Get more Mail & Guardian
Subscribe or Login

The age of the feminist influencer



Let’s face it. Social media is built for show offs. People who feel no way about rebranding themselves as the avant garde of a movement they spend almost no time giving unscripted or unselfied labor to. People who are happy to be their own PR machine and remind us endlessly about how enviable they are, how many influential people they are able to squeeze into the frame of their smartphone cameras, how well their book/product/blog/hair is doing and that they are #grateful for the follows, reminding you that they are, like all people with followers… the leader.

They may not have been show offs at birth, but the social engineers of contemporary online culture have succeeded in tapping into that deep narcissistic place in the soul and here we are — hashtagging random expensive pleasures as feminist #selfcare, Instagramming the inane minutiae of our daily routines, and self-promoting the hell out of life.

We are not really sure how they came to represent us, but there they are speaking about us (or is it for us?) on Africa policy platforms, mingling at events with dubious heads of state and other representatives of the ruling patriarchy and requesting us to “like” it because, well, proximity to mainstream power. Their citational practice is slick though. The dead and the far older make their appearances, but so do smart swerves to avoid citing anyone of their generation lest they get noticed and win out in the Top ten leading Africans under… lists they have sought permanent residency on. It helps if you are good looking. People do after all have to stare at your face all day, in selfie after selfie talking, apparently, about the inner workings of capitalist patriarchy or Africa’s continued epistemic colonisation. The deluge of online information also helps, because while some claim that the internet never forgets we know that it really does forget. Exhibit A: that impassioned Twitter thread that absolutely contradicts the position you just took in a showdown with another influencer you think is stealing your shine.

Well so what, I suppose. I mean, we only live once. So might as well insist that the world knows you are the best thing since instant fufu. (In fact the resemblance is striking. Someone else has done a lot of the labour — the “grind”— but you probably won’t credit them, and we won’t ask either).

So what. Except that this push, in our activist and literary spaces in particular, is gradually squeezing all those who prefer the considered, the less “spectacular,” the inquisitive, the community-led, to the corners of the room.

Worse still, several recent conversations that I have had with African activists and creatives suggests that the over-occupation of space by “influencers” is starting to undermine people’s sense that their deep, engaged and un-self(ie)oriented work is “worth it.” As one person reflected “I used to think that if you just did the important work, it would be noticed.” Another commented how the community of women who taught them everything they know about brave activism don’t matter to the world anymore. Their working class realities are un-marketable in this new opulent culture of influence. Just last week, an older feminist shared with shock about how unsisterly she found the new wave of activist influencers — impatient, confident yet also self-absorbed, and it seems unable to handle the generosity required to build flesh and blood community. The once hallowed space of #afrifem online activism has become in some recent moments its own space of salty remarks and ungracious exchanges. The residues of those battles leave many feeling like a precious collective space for African feminists is slowly being undone.

In all this hullabaloo, what are the quiet ones, the introverts, the communitarians, the beyond-the- surface observers to do? Where and how do we find the space for the deep-thinking and collective thinking that our activism and our imaginations so desperately need? How do we re-constitute our sense of who is valid to listen to? When do we start to flip the camera back around? Or even, put it down?

Some say online culture will inevitably transition. Narcissism, forever seeking but never really finding its own proverbial echo, will fall into the mythical water, and drown. I say that may be so, but in the meantime it is time to devote ourselves again to re-embrace the offline — that leveling reality when we meet face to face with no stage in between, and realise that we can’t let our egos cast their shadows so far. We need to cite again, to read at depth again, and to critique again — not as territorial defense but as a commitment to the rigor that our visions and practices of freedom absolutely require. While privilege is, apparently, under scrutiny in our new “intersectional” everything, we could do better at questioning our own and that of the hierarchies of value we have begun to accept in terms of whose voice matters.

In fact, let’s do this people. Let’s get the collective, self-reflexive, community-serving back #ontrend.

This article was originally published on Africasacountry.

Subscribe to the M&G

Thanks for enjoying the Mail & Guardian, we’re proud of our 36 year history, throughout which we have delivered to readers the most important, unbiased stories in South Africa. Good journalism costs, though, and right from our very first edition we’ve relied on reader subscriptions to protect our independence.

Digital subscribers get access to all of our award-winning journalism, including premium features, as well as exclusive events, newsletters, webinars and the cryptic crossword. Click here to find out how to join them.

Jessica Horn
Guest Author

Related stories


Subscribers only

‘People feel they have a stake in SAA’ — Gidon...

Interest in the beleaguered national carrier, which has received billions of rands in public funding, means criticism is inevitable

Soweto teacher dismissed for the alleged repeated rape of a...

The learner was 13 when the alleged rapes started, and they continued for two years until she asked to be moved to another school

More top stories

ANC committed to paying staff salaries, but employees are not...

ANC staffers picketed outside Luthuli House on Tuesday after months of problems with salary payments

Kanalelo Boloetsi: Taking on Lesotho’s cellphone giants, and winning

A man who took on cellphone data regulators over out-of-bundle rates is featured in this edition of a series on human rights defenders in the SADC region

Iqbal Sharma’s brother-in-law granted bail in Free State farming case

Dinesh Patel appeared on the same charges that have seen Sharma denied bail and the prosecuting authority seek the extradition of the Gupta brothers

Two-million new J&J jabs to come within two weeks, says...

Johnson & Johnson plans to replace our two-million unusable vaccines by July. The vaccines are unsuitable for use and must be destroyed, while the country’s vaccination programme is behind schedule

press releases

Loading latest Press Releases…