By Sanzari Aranyak ’22 (them/them)
From May to July of 2020, our Instagram feeds morphed into a virtual and constantly updating library of theory, organizing strategies, and community funds, all rendered in colorful, square slideshows. Though I already used my social media platforms to amplify movement work, at the beginning of June, my interactions with the app shifted as I started creating graphics for the Davidson Community Fund. At that point, the Davidson Community Fund project was just an Instagram account platform (@davidsoncommunityfund) to fundraise for Black queer and trans houseless femmes in Charlotte. Organized by a group of Davidson students, we amplified the needs of these community members, who we knew through our connections with Charlotte Uprising and Black queer and trans organizers in Charlotte.
I started to make graphics regularly on Canva, using colorfully drawn elements and bold fonts. These designs appeal to polished Instagram aesthetics and can get more reshares than posts that have screenshots of peoples’ Venmo or Cash App accounts. Along with the hundreds of infographics I’ve been seeing on my feed since May, fundraiser graphics like these have also been shared fairly widely, as organizers try to capitalize on this shift in primarily white, mainstream attention to create structures for reparations, wealth redistribution, and mutual aid.
These posts work––through our Instagram account alone, the Davidson Community Fund has redistributed over $25,000. However, it’s important to note that although we’ve raised so much money, and a lot more people are becoming aware of their racial and class privilege, most of the contributions still come from first-generation low-income Black Indigenous people of color (FGLI BIPOC) donating as much as they can. We’re trying to focus our energy on getting people with wealth and privilege to redistribute their resources, but it’s still often FGLI BIPOC who support each other.
Among other reasons, this trend has led more and more people in radical leftist spaces to question the Instagram graphic as a mode of radical change-making. These questions apply in different ways to infographics vs. fundraiser graphics, but still make me think more deeply about the graphics I make and how they tie into a longer history of radical design and activism.
I’m interested in this collision of modern graphic design aesthetics and radical/anarchist zine-like content that has been playing out on our Instagram feeds every day since May. Part of the reason for this new aesthetic comes from the fact that people are using tools like Canva, where you have to put a lot more effort into designs that look punk or DIY or ugly, but another part is the medium on which these graphics are distributed.
In order for your post to reach a wide audience on Instagram, it has to play into what the Instagram algorithm thinks people want to see on their feeds. The pastels, the Helvetica Neue, and the minimalistic backgrounds are more likely to fit into the Instagram aesthetic and spread using the algorithm, and you need the algorithm to work for your post to have any traction at all. In the move from physical space to virtual space––that has been a long time coming but that we’re all forced into now––it’s now impossible to get the same attention and action from papering your neighborhood with fliers or zines than from an Instagram graphic that’s shared on a bunch of different stories and accounts.
What does it mean for political action and social change to depend on the Instagram algorithm? In some ways, it means that you have to compromise on how radical your work can actually be. When the work that you do is bound by the infrastructure of a social media site, it brings up complicated questions about the difference between process and product. Does it matter more for the process by which you organize––in this case, the graphic you distribute––to disrupt visual structures of white supremacist settler colonialism, or for your graphic to reach the most people and get them to engage with the content, shrouded in the minimalist Instagram aesthetics of 2020? When wrestling with these ideas, we have to center the positionality of the person designing, the context of the work they’re doing, and the effectiveness of their methods.
Since we’re now about four months out from the first Uprising protest and those first Instagram graphics, I’m able to better think about what they mean/t. I’ve seen critiques (on Instagram, as Instagram graphics) of the ways in which these infographics 1) allow people to share them on their story and think that that’s activism + harm reduction, 2) are a highly reduced version of the theory or text, meaning that people don’t understand half as much as they think they do, and 3) compromise on the point of radical aesthetics and radical art, using modern/minimalist/graphic design elements that don’t disrupt the visual landscape of 2020 white supremacist, settler-colonial, cisheteropatriarchal capitalism.
Every one of these critiques has truth in it, but the overall conversation around digital activism, design aesthetics, and the timeline of 2020 is too nuanced for me to agree with any specific part of them. I can see that a lot of people have stopped sharing graphics and have gone back to sharing brunch photos, but I can also see that more of my family and friends are engaging with the idea of abolition, wealth redistribution, and mutual aid now. These graphics took over these social media spaces over the summer and turned personal feeds into explicitly political and confrontational spaces.
The graphics we’ve been posting over the past four months have helped us raise over $25,000, but they don’t gain as much traction now. Now, we’re figuring out where we go from here. Is it possible to recreate the best parts of what happened over the summer, or was that digital space just a product of those few months? These graphics have helped us create virtual communities with people who have been doing the work in Charlotte, in Davidson, and in our different circles in separate cities. We’ve been able to get onto people’s feeds because our images have nice fonts and mangos in the background. We’ve made an impact through these posts, and we are trying to transform those community connections into an infrastructure of wealth redistribution that will last beyond this year.
These Canvas have, for me, been spaces of radical work being done, and I still create them in about 20 minutes when they’re asked for. This summer has shown us that these complicated questions about design, aesthetics, activism, and performance are increasingly hard to answer. What I’ve learned is that design has power; radical aesthetics are complicated; and we’ll have to break down Instagram algorithms before we dream and build liberatory futures. Sanzari Aranyak ‘22 (they/them) is a Gender and Sexuality Studies major from Raleigh, NC. They can be reached for comment at email@example.com.