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Audience agency and the value of social media: the rise of the “digitine”

Cover image for Audience agency and the value of social media: the rise of the “digitine”

Photo: Veronika Jorjobert

Photo of Hanna Kahlert
by Hanna Kahlert

“Let them eat cake,” declared model and influencer Haley Kalil, dressed for the $75,000-per-ticket Met Gala in an unironically Marie Antoinette-style dress, in a viral TikTok video last weekend. 

Somehow, this did not go down very well among audiences on social media, tens (if not hundreds) of thousands of whom are currently struggling to remain encamped in University campuses or taking to the streets in protest worldwide. Many of these fit the 16-24 demographic, over half of whom use TikTok weekly – which makes this an interesting PR choice for an influencer. 

In addition to the wildfire spread of Hunger Games memes and discourse the Gala has sparked, a new active trend has emerged directly following Kalil’s video. TikTok users are blocking celebrities who are not using their platforms to take a stand on serious issues. Users are sharing their “block lists” with each other, and the trend has spread to other platforms. Threads on X, for example, have started listing the celebrities who are taking a stand; the ‘anti-block’ list, so to speak. 

Users are calling this “digital guillotining”, or the “digitine”. Apparently, to be blocked on TikTok in 2024 is the same as being efficiently beheaded in front of massive, bloodthirsty crowds back in the late 1700s. 

The rallying cry is "We gave them their platforms, it's time to take [them] back". Social media activism does not have the best history; Instagram’s #BlackoutTuesday trend arguably did more harm than good, for example. Yet if the black square was an instance of ‘performative activism’ (saying one thing and actually doing nothing at all), the deliberate blocking of celebrities who rely on social media followers for their brand deals and sponsorships is a more informed point of action by audiences who are more aware than ever of the role they, their spending, and their attention play in the digital economy. 

Western markets have not seen truly successful collective action in decades. Union membership has been steadily declining, and consumer boycotts are often too diffuse to be effective. Thus, it is easy to brush off the latest consumer activism trend as destined to be short-lived and low-impact. However, it is one thing for Target to brush off such things, when it knows people will be back in a month or two for Stanley Cups and throw pillows, and quite another for an influencer whose entire value is predicated on their social media clout for income. 

Information and awareness of how the world works has grown and spread, in no small part due to TikTok itself (one might wonder at the timing of America’s proposed ban of the app and Instagram’s contrasting deprioritisation of political content). There is something to be said for the truism change happens “slowly at first, then all at once”; perhaps it is not that consumer activism does not work, but rather that it has not had the focus to work yet. 

“Digitining” Haley Kalil will be unlikely to disrupt much of anything except Haley Kalil herself. However, Taylor Swift is also on a lot of ‘block lists’, and she has become one of the superstar tripod legs of the music industry (as well as a boon for local economies around the world on her Eras tour). If enough Taylor fans turn to Taylor bans, the industry will be impacted – and it will become apparent that staying silent on topics of importance can be just as dangerous as speaking out. Macklemore did just that with ‘Hind’s Hall’ and has seen a resurgence. Culture is integral to entertainment, and you cannot tap into culture if you do not address what is happening in it – and the global situation is too real for those pioneering and profiting from it to continue dancing around the edges, claiming neutrality. 

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