Seconds after finishing the Black Mirror episode “Nosedive,” I contemplated deleting Instagram and Twitter, throwing my iPhone out the window, and telling MCI to cut my phone calls. The series’s third season ups the ante on the horrors that come with our addiction to technology, parceling out scares with social-media rankings, virtual-reality games, invasion of privacy, and online harassment. I’ve always been a fan of the glossy, vibrantly realized anthology series, even if the characters that inhabit the worlds of Black Mirror are often white. But watching this season in particular, it struck me that in terms of the way technology has progressed for black millennials, the sci-fi series might actually be more fiction than science.
Two weeks ago, Nielsen released a report titled “Young, Connected and Black: African-American Millennials Are Driving Social Change and Leading Digital Advancement.” According to the statistics provided, 41 percent of black millennials are more likely than those of other races to try new technology. Forty-eight percent of online black users use Instagram, 28 percent use Twitter, and 67 percent use Facebook. The growth of black social media users is undeniable, so much so that many corporations now engage with black celebrities to drive usage. Jack Dorsey, the CEO of Twitter, engages with black activists such as DeRay McKesson and monitors the hashtags black users create to drive conversation on the platform.
Black users flock to social media because it’s an arena where you can connect with the world around you. Social media can be a real and useful tool when it comes to discussing community building, holding police officers accountable for brutality in cases where the system has absolved them, or even learning more about your own culture. Black culture is not a monolith — my life growing up in Wisconsin was very different than that of friends who grew up in Miami, New York, or Los Angeles. It’s been through social media that I’ve been able to learn our similarities, but also our cultural differences, and expand my knowledge as a black person. Social media, frankly, is a necessity for black life, even as social media platforms are often hostile to black users. Trolls are allowed to live on Twitter in anonymity and hurl insults and vile graphics at their victims, while Facebook allows anyone to message you. Visible black women like Leslie Jones endure targeted harassmentthat often surpasses the attacks on their white counterparts. For black users, we already know that as much as we need social media in our lives, it’s a lot like a beautiful plant that turns out to be the flesh-eating monster from Little Shop of Horrors.
It’s through those eyes, then, that I view Black Mirror. When people are blackmailed by a virus that lands on their computer, I think of Jones, who had her computer hacked and her privacy violated on the internet. I think of how our lives are more important than our pride at times, and in the episode “Shut Up and Dance,” it’s not hard to imagine many black activists letting the blackmailer publish whatever they want so long as they’re not controlled by someone they don’t know. I think about the white privilege that comes with ignoring a phone call from your mother while traveling Europe as in “Playtest,” knowing that you live in her home and use her resources. I think about how investigators balked at the threats sent to a reporter in “Hated in the Nation,” and how if I didn’t have quality control activated on Twitter many of my mentions could be the same.
The fear of technology as a monster is a human concern, but it’s largely a white one. White users have unlimited access to social media and many of the platforms cater to them, despite the fact that white users drive less of the platforms’ usage. Twitter, for instance, had a 3 percent black and Latino workforce in June, which belies the demographics of its actual users. For those who exist as an other, an afterthought, you take the horrors of social media in stride, like the recent shuttering of Vine, another platform driven by the success of black users.
Perhaps that’s why “San Junipero,” a heartfelt story of two women whose minds fall in love in a fictional city that exists through different time periods, was the most moving of this season’s Black Mirror episodes. Yorkie is a queer woman who comes out to her parents at 21 and is shunned by them. Later, a car accident leaves her paraplegic and unable to experience love, a dance floor, or the touch of another human. But it’s technology that ultimately allows her to live a full life. Sometimes technology can be a nightmarish hell, which Black Mirror displays in spades. But for the people who need it to feel a human connection that’s denied to them by society, you can make it a heaven.