Black gen Zers deserve a better internet

i-D — A study shows that the most ‘online’ demographic want to see more joy on their social media feeds.

Imagery from VSCO’s Black Joy Matters campaign

Internet culture — particularly on social media — is indebted to Black culture. The memes and vernacular you see spread across Twitter (co-opted, in particular, by white cis gay men) are often a weak reflection of a life lead by Black women, baited and transformed into a universal experience, often at their expense, in the name of nothing but humour.

Within that world, there can be safe spaces online for young Black people, but according to a study conducted for VSCO by JUV Consulting, a gen Z-led research company, nearly 90% of young Black people want to see and champion more joy on the internet, compared to 70% of non-Black gen Zers.

Though the roots of that statistic aren’t fully expanded upon, it’s widely thought that it’s a byproduct of both how intensely ‘online’ our generation is, as well as of our desire to engage in activism on digital platforms. In the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, social media has become a vehicle for the dissemination of information and evidence. It’s as much a tool to highlight injustice as it is to gather together groups who want to make change. But that exposure comes with a consequence, and that’s the proliferation of violent imagery, specifically targeted towards Black people. Videos of police brutality are often too violent for television news channels, but on a platform like Twitter, for example, these images are shared widely. For many, they’re hugely triggering.

The study found that 76% of gen Z internet users saw images of racial violence on their feeds regularly, and that seeing them affects them emotionally. 83% say it makes them feel hopeless. It angers three-quarters of them. But this statistic is applied to the entirety of gen Z regardless of race. Consider how much sorer that would sting if it was your own community that was the disproportionate target of both real and systemic violence.

The internet has become a free-for-all over the years, growing so quickly that darkness inevitably spreads throughout it too. There’s also the added pressure of news media reporting on issues that affect Black people more significantly, as is the case with the coronavirus pandemic. To log on and be faced with a constant barrage of despondent news stories is sure to have a hard effect on your mindset.

The good thing is that, even if the internet is a source of trauma, it also provides ostracised Black gen Zers with a space in which they feel less alone: 94% of those surveyed are connected to like-minded people on social media. Perhaps the answer is not to overshadow those injustices being rightfully exposed in order to quell our anxieties about the state of the world, but to provide balance: Black identity is rooted in incredible artistry, though — just like with internet memes — we often learn of that artistry through a version filtered by whiteness. It’s the responsibility of everybody — particularly non-Black allies — to help create an internet that creates space for Black voices at its centre, free of co-option.

JUV Media is a collection of JUV press features — from our staff to our campaigns.