The power of signal-boosting

#Merky Books writer and political organiser Joshua Virasami reflects on an insurrectionary year of punching-up.

Arti­cle tak­en from The Face Vol­ume 4 Issue 005. Order your copy here.

I’m doing it for clout?? For attention?? What?? To get paid?? Now y’all just sound dumb and ignorant!! I don’t expect anyone who wasn’t placed in my position to understand why and how I feel the way that I do!! MIND YOU I am a minor! 17 years old, of course I’m not about to fight off a cop I’m SCARED wtf… NO. Fight ing would’ve got someone else killed or in the same position George (may he Rest In Peace ) was in!”

It’s easily forgotten, but a 17-year-old black woman recorded and posted the video of George Floyd, risking death herself. Darnella Frazier made the above post two days after sharing the original video of Floyd being choked out by a white police officer, for eight minutes and 46 seconds. She didn’t stop after making the first post; she continued to post articles, alerting people to the cover up – it was citizen journalism at its finest.

These posts, the epicentre of an uprising which brought tens of millions out onto the streets globally, day after day, have been shared thousands of times on her profile, but of course Frazier’s initially small action was amplified, hundreds of millions of times, until the whole world paid attention.

This is the positive, democratic, insurrectionary power of signal-boosting.

Supporting through sharing is a fundamental human behaviour; part of how communities organise ourselves to safeguard our future as a species, as innate as the desire to breathe. We are pro-social animals. It’s no wonder that social platforms make up the majority of internet usage. The internet economy of likes and shares, although often synonymous with self-gratification, is also one of sharing information, which can mean life or death, revolt or business-as-usual, or simply a local business weathering the economic storms.

Signal-boosting at its most elementary means to amplify a signal, but in the context of a highly digital world, it means more. It’s about dropping someone or something in your mentions, nodding at an important initiative in your posts, sharing online content in order to raise awareness of an issue, or event, or something you want to amplify – be that a GoFundMe in Mauritius over an oil spill, or a local business in Milton Keynes facing closure.

I recently finished writing How To Change It with Stormzy x Penguin’s pace-setting #Merky Books and looking back through it, it’s littered with signal-boosting. Whether in the backdrop or at the forefront there are dozens of groups and initiatives that get a shoutout, like the ascendant movement to Defund the Police, or the London Renters Union. The latter have had a critical year fighting back against pandemic-driven evictions by rogue landlords, empowering renters to take a stand.

Recognising the power of signal-boosting is central to making progress. If I’m honest, I wouldn’t have gotten a book deal if it wasn’t for the power of some well-timed signal-boosts. In this case it meant putting things on other people’s radars, knowing that they will signal-boost in the future, when the time is right.

It’s a real working-class impulse, when I deep it. Social solidarity with the underdogs. Thinking back to Freeze FM days, pirate radio, all the shoutouts to so and so, or now, nearly every mainstream drill, rap or grime artist has a shoutout to a day-one who’s locked up – that’s an important signal boost. Signal-boosting can be egalitarian like that. It doesn’t cost much but it can rack up serious costs to those you’re trying to expose, and it’s often about amplifying the downtrodden – signal-boosting that punches up.

As the information web, what’s often described as web 1.0, morphed into the social web (web 2.0), and users were able to participate, collaborate and inform one another more freely (think YouTube and Facebook), the sharing” feature rose to prominence. Share” remains the most commonly embedded button on the internet, followed closely by like”.

In the world of web 2.0, culture did a 180. Suddenly, with YouTube, Bandcamp and more, content creators could call on local fans to signal-boost the fuck out of their work. This is possibly what drove grime to the charts, and what gave us Stormzy – a national icon. In turn, these self-made artists re-boost signals that would otherwise have not been amplified. In the last few weeks, charting artists such as AJ Tracey, Skepta, Ghetts, Abra Cadabra and OFB have released different singles addressing this #BlackLivesMatter moment – super-signal-boosting.

Outside of political terrains, signal-boosting has also transformed the most fundamental platform of exchange in human society – the marketplace. From living-room start-ups to local-store crossovers, in the midst of a global pandemic millions of us have either lost work or been forced to reconsider how we make money. Contrary to large, established businesses and industry leaders, who are reliant on a monopolised advertising industry, these small enterprises are reliant on the signal-boosting economy – the re-post and retweet – the grassroots support.

But look, before we get carried away, signal-boosting is not a silver bullet, and we lean into the temptation of a dewy-eyed reading of how and why we signal-boost at our own risk. Tragedies like that of Korryn Gaines in Baltimore in 2016, where Facebook shut down her livestream of a face-off with police about previous traffic offences and she was subsequently shot dead, are a reminder that our signal-boosting remains mediated by the levers of capitalism and the state.

Like all tools, signal-boosting has significant pros and cons, and they must be unpicked because, importantly, signal-boosting is indispensable to everyday life. We are signal-boosting the ecological collapse of Earth, and those on the nationalist right have been signal-boosting the rise of fascism. The ubiquitous power of signal-boosting is as strong as we are vigilant to its misuse and manipulation. At the root of signal-boosting is the urge to support, from Latin supportare, to convey, carry, bring up, bring forward”, as it is in many ways about upliftment. There is something profoundly egalitarian about the humble signal-boost – as, despite the best laid-efforts to control how it happens, we remain in the driver’s seat, and we use it to uplift each other.

Joshua Virasami’s How To Change It is published by #MerkyBooks and out now.


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