April 4, 2016
For a brief background on this series on Suey Park, see "Twitter Trials: Why I Am Writing about Suey Park."
For accompanying images, see "Suey Park: Images." Note: All images and information are from public accounts. I have never had an Instagram account (which means I was only able to access publicly available images); screencaps of Park's Instagram photos were for public consumption, and were cross-posted on her public Twitter account.
I. Who Was Suey Park?
To a lot of people, I’m just some girl who got killed on the internet.
Suey Park, “The Internet Ruined My Life,” SyFy Channel, Episode 1
There's bound to be a ghost at the back of your closet,
no matter where you live.
There'll always be a few things, maybe several things
that you're going to find really difficult to forgive.
— Mountain Goats, “Up the Wolves”
It was a scene out of the Game of Thrones.
Two great Hashtag Warriors, once sworn enemies, were now gathered at an oaken table, preparing to conduct peace negotiations for the good of their combined empires. All around them, their anxious subjects waited and watched, their breaths suspended in anticipation as their regents prepared to air their differences and, perhaps, hopefully, end their bitter disputes and create a better universe.
Such seemed to be the scene set for the article, “Suey Park And Arthur Chu: A Dialogue Between Two Hashtag Warriors,” which appeared on Thought Catalog in November 2015. The grand title appeared to allude to a long-ago battle between two famous people who had now reconciled. In fact, the piece was meant to advertise a speaking tour, “The Big Mean Internet,” where they would reflect on their previously embattled relationship and “social justice, Asian America, and more,” as Park put it.
But those unfamiliar with hashtag activism or Twitter or who have not followed the two micro-celebrities might well wonder why any of this mattered. Who, they might wonder, echoing the title of a proposed documentary about him, is Arthur Chu? And, given that she has deleted nearly all of her social media presence, including her Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram profiles, they might also wonder: Who was Suey Park?
Suey Park joined Twitter in 2009, and became the uncrowned queen of “hashtivism,” defined (and sometimes dismissed) as online activism which rallies Twitter users around causes with the use of participatory hashtags. Internet celebrity is notorious for being short — entire careers can take off, founder, and disappear in a matter of days — so Park’s reign, which lasted till the end of 2015, is an astonishingly long one. She had previously become famous as the woman behind #NotYourAsianSidekick, but she is most well-known as the creator of the hashtag #CancelColbert.
A brief history of #CancelColbert: On March 26, 2014, the then official (now discontinued) Comedy Central account @ColbertReport tweeted a comment from the previous night’s show: “I am willing to show #Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.”
In context: Colbert had been poking fun at Dan Snyder, owner of the Redskins. The team’s name has long been criticised as deeply offensive to Native Americans and Snyder, instead of changing it, responded by offering charity via a Foundation. On his March 25 show, Colbert lampooned the gesture as a patently cynical one which did nothing to address the structural problems facing Native Americans, including the harmful effects of stereotypical names.
Suey Park, apparently unaware of the context, took offense at the March 26 tweet and, on March 27, tweeted to over 20,000 followers, using her Twitter handle @suey_park, “The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals has decided to call for #CancelColbert. Trend it.” 1
A bemused Colbert popped up to respond to Park: “I agree! Just saw @ColbertReport tweet. I share your rage. Who is that, though? I'm @StephenAtHome.” Instead of acknowledging her mistake and quietly ending her campaign, Park now began to claim that she had always understood the tweet as satire, had not meant for the show to actually be cancelled, and that her main problem was that Asians were the butt of the joke. She also began to claim her demand had itself been satirical. But in fact, at the time, she went so far as to write, with Eusong Kim in an op-ed for Time, titled “We Want to #CancelColbert,” that #CancelColbert was “set up in response to a blatantly racist Tweet about Asians.” Furthermore, when it was announced, a little while after #CancelColbert, that Colbert would be taking over David Letterman’s prestigious spot on late-night television, Park and Kim returned to Time to insist that they would continue to protest what they perceived as orientalism. In other words, despite her (ongoing) insistence that she was being satirical in her response to Colbert’s satire, all available evidence shows that Park and her compatriots did not see the original tweet as satire and that they were serious about getting the show canceled.2
Matters spiralled. On the 27th, she appeared on Huffpost Live, in an interview with Josh Zepps and it was, for her, a disaster from the beginning. She responded to a standard opening question, “Why cancel Colbert? What did you hope to achieve with that?” with, “That’s a loaded question.” The interview subsequently devolved. When Zepps asked her to explain why the tweet was offensive, she responded, “I refuse to enact that labour.” That phrase subsequently achieved meme-like fame and even appeared on this Social Justice Kitten calendar.
Despite Park’s avowed anti-racist agenda, her politics on #CancelColbert were muddled and murky from the start. At one point, she was joined and supported in her campaign by Michelle Malkin. Malkin is a well-known xenophobe, the author of a book justifying the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II. As Colbert, Arun Gupta (who also provided an exact timeline of events), and others pointed out, Park’s alliance with Malkin undercut her own professed politics. Mia Mackenzie of the popular blog Black Girl Dangerous and others felt compelled to tweet critically at Park about her new online friend. But Park had already previously defended Malkin, going so far as to call Malkin’s opponents “hysterical”:
Critics of the campaign pointed out that #CancelColbert effectively took all attention away from the more pressing social justice issue that several Native American activists had tried to highlight in the first place, one that Colbert had attempted to support: the push to get Dan Snyder to remove his racist team name.
There is something to be said about maintaining an integrity to campaigns of any sort, to respecting an ecology of activism. If a campaign relies on a misrepresentation of an originary point — as #CancelColbert did — it is doomed to become mired in needless carping about its roots from the very start. To this day, no one remembers the original campaign, one to which, according to many accounts, Park had committed and which she used to establish her credentials in Native American activism.
As to her constant claim that she never actually meant to have the show cancelled: on the blog Reappropriate, “Jen,” the chief blogger wrote, “I cannot fathom structuring a campaign around a political demand that I did not actually want to have happen (or around a hashtag that could reasonably be mistaken as being the actual goal of the campaign).”
In the months to come, Park saw tremendous online hostility and claimed that she had been “doxxed” — the term for anonymous posters revealing someone’s private details, including financial data and social security number. A doxsing document does in fact exist online and even now online trolls will make vile comments about raping and abusing her.
Eventually, claiming that she was being pushed off the internet, Park left all the campaigns behind and disappeared from social media. She returned in July 2015, with a different Twitter handle @sueypark01 (it is possible that her old one had been deactivated or was inaccessible for some reason). Here, in an account that is still active (perhaps one of many), she projected a different self altogether, attempting to be thoughtful and almost aphoristic, sometimes in unclear ways: “You have worth regardless of if you can give or not give. I will not participate in the fundamentalism of the left.” After a while, she returned to her original Twitter handle @suey_park, with its many followers.3
Park also began an Instagram account and declared her ambition to become an Instagram foodie (images 1-2), producing photos and tweets that were more in keeping with a lifestyle guru. Where her older Twitter profile had been that of a “social justice warrior,” she now projected herself in more sophisticated terms as a wealthy, upwardly mobile millennial (image 3). She moved into one of Chicago’s most exclusive rental complexes and even proudly broadcast where she lived by hashtagging #500 N. Lake Shore Drive on her photos, which went beyond the usual custom of geotagging locations and required her to manually insert the address (images 4-5). This was surprising for someone who continues to talk about how she has been stalked, even claiming, in the SyFy episode featuring her story, that a sniper sat outside her window and texted that he was about to shoot her (Park may well have believed someone's prank text but it was an improbable scenario, even though heavily dramatised by Syfy, since snipers must necessarily rely on keeping their missions secret from their intended targets). She also posted several photos of the inside of the apartment and its spectacular views of the lake.4
Park’s reincarnation as a softer, gentler, and penitent culture-maker was greatly enabled by a hagiographic profile of her by Elizabeth Bruenig in The New Republic that appeared in May of 2015. Bruenig — known for her Christian, left commentary — cast Park as a figure in search of forgiveness and redemption and emphasised her commitment to the church. The piece was titled, “Why Won’t Twitter Forgive Suey Park?” Here, Suey Park emerged as a chastened young woman who reassured Bruenig that she really didn’t hate white people. Describing Park, Bruening wrote, “She’s dressed this morning in a burgundy suede skirt and sparkly bronze boots, a touch of edge offset by her soft, neutral makeup and glossy bob. She’s almost always smiling; her eyes are dark and quick and bright, and sometimes I catch her glancing at me sidelong as if I make her nervous.” Bruenig didn’t interview any of Park’s critics (Part II in this series is focused on the profile, with more details).
In August of 2015, Park posted a series of tweets that, in essence, implied that she had engaged in her previous online diatribes because she had been part of a “cult-like” set of social justice warriors (SJWs). The term SJW is used to describe people who, like Park, engage in intense online campaigns ostensibly designed to bring about social change by tweeting relentlessly. She claimed to have been brainwashed into following SJWs because of a “mob mentality.” Following her return to Twitter and even after the TNR piece, Park had not been able to sustain much attention online. But this series, on the heels of Bruenig’s redemption narrative, became the subject of hundreds of retweets and much discussion on the internet, with people across ideological borders swarming to congratulate her (and also, many scoffing that she had not really changed).
All the while, she maintained a busy and clearly lucrative career on the speaking circuit, presenting at places like the “University of Oregon, Northwestern University, the ADP Conference, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago, Rutgers University, George Washington University, Brandeis University, and National University of Ireland, Galway,” according to the bio of her bookings manager Alex Ngo, who worked for her from May 2014 to January 2015. Park and Ngo were co-presenters at an October 2014 event at Rutgers. In November 2015, she presented a keynote lecture at Social Media Week, an event whose admission alone costs upwards of $159. The title for her talk was The Good, The Bad & The Ugly: Social Media Lessons From An Outspoken Activist and she delivered it in Merchandise Mart, a long-standing venue that hosts exclusive and expensive events. The event's description pointed to her expertise as a hashtivist: “Activist Suey Park, writer and originator of #NotYourAsianSideKick, #CancelColbert and other hashtags, will discuss the power and positive potential of social media for shaping public perception, and will take a look at the negative implications of a social media conversation gone awry, providing tips on how to best withstand an onslaught of trolls and internet bullies.”
Park had now embarked upon the second part of her career, the successful hashtivist who had not only created many campaigns but could now speak from heavy experience about their negative outcomes. Demonstrating her rhetorical agility, she never once admitted she had been wrong in any of her campaigns, successfully turning the spotlight on how she had learnt to be a better, gentler hashtivist and emphasising the online harassment to which she had been subject. She was now “monetising” her new persona.
On December 1, I wrote to Park with fact-checking questions about some of the details in the Bruenig piece. Less than 48 hours later, Park deleted or put into abeyance her entire internet presence.
II. TWITTER THEORY
Why does Suey Park matter, other than as a typical internet celebrity who appears and reappears in various incarnations? She is, after all, gone, or perhaps waiting somewhere to re-emerge with yet another tale of wounding and flight, in yet another reincarnation. Why bother to track her multiple avatars and examine her history in any way?
We could dismiss Park as merely another symptom of Twitter’s ferocious and intensely short-lived process of celebrity-making. But to do so ignores the fact that Twitter has played a role in defining conversations around essential matters like race and gender. To that extent, whether or not people think she furthered or hindered them, Suey Park has been part of public conversations on identity, particularly Asian American identity, for a few years now. Her role has not always been productive. In conversations with activists, a common set of complaints emerges: that she has a habit of taking up projects with initial enthusiasm but eventually begins to chafe at having to work with others and then leaves abruptly, often in a public way. There is a widespread sense that she has sapped various incipient movements around matters of race and ethnicity of their energy and directed attention away from the issues that mattered (witness what happened to the Redskins campaign) towards her own branding mechanism.
In one of his many posts on Park, Freddie deBoer writes,
Karen Lewis of the Chicago Teacher Union, an organization filled with women of color fighting daily for economic justice through street level activism and labor organizing, has less than 3,000 Twitter followers. Suey Park has almost 23,000. Yet Lewis does more for women of color in a day than Park has done in her whole life. If attention is the coin of the realm in a world of hashtag politics, then something is clearly wrong here.
In the terms laid out by deBoer, Park’s level of fame and attention are out of proportion to the work she has actually done, which has mostly been online. Her “activism” has mostly consisted of manufacturing online outrage. Extending this argument, we can see that Park has consumed an inordinate amount of often sympathetic attention from the left — it is customary, in analyses of her, to focus attention on the trolling she has endured. Park’s constant campaigns have absorbed the attention of large swaths of the left as it fumbles through its often inadequate responses to race and gender. Park represents youth, Asian American identity, and a brand of online feminism, all presented with a trademark style and fashion savvy, and she has continued to divert attention from all sides for years now.
There has so far not been an exhaustive examination of the history of Suey Park’s social media presence and its effects. Rather than dismiss her, this series examines her in the context of a new landscape where social media plays an active even if derided role in determining our political discourse. We ignore Suey Park at our peril not because she taught us anything new about race and identity, but because hers is a case study of how such vital issues become distorted and even ignored through a neoliberal lens that fetishises them without paying them due attention.
Suey Park’s packed and controversial career as part of the Twitterati appeared on a medium that is frequently criticised as inconsequential even though it has reshaped how mainstream media responds to and even creates news. For instance, it is now commonplace for most television shows to maintain a link to Twitter and include responses and commentary from it. Its history and place in social revolutions has been debated. But it does have a place in organising: When Chicago police wrongfully arrested Malcolm Young, a member of Black Youth Project, during demonstrations in November 2015, several of his supporters (including me) were quick to furiously tweet at the Chicago Police Department to release him without charges — and that is what happened.
But Twitter can also wreak havoc in people’s lives. In December 2013, Justine Sacco made an admittedly foolish and insensitive joke on Twitter, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Twelve hours later, she landed in South Africa, now without a job because her company fired her after her tweet became the most trending topic on Twitter. A matter that could have been resolved differently (and through the proper workplace channels, if necessary) had been managed by a Twitter mob.
For better or for worse, depending on whom you talk to, Twitter has become an integral part of how social discourse is conducted today. To date, analyses of Twitter have fallen on a familiar axis: It is, for some, fraught with revolutionary potential and allows previously marginalised communities to have a voice. This perception greatly enabled the first part of Park’s career as a spokesperson for Asian American identity. Her initial campaigns were all built on the premise that Twitter would allow Asian Americans, particularly young Asian American feminists, to amplify their voices online in ways that were not possible in real time given the many institutional barriers they face in real life.
For others, Twitter is a toxic wasteland, filled with the jarring cacophony of voices launching screeds and defamatory tweets at each other, becoming incapable of sustaining real-life relationships in the pursuit of internet fame and, possibly, profits. This French video darkly illustrates this perspective.
Both views, broadly described here, sustain a common liberal perception that Twitter inhabits a public sphere that can be made better with a multiplicity of voices debating key issues of the day. We have convinced ourselves that the main issue is whether or not its users deploy Twitter in fit ways. The question is always of modulation and tone: Can we be better, do better in how we express our views?
But Twitter is more complex than simply a medium on which multiple voices express themselves with greater or lesser degrees of toxicity. To take Twitter seriously, we have to see it as as a staging for neoliberalism’s injunction that everyone should now make and remake themselves in order to survive.
Neoliberalism insists that we are all responsible for ourselves, and its prime characteristic is the privatisation of resources — like education, healthcare, and water — once considered essential rights for everyone (for at least a relatively brief period in human history so far). Within this severely privatised realm, choice emerges as a mantra for all individuals: we can all now have infinite choices, whether between brands of orange juice or schools or banks. This reverence for choice extends to how we are continually pushed to think of ourselves as not just rewarded with choices in material goods and services but with choices in how we constitute our individual selves in order to survive. The contemporary emphasis on “monetising” and “branding” oneself emerges from this neoliberal sphere, where people are required to craft themselves into investment commodities. Twitter and other forms of social media play a role in this construction of the self as a money-making enterprise, with millions hoping to become profitable brands.
In all this, neoliberalism engages in a classic bait and switch: the choice is not a choice but a demand. You have no choice but to choose. In education, for instance, neoliberalism first decimates public schools, then installs charter schools as the only alternatives, then convinces parents in those decimated neighbourhoods that choosing charters is a right. You have no choice but to choose, and the choices are always tilted in favour of the entity that most profits from your “choice.”
Arun Gupta’s critique of Park points to one aspect of this commodification of the self:
Suey Park is the Bitcoin of activism. Her hashtag movements are a digital phenomenon. Her value is determined by how much others buy into her. The lack of institutional backing allows her to disrupt the status quo. And just like digital currencies, hashtag activism is vulnerable to shadowy intrigues and corrupting influences.
Gupta’s essay is the fullest account of the #CancelColbert matter, and he spends considerable time tracing these intrigues and influences in terms of Park’s many dubious political alliances, including her most notorious one with Michelle Malkin. Park was so terrified of losing her brand recognition that she teamed up with and implicitly endorsed Malkin’s xenophobic politics, even as she launched a purportedly anti-racist campaign against Colbert. Suey Park’s career and her “monetising” of herself, even at the cost of her own espoused political agenda, marks what philosophers and theorists have called the neoliberal entrepreneurial self.
Following the work of Michel Foucault, Andrew Dilts and Philip Mirowski have theorised the neoliberal entrepreneurial self. As Dilts puts it, this is an “entrepreneur of himself, being for himself his own capital, being for himself his own producer, being for himself the source of [his] earnings.”
The neoliberal entrepreneurial self operates as if in isolation, but its existence marks the decimation of several collective entities, including neighbourhoods and the economies of entire cities. Consider, for instance, the rise of Airbnb along with ride-sharing services like Uber and Lyft, and the promises they have offered — and broken — of letting individuals make money at their own pace, unregulated (read: unprotected) by bureaucratic rules (read: unions). The growth of these economies is tied to the growing gentrification of cities. In the case of Airbnb, for instance, concentrated cities like San Francisco are being taken over by apartment complexes solely devoted to a constantly moving clientele with no ties to the city itself. The prospect of earning extra income prompts people to now rent otherwise unaffordable apartments knowing they can Airbnb extra rooms. As Doug Henwood points out, “Such practices take units off the rental market and grease the wheels of gentrification by making rapidly rising rents “affordable.” Twitter — owned by people who have made billions and constituted entirely by milllions (including me) tweeting for free — survives with many of us hoping that this “free” portal will lead to profitable, monetised selves.
A better Twitter theory enables us to understand that it is not simply the expression of multiple unmediated selves seeking and gaining free expression to either a revolutionary or destructive end but part of a literal and virtual landscape on which several identities — including white ones — are in contestation for chunks of the monetisation pie. In that sense, Twitter is not merely a symptom of a public sphere but a platform that is bound up with the primary dictate of neoliberalism: Make yourself or die.
Both Arthur Chu and Suey Park are prime examples of this neoliberal entrepreneurial self. Chu came to his fame as the first Asian American and first person to win over $350,000 on the quiz show Jeopardy. Shortly following his win and his Twitter fame (he and his wife battled many hostile game show fans who criticised his strategies), he openly asked how to best monetise his new-found status. Parts of his reward for becoming internet famous were regular columns on Salon and The Daily Beast. For his first piece in the latter, he wrote a critique of Park, titled, “An Ode to Angry Asians: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Suey Park.” Park furiously tweeted at him, in capital letters, “DO YOU OR ANY OF YOUR ASIAN DUDEBRO SELLOUTS KNOW WHAT THE FUCK #CANCELCOLBERT COST ME?” She also accused him of being a “tool of white supremacy.”
Park’s anger reflected her fury at the possibility of losing cachet on social media, where there are literally fortunes to be made. Ronan Farrow, son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, without any evidence of talent or experience was signed up for a $650,000 a year gig on MSNBC solely on the basis of his one tweet about his parentage: “Listen, we're all *possibly* Frank Sinatra's children.” The tweet was in response to a media furore caused by his mother publicly suggesting that Frank Sinatra, not Allen, was her son’s biological father. Despite his show business lineage on both — or, as we were led to believe, all three sides of his family tree — Farrow proved to be disastrous on television. But his initial financial success keeps hope alive for millions of others.
Park has repeatedly said, even as recently as March 2016, that she lost her income due to Twitter kerfuffles or because of supposedly having to go underground. While the veracity of that claim to loss of income can be disputed — there are many indications that Park is in fact the beneficiary of significant family wealth — the fact is that it is acceptable by now to consider that one has a career constructed entirely out of Tweets. In one of her Instagram photos, Park was challenged by a reader about her inherited wealth, and her response was that she had made every cent. In short, it is entirely possible, if we are to believe Park, to live in a House Made of Tweets.
The point here is is not to be critical of people like Suey Park and Arthur Chu for making money off Twitter but to consider their money-making as part of a neoliberal framework that fetishises their entrepreneurship, and to consider Twitter as part of that neoliberal framework.
Twitter is mistaken as a form of political action, and the fact that tweeting has the appearance of unmediated immediacy gives it the legitimacy of authenticity, a hallmark of the neoliberal entrepreneurial self. In Park’s case, her authenticity hinged on her being not just Asian American but oppressed on multiple counts. She has often spoken of growing up as an Asian American in the wealthy Chicago suburb of Lake Zurich, of being chased by children who would push their eyes upwards, imitating the folds in hers. In her life as Queen of Asian American Twitter, she has frequently evoked and relied upon her identity as an oppressed Asian American who was and is the subject of racism. The point is not that racism could not have or does not exist for her, but that Park appears to consistently use stories of that racism to advance her own career — not necessarily to work towards ending that racism.
The construction of the entrepreneurial self necessarily involves, particularly for women and those defined as minorities, narrating stories of trauma. In Park’s case, she has consistently raised the trauma level of her story. For example: her stories of being trolled on the internet were at first about receiving death threats and harassment online or over email. Nearly three years later, in the SyFy Channel episode about her experience, she amplified those threats to include a story about a sniper standing outside her window, threatening to shoot her. It has never been enough for Park to be simply Asian American or simply the subject of racist attacks or simply the leader of a “movement” online; she has, in various iterations also been the victim of domestic abuse, the brainwashed follower of a cult-like group of “social justice warriors,” a child who spoke without thinking, a confused but brave young adult, and, as we will see toward the end of this piece, a world-weary “warrior” who refers to those coming behind her as “kids” (Park is 26).
This constant reinvention ensures constant interest and it also means that the entrepreneurial self lives its entire lifespan in the public eye. The effect of watching these quick-changing shifts is like watching a nature film on PBS, with a segment about a larva turning into a mosquito in an accelerated film of its life cycle.
Looked at this way, we might consider Park’s long, strange career on Twitter not in terms of an an individualised critique, or in terms of trolling and nastiness, but in terms of understanding Twitter as a perverse mirror, one that carries with it a strong potential to stifle political refinement — not, as many would have it, as the opposite, a stage for better understanding if only we could divine a way to make it more productive.
But if we simply continue that line of analysis, all we achieve is a greater degree of self-flagellation as we wonder how to make ourselves better people on Twitter. It does nothing to demonstrate how social media becomes a part of a neoliberal framework.
Park, as this series will demonstrate, has historically had a fragile relationship with the truth, moulding and caressing it to suit whatever narrative she deemed most opportune at particular moments. It has sometimes seemed like she forgot to keep track of the tales — at one point, talking about her relative privilege as someone who grew up in Lake Zurich and then at another describing herself as a poverty-stricken young immigrant forced to leave college in order to support her family. Because so much of how she is perceived and how, consequently, she is able to use that perception to further a view of how Asian American identity racial/ethnic identity in general should function or be received matters, it remains important to test the veracity of her claims, as this series will do.
Given her continual reinvention, enabled by pockets of the supposedly more analytic left, and her ability to continually change her story, it is necessary to finally pin down and dissect the phenomenon that is Suey Park. Yet, this is ultimately not about Suey Park but the system that gave rise to her. The point here is not to simply expose her but to ensure that we might develop better, more thoughtful ways of thinking about complicated issues like race and gender in social media because, even if Twitter disappears tomorrow, we are not returning to some staid fictional utopia where all of our opinions are mediated through conventional platforms like newspapers. Ultimately, what matters more is what she embodies and the possibility of not simply dissecting her role in social media but of developing a more interesting and relevant theory of social media, a theory of Twitter.
Twitter functions as a mirror of a specific process of neoliberalism; it is the flowering of a particular kind of self-making that is tied to self-preservation. In this, Park is a constructed self available for public consumption, shape-shifting according to the dictates of whatever narrative might be the most sympathetic. She has deployed all of that into a career where she ultimately becomes the narrator not just of a story of trauma but one about having learnt whatever lessons she thinks might be worth learning to make people retain interest in her. The twist for Park is that her mirror is for public consumption and it leaves uncomfortable public traces that make are hard for her to erase. Park demonstrates that Twitter infamy lives on long after the original events leading up to it have disappeared from view. In her case, the Colbert campaign appears doomed to be yoked to her for a very long time, and references to her and it constantly pop up, sometimes without even naming her.
An episode of the Aziz Ansari series Master of None is centred around the fact that its main character Dev Shah keeps running into casting agents who want him to play Asians with a stereotypical Indian accent. Frustrated, he and his friend Ravi approach an advocacy group that has had success with campaigns calling out racist representations. In the group’s office, Dev notices a to-do list on the wall, with “Washington Redskins” scrawled on the top. “Still on the to-do list, Redskins?”, Dev asks. The weary advocate sighs, “Ah, yes, I don’t know what else to do. That’s been on the docket since…’94.” He also admits, “I got pretty cocky last year when it got some traction.”
Park’s presence thus literally forms the backdrop to conversations about representation. Like the light from a dead star that remains visible long after the corporeal mass has burnt out, her hashtivism and its ultimate ineffectiveness remain seared on the consciousness of all such efforts thereafter.
III. Twitter and the Portrait of Dorian Gray.
“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
Oscar Wilde’s 1890 novel, The Picture of Dorian Gray, is part horror story and part social commentary. Its eponymous character is a young man whose beauty enthralls all of London’s most fashionable society. His friend, the artist Basil Hallward, decides to preserve his image for posterity by painting his portrait. The picture is exquisite and Gray, gazing upon it, wishes that only the portrait might fade while he never aged.
By some eerie alchemy of magic and wishful thinking, the portrait and the real-life Dorian Gray trade places. As the years roll on, his flesh remains unchanged and pristine, forever young, while the portrait, hidden in a room, shows the effects of the passage of time. Knowing that nothing he does will ever show on his body and face, Gray steadily becomes more and more dissolute. He hardens and coarsens in his emotional life as well, directly or indirectly wrecking lives, even killing Hallward for fear he might reveal the truth.
As years pass, Gray gains a dark reputation and becomes a virtual exile in the same circles that once feted him. Still, he moves calmly and serenely through the world, unchanging and beautiful even as his peers age. Eventually, he comes to confront the horror of what he has brought upon himself. One day, in a blinding flash of determination to end his degeneration, he stabs the portrait. Hearing a cry, his servants rush in but the master they know is nowhere to be seen. On the floor lies the dead body of an unrecognisably disfigured, misshapen, much older and grotesque man. The portrait of Dorian Gray has reverted to the original image of its younger subject.
Wilde’s novel has become iconic and subject to several different and sometimes interlocking interpretations: a study of narcissism, a metaphor for the relentless search for youth, and a tale of dissolution; it has also been read as a text about the links between art, aesthetics, and morality.
The portrait is the most haunting feature of the novel. It is a mirror as much as a representation, reflecting the life and dissolution of Dorian Gray. But it is a mirror whose reflection of a passage of time can only be recorded by someone who actually watches and records the portrait itself. It does not only reflect Gray but the tenor of the times, which fetishised youth to such a great extent. Wilde’s acerbic wit was evident throughout his body of work, but it is Dorian Gray that has survived as an iconic example of the fetishisation of youth and its consequences. It has also become a commentary on fame and stature. The words uttered by Lord Henry, an admirer of Gray in the novel, have come to crystallise the essence of modern stardom and celebrity: “There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about.”
Both Park and Chu have survived for as long as they have because of this universally held principle — neither one has been a particularly well-liked public figure, but what keeps them alive in the public eye and able to survive as microcelebrities is the fact that they constantly, at least till recently, reinvent and recirculate themselves for public consumption. Suey Park has been able to leverage an enormous amount of dislike, critique, and outright hatred into a career where she mostly talks about what it means to be subject of dislike and hatred (she has so far pointedly avoided discussing any real critiques). And Twitter has been her primary tool in disseminating her messages about her new selves.
On the face of it, it seems easy to control and present a particular image on Twitter, to simply delete tweets that others take offense at or that we regret or which we would rather that no one see for fear of what they might expose. Sent out an offending tweet? Simply hit “delete,” and all public memory of it will be wiped forever — or so we think. With the assurance that no one has seen our worst side, we might continue in life untroubled by the possibility of Tweets coming back as ghostly reminders of selves we once were, or the selves we still are but would prefer to hide from public view, the selves we would rather lock up in virtual rooms. We imagine ourselves safe, much as Dorian Gray imagined that simply locking up his portrait would keep him safe.
In fact, it is almost frighteningly easy to reconstruct Twitter timelines, especially of the famous or notorious, often with little more than references to such embedded in articles or posts by others who have been watching and commenting. The right Google searches, the discovery of several screencapped and Storified archives and many hours of digging around, and a Dorian Gray-like Twitter portrait of one’s subject slowly emerges. In place of syphilitic flesh and the effects of opium addiction are spiteful and malicious invectives hurled at someone or many someones in fits of rage, old hashtags or simply old-fashioned bullying campaigns designed to call out and take down opponents. Find the right tweets and, slowly but surely, pictures emerge, of lies or, at least, lies by insinuation; portraits of lives people thought they had once hidden forever re-emerge in the light of day.
Suey Park, one of Twitter’s most infamous personalities, quietly and methodically set about deleting nearly her entire Twitter feed around or even before the publication of Elizabeth Bruenig’s profile of her. At the end of the piece, Bruenig writes:
I asked Park if there were aspects of her Web presence she would prefer to disappear? Would she exercise the right to be forgotten?
“No,” she said, laughing a little. “I don’t want to lose all my digital history.”
Perhaps the operative word here is “all,” but Park’s Twitter feed, an integral part of her “digital history” now disappeared from public view, was in fact scrubbed of all the content that earned her such notoriety during the #CancelColbert hashtag campaign. Up until December 1 of 2015, her timeline only showed tweets from August 2015. In its place was a set of tweets carefully curated by Park (or someone in her employ). A few months after the profile, Park would engage in yet another bit of reinvention, this time in collusion with Arthur Chu.
IV. No More Selves to Invent
“The change starts right here.”
— Suey Park, Interview with Arthur Chu, “Hashtag Warriors.”
“In the future, we will all be famous for fifteen people.”
The Internet is like a thrift store, allowing us to repurpose ourselves endlessly, using the cast-offs deposited by others or, in some cases, our own former selves. Internet celebrities (or those who depend on the internet to keep themselves relevant) are constantly recycling themselves into trendier, updated versions, grafting entirely new and often fictionalised versions of their lives onto old selves.
Both Arthur Chu and Suey Park have engaged in this kind of repurposing. Arthur Chu was given an IQ test as a child, and it confirmed that he was a genius. But his parents were also warned that he could turn into a serial killer if they didn’t raise him carefully. In school, he composed “disturbing surrealist stories” and walked around in shorts and t-shirts in the winter at Swarthmore, where he went to school. His professors were undoubtedly not as smart as he was.
All of these tidbits and claims appeared in a glowing profile of Chu, written by Sujay Kumar for The Daily Beast. None of them appear to have been independently verified and they reflect nothing more than a fairly typical, somewhat nerdy college student (as anyone who has walked around any campus in the dead of winter knows, shorts and t-shirts appear to be the clothing of choice for countless freshmen whose brains are too fried to register the cold).
Chu would start writing for The Daily Beast soon afterwards, beginning with a piece on Suey Park that would cause her to turn on him so viciously. Chu’s regular work with Daily Beast and Salon has given him an enviable writing platform that many writers might covet. Today, his writing output far outpaces hers. After their initial and very public fight, when Park accused Chu of being a “tool of white supremacy,” the two eventually made up, and their respective online careers developed.
As subsequent parts will detail, Park’s career has been marked by several collaborative projects, and all of them have ended in disastrous un-affiliations; they have also been very short. For instance, she began working with the group 18 Million Rising (18MR) in November of 2014, but the relationship ended publicly in February of 2015, with 18MR sending out a press release about the split. Meanwhile, her tweeting career was at an end, with no campaigns to boost and her attempts to become an Instagram foodie would end in December 2015 when she abruptly deleted (or at least suspended) her account.
Chu has attempted to rewrite his own history, adopting, more successfully, Suey Park’s methods of reinvention by also claiming to have come to a place of self-redemption. The trajectory he has traced publicly is that of a nerd who once silently endorsed the worst and most misogynistic parts of gamer culture but who has now become a champion of women facing online harassment.
At a mere 32 years of age, Chu has already begun dramatising himself, going so far as to star in a documentary about his life. The film is titled “Who is Arthur Chu?”, and there appears to be more than one fundraiser for it. It’s unclear what the focus of the film might be. This trailer emphasises his fame as an Asian American Jeopardy winner, but another focuses on him finding his roots as a Taiwanese-American.
Following GamerGate, a controversy about sexism and misogyny in the gaming industry, Chu has inserted himself into public discussion as an opponent of the online harassment of female game creators. Yet, he seems unaware that his support appears condescending and sexist in itself. In a defensive and blustering interview with David Parkman, he says, “If I stand up and criticise something, I have less to lose than people in the industry... for me to stand up and draw some negative attention from the people who are getting the worst of it to make people feel like they’re not alone.”
Chu writes often about social and cultural matters, but he is frequently assailed by people on all sides of the political spectrum for what they see as his political naivete. His Tweets are frequently met with scorn and derision. There was, for instance, the the time he tweeted, “I mean yes, I think Thatcher's government was horrible and evil and ALSO that her being a woman PM was awesome & historic. Both can be true.” A sample response, from Ben Norton @BenjaminNorton was, “Marine Le Pen will be "awesome and historic" too when she mainstreams fascism in Europe, won't she?”
At 25 and 32 respectively, Park and Chu are the ragged veterans of Twitter wars. Born in and into social media, their livelihoods depend on constantly recirculating themselves. The irony is that for all their Twitter fame, they still need conventional (even if online) publications to keep their presence going. Without her social media profile, Suey Park is now a cypher, found nowhere except in bits and pieces about her or the few surviving pieces she has written. And Chu’s Twitter presence has faded considerably.
Youth fades, as Dorian Gray knew and feared. In the world of Twitter and social justice organising, whether online or not, youth is a commodity whose categorial definition is 15-24, which means that both have aged out. Given how much of their previous online lives, including Chu’s more prolific writing, have centered around youth-oriented experiences, it must have seemed imperative that they maintain or extend their microcelebrity by staying relevant. They announced that their “Big Mean Internet Tour” in October 2015.
In November 2015, either because they had seen no great interest in their lecture serie, or as a natural way to keep interest afloat, Chu published an interview (styled as a “conversation”) between the two of them on Thought Catalog, naming him as the primary author.
It had the somewhat grand title of “Suey Park And Arthur Chu: A Dialogue Between Two Hashtag Warriors”: a hint of The Lord of the Rings or Game of Thrones, though perhaps without all the sex and costuming. Following the theme of their announced tour, or what could be deduced about it, the “Warriors” were putting aside all petty differences. Or, as Suey Park put in the interview, “change starts right here.” Chu described it as “people moving forward productively from past disagreements to try to make things better.”
As it happened, change did happen in the interview, but not the promised change in attitudes leading to reconciliation. Rather, Chu and Park together embarked upon a quest to change her previous online history. The interview set the stage for the further reinvention of Suey Park.
The “Hashtag Warriors” interview begins with a statement by Park that might surprise anyone who has followed her: “I feel our greatest issue in Asian-American activism isn’t how white people view us but how we view each other.” Putting aside the fact that neither of them can claim to be representative of Asian-American activism, a vast field in itself, it seems odd to now decide that the issue of racism against Asian Americans —- a lingering one, with a very long history — is no longer now the biggest issue. Park deftly avoids the fact that all of their “activism” has been online.
But then Park goes on to make in what is perhaps an even more surprising assertion. Talking about the Colbert show, she says, “The thing is I was never even that mad about the joke used on The Colbert Report. I was angry at the backlash.”
It’s a clever bit of rewriting of history, something that, as Part II will indicate, Park is very adept at, in terms of the subtle turns of language with which she (re)phrases matters, the way she shifts the rhetorical weight of an issue to lay the emphasis on something else entirely: She was, indeed, never mad at the joke used on the Colbert show — because the joke he made there was never the point. What enraged her was the tweet he sent out which she misread as a personal statement from him. But framing matters and here, with a sly hiding of the facts under what appears to be a revelation, she makes it seem like she is giving the reader an entirely new piece of information that might surprise them.
Every piece of evidence online, including the Zepps interview where she was clearly expressing anger at the joke, indicates that she was in fact angry at the original tweet which she misread as Colbert’s racism. And it makes no sense to be angry at a backlash, which necessarily comes afterwards. It is also unclear what “backlash” she might be referring to — the backlash against her for misreading the original tweet? Is she now asserting that the backlash was misguided?
That appears to be the somewhat nebulously stated case. She goes on to insist, as she has elsewhere, that she was being hyperbolic and that her first tweet out was “As The Ching Chong Ding Dong Association for Hypersensitivity to Orientals…I say to #CancelColbert.” In fact, as even the TNR piece records, her first tweet was actually “The Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals has decided to call for #CancelColbert. Trend it.” This may well be a misremembering and a very slight matter to point out, but the discrepancy is worth noting given her history of erasing and then becoming the only source of her tweets. Her iteration of the tweet in this version allows her to portray herself, in this “conversation” set up as a Big Reveal, in a more passive role, and more strongly implies satire (“As the Ching Chong …”) Whereas the real tweet, widely available for viewing in archives and also reported as such by Bruenig, is more aggressive and clearly marks that she wanted a Twitter campaign to take off (“Trend it.”).
In the remainder of the conversation, Chu and Park also criticise Eddie Huang, whose memoir Fresh off the Boat is now an ABC television series, currently entering its third season.
I criticized Eddie’s show after I saw the trailer. I had just moments or days earlier congratulated him on the show, which, regardless of how you feel about the show, is a huge deal for Asian-American representation. He immediately unfollowed me on Twitter and shared screenshots of my congratulatory direct messages, showing others how inconsistent I could be. But the thing is… he later came to make all the exact same criticisms of his own show.
...He couldn’t see that I was happy for him as an individual, but also, as a cultural critic… critical.
Given that the piece begins with Park insisting that the biggest problem is Asian-Americans criticising each other, it seems ironic that the two should now spend so much time criticising another Asian American. Neither Park nor Chu seem to register the fact that cultural criticism requires critics to watch entire show episodes (professional critics are sent screeners of at least a few episodes before a show airs). And while Eddie Huang’s public comments about Black women have been the subject of critique elsewhere, Park neglects to mention that she had criticised the trailer as demonstrative of anti-blackness. The three-minute clip shows the lead character, a ten-year-old child, Eddie, negotiating a new life as the child of immigrant parents from China who move to the States to run a cattle ranch restaurant. In his attempt to fit in, Eddie sports a t-shirt with a rapper’s image on it to which his mother can be seen responding, “Why do you have a Black man on your shirt?” Later, Eddie finds, to his delight, that the very shirt which his mother questioned gives him cultural cachet among his new peers at school.
Taken out of context — much like the tweet at the heart of the #CancelColbert fracas — some of this could be read as anti-blackness. But it is a trailer and, secondly, the issue here is of representing the ways in which Asian immigrants — with limited English — question their children. I haven’t seen the show beyond a few episodes — and neither has Park, apparently — but even if Eddie’s mother is hostile to Black people, it makes no sense to not represent that. In Park’s formulation, representing anti-blackness amounts to the politics of the show itself, and she eagerly made this judgement about the show long before the first episode had even aired. She went so far as to tweet her criticisms about the show, despite not having watched it, and she even took issue with its name, a term that she insisted was derogatory: “My parents have been supportive of my decision to be a writer. I can't imagine naming a show #FreshOffTheBoat in return for their sacrifice.” In typical Park style (recall #CancelColbert), she would later claim that she wasn’t actually being critical of the show but simply wanted to “put some passion around the name.”
It is especially ironic that Park who now insists that her words on Colbert have been “taken out of context” should launch into a full-length critique of a show she has not actually seen. In effect, Park is doing exactly what she claims people have done with her.
In such ways, by the end of the piece, Chu and Park have reinvented themselves fully, separated themselves from Asian American activists, and established themselves as Village Elders of Twitter with Park saying, “So I worry a lot about the kids growing up so entrenched in SJW culture. I wonder if they will see the world in categories.”
Here, Park who had all along, during the many Twitter fights insisted she was too young to know better now turns herself into an elder solicitously looking after the “kids.” She writes about worrying about them seeing the world in “categories,” and implies she has changed. Yet, her methods of “cultural criticism” demonstrate no change in her strategies, as she defends her obscure and hasty passing of judgement upon a show based entirely on its trailer.
In the case of Eddie Huang, Park’s “reading” of a two-minute trailer enabled her to launch (even if unsuccessfully) a brief campaign of sorts claiming to detect Asian anti-black racism and installing her as the non-racist Asian (a tactic she has employed before, as Part III will indicate).
In this “conversation,” Chu and Park try to portray themselves as world-weary warriors, throwing down their swords on the battlefield and sitting at a rough-hewn wooden table to discuss ending their differences as, presumably, their anxious subjects wait and watch.
But the reality is much more murky and reveals the extent to which they’re both willing to erase history, Park’s in particular. In a recent article on The Daily Beast, Chu has gone so far as to criticise Park’s Colbert campaign:
A few things: The Colbert Report shouldn’t have been canceled (unless it was to promote him to hosting The Late Show, which did in fact happen). Stephen Colbert isn’t a racist—or, rather, not any more of an overt, malicious racist than I am, or anyone else is. #CancelColbert was a terrible hashtag idea and showed terrible judgment.
Park has since disappeared, reappearing only in a ten-minute episode of the SyFy Channel’s series, “The Internet Ruined My Life,” already treated with widespread derision. Here, she declares that “A lot of people only know me as the girl who was killed on the internet.” But even that is not actually true — a lot of people know her as the girl who lied on the internet. The SyFy episode itself, discussed in greater detail in Part II, was typical of the way Park picks and chooses facts carefully, to place herself at the centre of a story of harassment and pain. But ignored in all this are the complexities of crucial issues of Asian American representation.
Most of all, Park and Chu attempt, in the Thought Catalog piece, to reinvent her yet again. It is in line with Park’s continual reinvention of herself as first a repenter then a wronged victim. Following that trajectory, we might simply seek to rectify a harm done — if we can restore her to wholeness, return her life back to her, we will have done our best. But it makes more sense to consider how Park’s reinvention, and her alliance with Chu, who also seeks to keep in place his own invented and “monetised” self, is part of a neoliberal drama.
At the end, the two of them are more like Mean Girls, the Reunion. There are no more selves to reinvent. Years later, both have aged. They meet not in a battlefield surrounded by adoring fans but in a dingy diner near the reunion venue. It is late at night, they are the last ones left, and the waitress begins to set the chairs for the next day. Somewhere near them, a fading fluorescent light crackles and dims, dims and crackles. They stare at each other, quietly aware that they have little in common except recollections of the slowly softening din of battles long ago, battles fought for causes no one can recall and triumphs that now seem so exaggerated as to be rendered untruths.
1 This handle disappeared in December 2015, and has recently (March 2016) reappeared with only 61 followers and no posts so far. It is unclear if this is owned by Suey Park or not.
2 As recently as March 2016, Suey Park appeared in an episode of the SyFy show, “The Internet Ruined My Life,” to claim that she understood the original tweet as satire and that her own response was satirical. Park has been unwavering in making claims about herself even in the face of ample publicly available evidence that contradicts them
3 There exist several “Suey Park” handles on Twitter, and it is unclear which among them are actually hers. While this one, @Chop_Suey_Park is a clearly racist parody account and might seem to be owned by someone other than Suey Park, the syntax and language evident here are very similar to that in Park’s original, real handle. But then, the internet is full of “sock puppets.”
4 Park was and is, of course, within her rights to post photos and her address. But it is rare for someone who claims to have been so intensely surveiled as Park has repeatedly said she was, to then freely give out even her address and other details. The SyFy episode, filmed towards the end of 2015, dramatises her supposed ordeal in great detail. It is really all the episode focuses on, with very little context about #CancelColbert, which she says spurred it all.
My very great thanks to Ryan Conrad, Richard Hoffman Reinhardt, Gautham Reddy, Matt Simonette, and Nathan Cedric Tankus, whose combined feedback on this piece helped make it so much better. All remaining mistakes and problems are mine alone.
NEXT IN THE SERIES: “Saint Suey: The Reincarnation of Suey Park and the Invention of Social Justice.”
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