Digital Alchemist

Posted: October 12, 2012

For Moya Bailey, online spaces aren’t just for connecting with friends – they also create safe spaces for understanding and allow users to shape the technology for social justice. The Emory University graduate student, who spoke October 9 as part of Scripps College’s Fall 2012 Humanities Institute lecture series, energized the crowd with stories about how the online landscape has transformed the lives of marginalized groups through a process she dubbed “digital alchemy.”

Bailey’s initial foray into digital alchemy – the social network Quirky Black Girls –began as an undergraduate at Spelman College in Atlanta, Georgia. Feeling isolated within her own community, she reached out to like-minded people through the Internet. She spoke about blogs, collectives, zines, and YouTube videos employing the same technique, singling out Tumblr as it forges connections with new people easily and is one of the simplest and most effective means of interacting with marginalized groups online. During her visit to Scripps, Bailey met up with one of her Tumblr followers, someone she’d never met in person before but had numerous interactions with through her site.

After providing examples of online communities, Bailey reminded the audience that “digital divas” still face certain challenges. Even in supposedly democratized online spaces, she said, prejudices and power dynamics from the outside world come into play. One example she cited involved “The Misadventures of Awkward Black Girl,” a popular webseries that disappointed its committed fan base when an episode used a slur in reference to a transgendered person and made fun of a person with a disability.

Fans sent an open letter expressing concern over these types of representations and the creator of the show wrote back acknowledging the views expressed in the letter. Few mediums permit such high levels of interactivity between viewer and creator, and Bailey said these types of communications are part of what makes digital alchemy so powerful; it also demonstrates that online spaces aren’t free from prejudice. She also spoke to the problem of access, as many low-income families don’t have computers in their homes with Internet, a substantial barrier to a truly democratized medium.

– Elizabeth Crumpacker ’13

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