You know, I think back so fondly to those days. I so I started teaching at Howard. I initially was a grad student at University of Maryland College Park. I was trying to get a Ph.D. in African-American women’s literature, and I dropped out. And before dropping out, I was doing that thing where I was. I had gotten a full time job at Howard while I was still trying to finish my Ph.D..

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Speaker 2: And so, you know, for most people who are academics, the teaching part of academia is kind of the thing that you sort of have to do. You’re like, Oh, I need to make money, I need whatever. But my research, my academic work, like that’s what fuels me. For me, it was the exact opposite. I loved showing up to the classroom every day. I loved being around young people. And I was finding, you know, Howard, is this campus where the students are so socially active and so socially and politically engaged that I was teaching at this time in my life where I myself felt very disengaged and disempowered. Like I think a lot of things were happening politically and socially that I had a lot of feelings about. But the best I could do was like muster up an angry Facebook post and then send it to my 28 friends who all agreed with me. And that was the end of it, right?

Speaker 2: But these young people, they were so full of light and they felt so empowered to change the world around them that honestly, I was so truly inspired by showing up to class every day with them that they were my real inspiration to focus more on activism and organizing full time. Because, you know, young people are just so full of energy and optimism and power that teaching was like a really special time in my life. I truly miss.

Jason Johnson: It.

Jason Johnson: Do you think the Internet has sort of sapped away like the power of on the ground activism that we’ve seen in the past? Do you think that it’s become an easier way for people to be active, or do you think it’s actually amplified some of the feelings that people have on the ground? Because, you know, there’s really strong debate as to whether or not you’ve got a lot of 19 year olds who may be active, engaged, but it’s hashtag activism and it’s not necessarily knocking on doors or making phone calls or voting.

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Speaker 2: I remember when hashtags like BlackLivesMatter and MeToo were coming up, the big criticism was that, oh, it has clicked, it ism. It’s just, you know, you’re posted on your social media and that’s it. I can completely understand how it looks that way, right? That people are just posting on social media and then going about their lives and taking no other action. But you know, in the school of organizing that I came up in, those online actions that maybe seem really small are actually just the first like plank of walking people up a ladder of engagement. Right? And so maybe one day you’re tweeting with a hashtag or sharing something or signing an online petition. Maybe the next day you’re going to donate. Maybe the next time someone asks you, you know, gives you a higher bar, ask, you’re coming out to a rally, maybe you’re volunteering at a rally, maybe you’re hosting an event at your house. Right. And so in the school of organizing that I came up in, those lower bar asks are just the first step to get somebody to a higher bar ask.

Speaker 2: And so I think that as long as long as online activism and online organizing is, you know, attached to some other kind of tactic, it doesn’t have to be, you know, IRL. But I think as long as it’s like grounded to something, it’s always effective. And so I can see why people might think it’s just, you know, a cop out clicking a hashtag, whatever, but it really can be something that can lead people up a ladder of engagement where, you know, they’re signing the first petition on Monday and by Friday they’re like volunteering at an event.

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Jason Johnson: On your podcast, you’ve talked a lot about sort of Afrofuturism and what that means to your work. First off, how did you get into Afrofuturism and what role do you think it sort of plays and what you do as a podcast? Or is it because it allows you to tell different kinds of stories? Is it optimism about the future? Is it because it allows you to talk about MCU movies or DC like how does Afrofuturism play a role in your podcast?

Speaker 2: So I would say how I first even got hip to Afrofuturism was definitely just being a kid and my dad used to have this collection of records. I would like stare at his like Parliament-Funkadelic records. I’d like Earth, Wind and Fire Records. I remember like staring at this wild imagery and being like, What does this mean? Like, is there a hidden code in this? Come to find out. It was just like, looked very cool. And like, I was like, are you reading into it?

Speaker 2: But you know, for me, I think that in my work, especially as it pertains to telling stories about technology, Afrofuturism really informs that because, you know, people have to be able to imagine better worlds and better scenarios and better lives out there, right? And so I think about enslaved people who had to be able to use their imaginations to dream of a world that they’d had no idea existed. And then. Make that real. And so I think that I see Afrofuturism playing out in this like hopeful way of, you know, what does it look like to imagine a tech enabled world that is actually better, not worse? I think that when we think about like what technology is doing to society and to our democracy and to our world, it’s so easy to say it’s good that’s making it worse. That’s because it is.

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Speaker 2: But where are the people who are using their imaginations and thinking about the future in a way that allows you to say, like, Well, what if it was better? How could we use technology to center people into center care and the center for creativity and love and beauty and joy? And so people who have been able to imagine that, imagine those futures that are not yet real. I think that’s what really grounds my work in that kind of optimism and joy that that I see so prevalent in Afrofuturism.

Jason Johnson: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, more with podcast host Bridget Todd. This is a word with Jason Johnson. Stay tuned.

Jason Johnson: You’re listening to a word with Jason Johnson today. We’re talking with Bridget Todd, host of the podcast, There Are No Girls on the Internet. So one of the real challenges that we’ve seen in Internet culture is this sort of these binary polls, right? You have one side, which is that group on the far right saying, you know, I say any little thing that’s wrong or inappropriate or joke or whatever and I get canceled. But then I do think you can have problems on sort of the other extreme where people can say something or do something and they may not know that it was offensive or problematic. Right. Where do you see the healthy space to draw that line? Where do we find that place between not catering to people who are actively, consistently hostile, but at the same time giving space to people who literally do not know or may not know they’ve committed offense and allowing them to still learn to be a part of the community.

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Speaker 2: As you said, there are people who are legitimately bad actors who want to, you know, say wild stuff, to get people upset, to confuse people, to stoke fear. And so pension. And that’s what they’re doing. Right. And then we know that that is an intentional tactic to create an environment online where people who legitimately don’t know things are legitimately are just asking a question, not because they want to, you know, get everybody upset because they really want to know. Bad actors have created a climate where people who are interested in legitimate discourse don’t really have a lot of room to do that on these platforms, and that is by design.

Speaker 2: And so, you know, we’re all better served when we can have thoughtful conversations about what’s happening at our world. But if you feel like, oh, if I tweet the wrong thing or ask it in the wrong way, a mob of people is going to, you know, flood my mentions all day and like I’m going to be the main character of Twitter for the day. You might not even ever say like like it’s not worth it to like ask the question or like put your thought out there. And so I think it’s important to note that that is like an intentional tactic to make our social media platforms more hostile, more intense. And I think most people who use Twitter probably feel that, whereas like it sometimes it feels like it’s not worth it to put your ideas out into the world and use your voice. And I think it can have a real silencing effect.

Jason Johnson: What should these institutions be doing? What should Tik-tok be doing to make sure that bad faith information isn’t going viral? What should the metaverse slash? Facebook slash, whatever they call themselves next week? What should they be doing to make sure that folks can go on and like, Hey, I want to present there’s a woman that I don’t feel like I should be assaulted. What are these institutions not doing that they should be to make themselves more functional, let alone safe spaces for marginalized voices?

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Speaker 2: I would say the first one is really kind of a big one, which is really clearly and honestly evaluating who is making decisions at these companies. What do the decision makers and power holders at these places look like? Who is designing your platforms? Who is designing your tech? What do they look like? What is their background like? What are their histories like? I think that the problem really does start with the fact that so many of these technologies that, you know, show up at our day to day lives and really have a big impact on our day to day lives are designed by people that do not actually reflect what the world looks like. And so they have all of these unseen things, all of these biases that humans all have.

Speaker 2: Right. But we have this really incorrect attitude that, you know, technology is neutral, but it can’t be neutral. What the people who designed it and build it just show up with the normal. But the biases that most humans have. Right. So I think first and foremost, it’s about who is in the room, who is in the on these teams, who is design and technology. I think that will be a big a big step.

Speaker 2: Second is really enforcing consistent and transparent moderation policies. So many platforms have policies that are all over the place where there is unequal enforcement, not transparent enforcement. And oftentimes it’s nonhuman moderation. Right. And so, you know, you’re looking to an AI algorithm to or you’re looking to like a piece of machine learning to determine whether or not somebody said something that is actually obtainable offense. Right. And so more human based moderation. But then making sure those moderators are actually treated like the humans that they are. Right. And so not just outsourcing it to, you know, contractors overseas who are not making a lot of money, not supported, and basically seeing some of the grimmest stuff out there with very little support. So, you know, making sure that you have robust moderation policies and people who are treated well and supported to carry out that work because it’s very difficult.

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Speaker 2: I would also say really listening to the people who use your platform, right, like I think that we need a institutional shift of who platforms feel they need to be accountable to. Right now, I would say that, you know, you’re Mark Zuckerberg’s of the world. They would say, oh, you know, y’all don’t understand how any of this works. I don’t need to be accountable to you. Who are you to tell me how to run these platforms? That thinking has to be transformed. We are the reason these platforms exist. Face. Twitter Tik tok Reddit. They’ll be nothing without us. Its user base that gives it a reason to exist. And so I think creating the conditions for tech leaders to be accountable to us as the people who are the reason for why they exist, I think is really key. And I think that a lot of tech leaders really need to have that shift of like, I need to be accountable to the people who use this platform for the way that this platform impacts democracies and discourses. I think right now we’re just not in that space.

Jason Johnson: You’ve been an academic and activist, political consultant, podcaster. What’s next for you?

Speaker 2: The next big thing happening with me? I hope I get to tell these stories. I want to continue to tell these stories, but I want to tell them in different mediums just so that people know that I don’t know. I can feel a bit like compartmentalize on a tech podcast cause people are like, Oh, technology, I’m out of tech. Does it doesn’t make a difference to me. But these conversations are not just tech stories. They’re also culture stories, democracy stories, political stories. And so I think I want to break away from just being like a tech podcaster and really be somebody who can curate conversations that demonstrate like why these why these issues are so important for all of us and so different mediums, more accessible work, things that get away from the sort of hard tech label, I think is where I want to go next.

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Jason Johnson: Bridget Todd is an activist, a writer and the host of the There Are No Girls on the Internet podcast from iHeart Radio Network. Thanks so much for joining us on a word today.

Speaker 2: Thanks so much for having me. I appreciate it.

Jason Johnson: And that’s the word for this week. The show’s e-mail is a word at Slate dot com. This episode was produced by Jasmine Ellis. Alicia montgomery is the vice president of Audio at Slate. Our theme music was produced by Don Will. I’m Jason Johnson. Tune in next week for Word.