Social media had always been the foremost stage for the underprivileged and oppressed to highlight their issues. But with an algorithm that favors the rich and the upper-middle class, their voices are dwindling underneath the chirpy utopia depicted on major platforms like Instagram Reels. This unintentional gatekeeping is derailing the voices of the oppressed away from the highways of the internet and not enough people are talking about it.
In July 2020, India became the fourth country in the world where Instagram Reels were introduced, just shy of Brazil, Germany, and France. What started as a platform that mobilized individual content creators and talented artists to put forth engaging content soon morphed into an empty, monotonous chamber that echoed over-utilized trends, filters, and sounds. Instagram’s algorithm favored this pattern of recycling the same kind of content with little to no changes. But the lack of creativity reflected in the content churned out by Reel creators is not the main problem – it is the absence of diversity within. Upon closer inspection, a more concerning revelation unfolds – the definition of an ideal Reel is that of one comprising influencers wrapped in brands like Gucci, Dior, and Louis Vuitton with pitch-perfect lighting and a stellar background.
Visual aesthetics are predominant in the current market. While that sounds innocuous to an extent, it has some underlying consequences – it robs the underprivileged of the platform. While rich influencers set the trends on Instagram, the underprivileged who cannot afford the luxuries required to conform to the superficial idea of aesthetics are subjected to trolls and cyber-bullying. Recently, Instagram and Facebook witnessed a surge in the activity of pages that targeted the ‘emo boys of India’, a derogatory term meant to demean a very specific kind of content that usually features creators with limited resources. The term ‘cringe’ was thrown around to describe such videos, and while that may be a popular opinion within many online circles, we must understand that the definition of “cringe” and “aesthetic” is not globally defined, and is different for people having varying sociological backgrounds.
The ultimate price of the abovementioned discourse is that Reels as a platform is being overrun by the socialites, thus restraining it from reaching its true potential. According to a new study by Microsoft, an average human being has an attention span of 8.25 seconds, which is less than that of a goldfish, a species that can focus on a particular task for 9 seconds. Instagram paid heed to these numbers and created a platform that catered to the short attention span of their audience. The concept of Reels was well-received by the masses, as is depicted by the increase in average time spent on Instagram by a staggering 3.5% in India following its introduction, a statistic recorded by Apptopia. No matter how repetitive the content gets, one cannot help but scroll aimlessly through wads of short videos feeding into the ever-deteriorating attention span of the youth.
Because of this, Reels, as a platform, could’ve been a great stage for the underprivileged to speak up. Local representatives of minorities and oppressed groups could reach a wider audience and put forth their message, thanks to Instagram’s algorithm and Reels’ enticing nature. But all this remains a matter of speculation because the hierarchal gatekeeping in Instagram would never give voice to the underprivileged creators who do not have the resources to fit into the upper-class idea of aesthetics.
Unfortunately, Reels is not the only social media platform where gatekeeping has proven to be a tradition. The same applies to many other major platforms like Facebook, TikTok, and YouTube. The normalization of this issue has transcended the boundaries of the Internet and has permeated into our society as well. But that’s not all; gatekeeping in social media has some-far reaching ramifications as well.
Poetry is something that has been used as a tool of resistance since the dawn of the age. Poems like Immigrant Blues by Li-Young Lee and I, Too by Langston Hughes are globally acclaimed for their powerful verses dealing with systematic racism and discrimination. Both of these are written by members of marginalized communities, and they came from their writers’ personal experiences, making it all the more authentic and puissant. So when poetry can be so potent at shedding light on societal issues of monumental proportions, why is the same not the case with slam poetry?
Slam poetry is a form of performance poetry, in which several elements of performance including writing, speaking, singing, and audience participation are involved. When I think of slam poetry, it takes me back to a strange midnight city from eons ago where the poet is surrounded by a host of revolutionaries, their faces illuminated with bare trickles of the drizzling moonlight and the faint glow of the creaking bonfire. They would speak in powerful rhymes and clap each other on the backs while the bourgeoisie patrolled the streets, unaware of the euphoric passion that poetry revives in the hearts of the oppressed. For me, slam poetry in modern society could have been one of the most influential channels of communication for the oppressed classes.
Unfortunately, when you search for slam poetry on accessible social media platforms like YouTube India, you’d only find intricately woven rhymes about introvert-ness, one-sided love affairs, nostalgia, and other things that appeal only to the middle-class and the privileged. While the talented slam poets perform exuberantly, the lack of diversity in the content is concerning. Again, the slam poetry circuits in India are overrun by the privileged and require some structural remake. This gatekeeping is further reflected in how the underprivileged have strayed far away from slam poetry and have instead adopted “underground rap” as their preferred channel of speaking up. But the society, as a whole, would benefit if we saw diversity within both – in underground rapping as well as in slam poetry.
Social media should be a shared platform where content creators with diverse backgrounds can come forward and put forth their message. In most cases, gatekeeping is unintentional and is governed by the algorithms set by massive corporations. But talking about issues like such and being aware could very well be the first step into the roadmap for improvement.
Anzal Khan is a student pursuing Bachelors in Commerce from Jamia Millia Islamia.
Edited by: Malaika M Khan