This post is the second in a series. You can read about the other apps I made here.
For the last year or so, I’ve been working on an app that makes your social media weirder, nicer, and less addictive. It lets you turn off individual features, like Instagram Stories, or Twitter replies. It lets you hide annoyances, or completely change how an app works and feels. In short, it lets you exercise a degree of autonomy over Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter – apps that give you little to no choice about what you see. Apps that insist on showing you what will drive maximum engagement, no matter how damaging that is to you.
The app is called No More. And in the last couple weeks, as I’ve been putting the finishing touches on it, and after receiving the final illustrations for its settings, I’ve been considering whether or not it’s okay to release it. Since the death-by-strangulation of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer who had 18 complaints against him, who refused to hear the pleas of a man dying under his boot, I’ve been considering something about my use of social media that’s a little uncomfortable to acknowledge, and which I’ve been worried this app could exacerbate.
I’m white, and a Métis person. But I think it’s important to lead with my whiteness, because no one has ever thought I’m indigenous. When I played Métis fiddle to busk on a street corner, no one ever hustled me out like they did the two visibly indigenous buskers who I’d share the plaza with. Rarely does someone see me and my blue eyes and blond hair and white skin, and do the things I see white people do with impunity when faced with someone who does not look like white like them: to not take them seriously, to not believe them, to pressure them until they left, to call the police on them. It could be at school, at work, in the street – because wherever a white person might be, they bring with them the power they yield through whiteness.
And from my whiteness, I get one very concrete privilege when it comes to my decisions around social media in the wake of George Floyd’s killing – in the wake of all the killings of black and indigenous people here in Canada and the US and beyond.
I can turn these apps off, and not worry about it. I truly can decide to take a break, and not still be reminded by the whole world – as black people are, as indigenous people are, as all people of colour are – that they do not get to take a break. That how they’re treated is not up to them, but a feature of living under white supremacy.
Getting to turn off social media and instantly feel relief is an enormous privilege that black people do not get to experience, because racism does not stop when your internet connection does. And I’ve been wondering if the app I’d built only works because it relishes in that privilege.
On Tuesday, as #blackouttuesday trended, I woke up, and turned on a setting in No More called Nothing But Pics, and opened the Instagram webapp to get some screenshots in preparation to publish No More to the App Store. Nothing But Pics is a setting that removes everything in Instagram but the photos, and I was a little confused: why weren’t the photos themselves loading? Maybe I’d broken the setting with some code change.
But those black squares were intentionally posted. And actually, I thought I’d heard about that! From friends working in the music industry, I’d heard that two black women created a hashtag and a website and a protest called #TheShowMustBePaused. Their goal was very specific: to hold the music industry accountable for benefitting endlessly from black labour without offering any protection and empowerment to those same black people and communities in a time of acute crisis.
What a beautiful thing, I thought: that wall of black meant that everyone I followed had participated in a protest organized by black organizers, helping to hold a specific industry accountable. They might even be following up with some of the concrete actions specific on the protest’s website – with real dollars donated to real people in real need.
Which, well, isn’t what happened. Again, the Nothing But Pics setting meant I couldn’t see comments, or hashtags, or – most importantly – who was posting what. I opened No More, turned the setting off, and felt a familiar sense of despair as I saw what was revealed on the unaltered Instagram feed. Somewhere, somehow, #TheShowMustBePaused turned into #blackouttuesday. It was stripped of its purpose, and of its origins. It was then often posted under #BlackLivesMatter, crowding out actually substantive, helpful posts in a surge of well-meaning but unthinking white allyship.
Many white people saw the wall of black squares that day and thought: finally! A way for me to participate, for I have felt the need to participate without quite knowing what is appropriate, or how to say it in my voice. The consequence of that participation was unexpected to them, but deeply infuriating and familiar to black activists: suddenly, the need for white people fitting in had overrun the purposes of the protest itself. The tidal wave of white need remade the protest, the feed, the day.
And that’s what I’m trying to grapple with, because I made an app that white need will probably find salient. Being able to disconnect from uncomfortable realities is a coping mechanism that has insulated whiteness from accountability, from confronting and facing its own power and the unjust way it is held and wielded. It had, in this very case, hidden the sad truth from me: that a crucial protest had been appropriated for catharsis by well-meaning but unthinking white people.
And that’s a risk. Unfortunately, the possibility of anything good and useful being appropriated to protect racist systems is a risk. That doesn’t liberate me from the responsibility of managing that risk and mitigating it in this app. But the risk alone doesn’t mean I can’t build an app that can do more to help the people who need help, than to protect those who have every advantage. It doesn’t mean I won’t screw it up, either.
But I think this app has another purpose, too – beyond the possibility that it will simply be used to help insulate white folks from what’s going on. And that purpose has become clearer since Tuesday.
In a word: shit is fucking tough right now. I just learned the word “doomscrolling.” And my god. I do a lot of that, these days.
It’s not going to get much easier soon. So we need help to bear the burden of participating in and engaging in this movement, in this time. We do not face racism equally, and so BIPOC wear these burdens most urgently and painfully. People of colour are also the people least able to walk away from anything, and, as a result, they have to constantly and actively manage what energy they have. I keep hearing about how my black and brown friends have to decide every day between using that energy to survive, or using it to participate in protest for equal treatment. What a fucking bummer.
So I’m trying to build an app that helps you engage with the reality of what’s shared and seen, in a way that gives you autonomy that Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook would never themselves design. An app that lets you face the ongoing tidal wave of content and shape it into something you can bear. An app that lets you save yourself from having all of your energy and effort extracted from you by these apps, whether by well-meaning allies or shithead trolls, while letting you engage with the most essential parts of social media – the parts that let us build protests and movements that make real change.
No More is and should be an app that helps you engage with social media – a powerful, urgently needed tool – in the ways you are able. It might introduce fun and weirdness and novelty into a feed full of alienation. It might just let you turn off replies or comments so that you don’t have to see another person picking a fight with you. It might just let you shut it all down because you have to – even though you know you still live in a world that will find new ways to tell you you aren’t allowed to check out.
That’s still there. Racism and white supremacy are still real. White people will also still use a tool like this to avoid facing what they know they must. The certainty with which they’ll avoid accountability does not excuse it.
But I also don’t think that’s a reason to not try to make an app that can help us all stay engaged with this urgent and essential fight to end brutality under racism, acted on through the police. Nor to avoid building an app that creates a crucial line of accountability between us and the social media platforms we rely on to advance the cause of justice, and to see cute dog photos. I’d like to give folks a way to negotiate some room between burning out and deleting the apps, and simply having to bear being constantly overwhelmed.
The social media platforms themselves have decided that they are going to show us the most extreme, most polarizing content possible. They want our eyeballs and our labour. They want to say it’s all, or nothing. And I don’t think that’s right.
As #TheShowMustBePaused put in the first line of their call to action:
If you have been impacted by the recent events, take a break - there is a lot going on and sometimes we all just need a minute. Take that minute.
We deserve the actual capacity to take a minute. I’d like No More to be that for as many people who need it as possible.
If you’re white, you can take a minute. But also take the time to ask yourself: what will you do with the benefit of disconnection, and the relief of a break? It will be more of a relief than the people who need it most can find until we make a real change.
Tuesday’s unhelpful wall of black squares made one thing plain: these social media apps can help us learn, organize, and act, and we discovered together just how vital a function that social media played in that because we saw it disrupted. The more ways we have of preventing these apps from harming us while still staying engaged with the vital functions of social media, the better.
On that note: today, the app is finally available on the App Store to anyone using iOS 12 or higher. You can download it here.
I’ve also made a couple changes to the app since Tuesday. I’ve changed Instagram’s No More Comments setting to preserve the caption, but hide the comments. That way, important information given by the poster can be preserved, while hiding comments on posts – comments that Instagram seems to show based on how likely they are to get a rise out of you.
Also, all the revenue I get from the app I’ll be donating for at least the first week – first, to Black Lives Matter Toronto, and maybe to other organizations and funds after that. I’m personally in a bit of a touch-and-go financial situation right now, but I’d like to keep donating the proceeds of this app for as long as I’m able. 10% goes to the artists who worked on the incredible illustrations you’ll see throughout (a lot of whom have lost the bulk of their work due to COVID), and 30% goes to the App Store because I have no choice, but the 60% I receive will be donated while I can.
The app is free to use, and it’s $5 USD to unlock unlimited enabled settings. If you think the full features would be helpful for your self-care and are in any way financially strapped, just throw me an email, and I’ll find a way to give you a coupon code or something. Click this link and it’ll create an email with the subject line I’ll be looking for if you’re in need.
I’ve also added a support email so that you can tell me what would make the app more helpful to you. Making an app that helps you feel autonomy in facing the world through social media isn’t something that’s a trivial, obvious thing to do – and I expect to get it wrong. But I also expect to make it right. Hearing your feedback would be really crucial to me in getting it right, over time. So please, try the app out, and send me an email: email@example.com.
Taking back your apps is just a part of building a just world. Let’s make moves.