The Digital Ways of Turning Outward and Inward in a Year of Political Turmoil


2016 proved to be a year of political turmoil on both a national and an international level. Politics divided the UK, the US, Austria, and many more countries in half. But in 2016, politics were also the one thing that everyone was interested in.

While reading the news and following social media, many of us felt a recurring need to defend our values and beliefs against what was happening. We spoke up, tweeted, posted, commented, emailed, and discussed political events with friends, family, and strangers. In short, we turned outward.

“Turning outward is fundamentally an orientation – it is a stance we assume, a posture, a mindset,” writes Richard Harwood in the Huffington Post. He continues, “All of us are in search of a path that allows us to make a difference in the world…But to find that path – and make it real – you must turn outward.“

In 2016 we turned outward to express our anger, fears, and political opinions. When we felt our beliefs were threatened or confirmed, we turned to a public audience to share our own experiences or to find consolation based on shared anxieties or hopes. There were more specific ways of showing our support as well. Pre-election, these were Snapchat filters which turned one into Trump or pantsuit-wearing Hillary. And post-election, black squares showed up on Instagram to signal despair, loss, and sorrow.

Looking at the digital footprints we left on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, Snapchat, Reddit, and Quora, one might wonder if our political views and personal identities were ever so intertwined. No matter which social platform you look at, the political stories of this past year are woven neatly into our personal stories of birthday parties and anniversaries, weddings, Christmas parties, aging parents and newborn children.

But we did not only turn outward in 2016. We also consciously took time to unplug and to get away from political news and updates, at least for a few hours. We turned inward to practice what has come to be known as self-care, a buzzword and a social media trend, already commercialized by companies selling bath products and aroma candles. But it has also became more than that, an “act of warfare,“ as the feminist writer Audre Lore described it, intended to restore our inner strength.

In 2016 we have found new digital ways of turning both outward and inward. Here are some ways to explore and to look back at.

Politics in 160 Characters

In the ten years of its existence, Twitter has always had a seat in the front row of politics. It has fostered grassroot conversations, allowed people to express views and opinions not covered by mainstream media, and to organize ideologically similar groups. In 2016, Twitter became even more political. A new trend that has been happening on an international scale is that people have started to advertise their political affiliation in their Twitter bios.

A Twitter bio used to be a quirky personal thing, where you could be geeky, fun, and list your accomplishments and interests, in a charming and artificially undermining way. (Example: Proud dad of 2, doing something with computers.)

“The Twitter bio is a postmodern art form,“ wrote Teddy Wayne in a New York Times article. “It lets the famous and the anonymous, athletes and accountants, surreal Dadaists and suburban dads alike demonstrate that they are special snowflakes with Wes Anderson-worthy quirks.”

Nowadays, the Wes Andersons of the Twitter universe are highly political and use their Twitter bios to express their political views. All of the Twitter aficionadas, superheroes, geeks, addicts, and proud dads that are hanging out on Twitter every day are also telling us about their political affiliations.

@glutenfree_Anna’s bio, for example, reads:

“I live the gluten free, vegan lifestyle. Animal lover. Proud Democrat. Hillary Clinton supporter & volunteer. Originally from NY & huge Yankees fan!”

Her bio gives us the Twitter-typical string of statuses and interests: She loves animals, is a vegan, eats gluten free and she supports Hillary Clinton. Her political opinion takes up 55 characters out of the 148 used.

Expressing your political opinion on Twitter is nothing new. But defining yourself by your political affiliation used to be reserved to the ones professionally involved in politics. Nowadays, thousands of people are explicitly using labels such as “Clinton supporter” or “Trump supporter” to describe themselves in their 160 character bio and often use political labels to define and present themselves to a public audience.

The proliferation of the political

The intertwinement of political opinions and personal lives were not limited to our Facebook timelines or Twitter bios this year. Political affiliation mattered in a whole new way and in areas of our lives, which did not seem closely related to national politics at all. Like housing, for instance.

Earlier this year, the NYPost did a story about a landlord who refused to rent an apartment to a Trump supporter. If you browse through Craigslist these days, you can easily find similar ads, which prevent Trump voters from responding to these ads.

You can find ads from real estate agents like these: “$2414 No FEE Studio in Downtown BK Hotter Than the Air Blowing Out of Trump”.  Another one reads: “A Trump presidency may make you cry, but this apt may help your day!”

Or from private renters looking for a new roommate: “Strongly prefer not a Trump voter.” Or “No pets no trump voters and no couples sorry”.

Politics have invaded many areas of our lives and determine who we want to live with, who we want to be romantically involved with, and who we want to hang out with. They are also used as a means of segmentation. Not by marketing people, but by everyone.

While renters or buyers are protected by the Fair Housing Act, when it comes to discrimination against “race, color, national origin, religion, sex, familial status or handicap,” the Act does  not cover discrimination based on political affiliation. For now.

Political reasoning on Quora

Quora, the question-and-answer site, was also quite popular when it came to asking and answering political questions. There are 39.7k questions on Trump-related topics on Quora, followed by 49.5k people. Questions range from: “Do liberals at least admire Donald Trump’s fiery patriotism and passionate love for his country?“ to Is Donald Trump’s hair real? and “Would you let Trump hang out alone with your daughter?“ (The most upvoted answer is “Goodness no, my ten-year old is a feisty little monster, and the likelihood of her punching him in the nuts after he says something utterly stupid is extremely high.“)

Quora is perfect for this kind of political reasoning, as people turn to it primarily not to get answers, but to get a range of opinions, personal stories, and views hidden from the mainstream media.

What is interesting here, is that similar to Twitter, people advertise their political opinions in their taglines. It is not as omnipresent as on Twitter, but in a way even more radical here, when people just use terms such as “Left leaning” or “Liberal” as their only description.

Similarly to Reddit, people reach out to strangers on Quora to discuss not only political questions, but also private matters, which have been influenced by politics. On Reddit and Quora there is a common thread of people whose partner supports Trump and who are wondering if they should break up with them. Or who have a close friend with a different political opinion and they are questioning if they can still be friends with this person.

What these threads suggest is this: Everywhere, where people come together, political opinion matters. Be it at a dinner table, in an office, or at the comment section of an article. One problem of the political divide might be filter bubbles, of everyone just seeing content they are already agreeing with. But the far bigger problem is the actual divide on issues such as immigration, gender equality, or gay rights, which require more than a technological solution.


Self-care as an act of political warfare

Dealing with and getting involved with matters such as racism, sexism, or homophobia are so emotionally draining, sometimes the only way to deal with them seems to unplug from time to time and to escape from politics and the news.

The term “self-care” gained new popularity and showed a peak in the Google search results “from Nov. 13 through Nov. 19, the largest increase in the last five years”, as Marisa Meltzer points out in a recent New York Times article. #Selfcare is becoming more and more popular on social platforms now that many people feel devastated what they read and experience every day. Now that a reality has become present that was once unimaginable.

But self-care is more than just taking a bath or streaming Netflix. It is about self-preservation and survival. Audre Lorde, a feminist writer, wrote that “caring for myself is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.” Self-care for her is a necessary part of restoring her strengths and of then being able to turn outward. In that way it is very different from the commercialized version of taking care of yourself with the necessary products.

For most people unplugging from everything and going offline can help in this act of personal self-care. For others, a little bit of inner peace might come from escaping just Trump, while still being online.

One way to hide Trump from the interwebs is to install a Chrome Extension, which promises to hide away everything Trump in the browser. According to your mood, you can select three filters based on how much you want to avoid the Donald and enjoy your Facebook feed or other websites Trump-free. Another Chrome Extension is not deleting everything Trump, but instead replacing him with delicious looking salads.

This might seem silly to some, but it might as well be an expression of the desperate measures these times require.


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