Harnessing the Power of Virality: The Journey of Images in the Digital Age

In a time where a button click can spark a thousand reposts, the material and circulation of images traverse the digital ecosystem, with accompaniment, weight, the deep imprint of history, culture, and selfhood. In her revolutionary text Black Meme: A History of the Images That Make Us (2019), Legacy Russell examines the phenomenon of viral culture, revealing how images circumnavigate the Internet, and the implications the movement has for representation and consent.

The MOVE from Static to Viral: Unpacking the Dynamics of Digital Images

The Digital Economy of Virality

All of viral culture is an economy of recognition and exchange, and the ability of an image to travel from one context to another adds to its value and significance. But Black memetic culture is often a trap; an economy where questions of authorship and authenticity are sidelined in favour of virality.

When Images MOVE: Tracing the Roots of Black Meme Culture

Pre-Internet Echoes in Today's Viral Moments

Russell persuasively traces the roots of Black meme culture to images of lynching that predate the internet’s beginning by decades. Photography of lynching began with postcards: lynching memes are in this sense the earliest iterations of today’s viral culture. The linchpin of the lynching meme is the lynching postcard. These commonly affectionately displayed souvenirs, recounting the victim’s purported crimes and labeling them as either hanging, shot, or lynched, represent an eerie precursor to the new forms of image practice on social media.

The VELOCITY of Visibility: The Double-Edged Sword of Digital Spaces

The Complicated Dance of Representation and Ownership

Against a backdrop of image-flood, where visual ideas are ripped free of their original context and flung at us hundreds of times a day as if on a conveyer belt, any attempt to regain control of the presentation of one’s own representation is bound to be further complicated. Russell’s ‘slow media’ stands as a citadel to life in the digital fast lane. He has advocated for new ways of thinking and acting in relation to the images that define our world through our own depictions of them.

Navigating the New Frontier: Generative AI and the Fate of Black Imagery

From Vine to TikTok: The Evolution of Platforms and Performative Action

Russell mused about digital platforms: ‘As spaces for Black creativity and expression change, and platforms like Vine rise and fall, and TikTok emerges, the question is: Are these spaces sustainable? They’ve become central to how Black culture and creativity circulates.

The Generative AI Dilemma: Reimagining Royalties and Representation

The stakes for Black visual media today, in this moment of generative AI, have never been higher Russell’s call for ‘revised rights and representations’ in the age of automated imaging is a fierce challenge: ‘Royalties must be paid and reparations made for the automated erasure and commercialisation of Black lives.’

Towards a Sustainable Future: Reclaiming the Narrative

The Quest for Equity in Representation

In the context of these obstacles, Russell’s work confronts us with the question of what efforts of representational justice we must commit to in order to create a digital culture that does a better job of valuing and amplifying Black voices. If we take moves of images seriously in all of their implications and effects, it can only help us to imagine a future in which moves of images are not only about the destruction but also the enrichment of our shared ideas about culture and identity.

Understanding the MOVE

By ‘move’ we mean here the kinetic life of images as they migrate through digital and physical atmospheres. Each ‘move’ entails an alteration of context, meaning and impact, as images are mobilised from their stance as static objects to dynamic conveyors of culture, history and feeling. Following this logic, we can begin to explore the complexities of our digital present, as well as the opportunities this presents for more equitable and responsible engagement with image worlds.

Jun 08, 2024
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