Nothing describes the culture of “aestheticized” online activism better than the infamous Instagram infographic. Posted as a series of aesthetically pleasing slides, Instagram infographics usually attempt to share information on a wide range of social justice issues. Accounts such as @feminist, @so.informed (previously @soyouwanttotalkabout), and @goodgoodgoodco are just a few of the social justice–oriented accounts that have recently skyrocketed in popularity—garnering thousands, if not millions, of followers.
For years, people have criticized an over–reliance on bite–sized political posts and the performative activism that often results from them. As a graphic from Project Unsettlement succinctly states, “The revolution will not be propagated with Canva.” However, the question of who exactly runs these massive, ubiquitous Instagram accounts has recently entered the conversation around internet social justice.
The account @feminist with 6.4 million followers faced controversy last year when it was exposed that the alleged owners were two cisgender white men. Articles by Cecilia Nguyen and Sam Sedlack chronicle the rabbit hole of connections between the alleged owners of the profile, Jacob Castaldi and Tanner Sweitzer, the agency they work for, Contagious Creative, and their sister clothing company, @chnge, which was frequently advertised on their social justice–themed account. Nguyen, Sedlack, and many others have argued that @feminist not only stole material from creators without their consent, but also profited from their content through their multimillion–follower platforms—all without having to be transparent about their identity and privilege as cisgender white men.
A similar chain of events occurred with the account @soyouwanttotalkabout, now changed to @so.informed, which currently has 2.9 million followers on Instagram. Created in February 2020, the original page’s username was nearly identical to Ijeoma Oluo’s best–selling novel, So You Want to Talk About Race, which was published two years earlier in 2018.
@soyouwanttotalkabout was originally created as a pro–Bernie Sanders resource, but it certainly benefited from the public’s heightened interest in social justice issues and anti–racist education during the protests for Black lives. Within just two months, @soyouwanttotalkabout’s follower count exploded from 10,000 followers in June of 2020 to 1 million followers in August. The account eventually expanded its content from information on the 2020 presidential election to a broader range of social justice issues in the form of aesthetic Powerpoint–style infographics.
Just five weeks ago, Ijeoma Oluo went on Instagram Live to address @soyouwanttotalkabout and her interaction with the owner of the account.
Oluo explained that her attention was brought to @soyouwanttotalkabout, and its uncanny similarity to her book title, around one year ago. At the time, Oluo reached out to the page’ s owner for more information, and asked about who was running it. Her question about “who was behind the account [was] completely ignored,” but the owner instead offered to put up a disclaimer that the page was not affiliated with Oluo or her work.
It was later revealed that Jessica Natale, a white woman, was the owner of @soyouwanttotalkabout. Natale disclosed her name and identity in the announcement of her forthcoming book, So, Let’s Talk About It: A Toolkit for Unlearning. In light of these events, many have rightly pointed out the lack of transparency from Natale and her decision to profit off of Oluo’s highly popular novel up until the announcement of her own book deal. In fact, dozens of people have told Oluo that they believed @soyouwanttotalkabout was run by her, and were misled by the Instagram account’s username. “It has been really frustrating to see these celebrities, these huge pages, share the work of a white woman that is capitalizing off of the work of other people of color and other marginalized populations,” Oluo shared on her Instagram stories.
Natale later posted an apology to Oluo on Instagram, publicizing that she would be changing the account’s username to @so.informed and postpone her book release. Although people may now be aware of Natale’s identity, @soyouwanttotalkabout is emblematic of a larger issue of transparency in online social justice spaces. The rise of the Instagram infographic has prompted the normalization of anonymous individuals posing as neutral social justice experts online.
It's harmful and unethical for white Instagram account owners to be ambiguous—intentional or not—about their whiteness. Especially in social justice spaces, it's important for us to be honest about our positionality and the privileges that we may have. Further, we must be conscious of the spaces we occupy, and actively ensure that we properly credit and compensate BIPOC communities for their educational labor.