December 14, 2015
As readers know, I’m currently working on a long-form piece on Suey Park, the woman behind the #NotYourAsianSidekick and #CancelColbert hashtags. Park represents both the potential and the pitfalls of social media organising around what we think of as “social justice” today. This is a two part series. UPDATE: The finished piece, “Suey Park and the Afterlife of Twitter,” has been posted.
Part 2 is titled, “Saint Suey: The Reincarnation of Suey Park and the Invention of Social Justice.”
As you also know, I was supposed to have Part 1 out on December 1 and Part 2 on December 15. I wanted to explain why Part 1 has been delayed (it will be out the end of this week). After more research, I realise there may now be a Part 3, on the effects of recent Twitter flare ups on real-world organising, particularly around race and ethnicity.
I am publishing this pre-publication piece, an unusual format, because this series will only be published on my website. As an unaffiliated rat bastard, I don’t have the backing of an editor or publisher who will stand by me should the shit hit the fan. Suey Park has long used the tactic of shutting down discussion or deflecting questions about her campaigns and strategies by implying that she is about to inflict harm upon herself or that she has been put in harm’s way. My close observations of her social media presence teach me that it’s best I keep a public record of any interactions with or around her.
On December 1, in following up on the research for Part 2, I emailed Suey Park with two fact-checking inquiries. She never responded to me but, within approximately twenty-four hours, she had shut down or erased her entire social media profile: gone were her Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram accounts (the last one did stay up but with all photos removed until on or around December 7, when it was finally removed in its entirety). She has also taken down her sole remaining essay on the Medium website and canceled a scheduled appearance at Princeton. I cannot but help surmise that none of this is a coincidence but was precipitated by my questions.
I have been following and researching Suey Park for a while now, since she burst upon the scene with her hashtag activism, beginning with #NotYourAsianSidekick and then #CancelColbert. I have never met her in person, but we did interact briefly when she inquired about and then conducted an interview with me in January 2014. That interview has never been published — but that is not the reason I remained interested in her (I have numerous unpublished interviews in my own archives and well understand the vagaries of publishing).
I had problems with both her #hashtag campaigns and I was intrigued at the extent to which her online twitter presence seemed to efface actual political campaigns and place her at the centre; this was particularly true of the #CancelColbert wars, where the issue at the heart of the matter — Dan Snyder’s refusal to change the name of The Redskins team — was quickly lost in a flurry of media attention that crowned Park as a veritable “Queen of Twitter.”
I continued to follow her, even as she disappeared from public activity for a short while, and noticed that she had begun to quietly erase her tweeting history and was slowly reinventing her online career. In May of this year, The New Republic’s Elizabeth Bruenig, in a deeply hagiographic profile, helped cement Park as a sympathetic figure in need of redemption. In August, Park released a series of tweets claiming that she had, in effect, been an embattled and almost brainwashed victim of online social justice warriors.
I’m writing about Suey Park because her online presence and the controversies she engendered in the name of social justice have had deep and perhaps lasting effects on the nature of organising, both the online sort and the kind engaged in real time. These have, however, gone unnoticed in favour of subjective narratives about how she was persecuted by trolls and ostensibly forced to disappear. For the most part, responses to Park have fallen into two categories: the vicious, racist, misogynistic diatribes that portray her as the enemy of all white people and the liberal/leftist calls to protect her against such trolls. Only a very few, like Arun Gupta and Freddie DeBoer, have attempted to look at the more complicated issues involved in what I term the “Suey Park Debacle.” They have either been met with resistance or been ignored as Park has continued to reinvent herself as little more than an unwitting victim in a series of Twitter wars.
My own forthcoming work is an attempt to extend and deepen the more complicated questions that arise in the wake of some of the most toxic social media battles. This has meant going backwards in Twitter Time and excavating details about Suey Park’s professional and personal lives. However, none of this is in order to write a conventional exposé about a single individual. Rather, my aim is to demonstrate the political costs involved in organising on the ephemeral terrain of social media, where personalities can be materialised, reconfigured, disappeared, dematerialised, and reincarnated as campaigns gear up or flatten out.
The even larger point here is to ask questions about what is lost and what is gained in a world where we depend on social media to enable real-time political organising or, as the case may be, substitute for it.
This post has been edited to reflect newer titles and updates.