This roundtable discussion features two leading scholars of critical race and digital media, Drs. Brooklyne Gipson and Kishonna Gray. The impacts of pleasure and danger on social network sites and digital media certainly predate these technologies yet are heightened in unique ways by their affordances. Both Gipson and Gray discuss how they center Black feminism, queerness, and intersectionality in their approaches to digital media studies and the conundrum of harm, pleasure, and nuance online. They discuss themes such as storytelling, methods, and play to push the boundaries of the binary and chart a path forward that is neither afraid of nor essentialist about the role of technology in our lives.

Nuance, in between-ness, the gray. These are the robust, squishy areas where cultural and critical digital media scholars flourish. Yet mainstream and policy discussions devoted to inquiries about the internet remain largely in two camps, each of which separately asks, are these platforms ultimately harmful or pleasurable? At the time of writing, for example, over a dozen U.S. states have instituted a ban on the popular social media site TikTok within government-issued devices. ByteDance, the Chinese company that owns TikTok, denies allegations that led to these bans, including the sharing of sensitive user data with the Chinese government and spreading misinformation.1 While these instituted bans claim that TikTok harms users at the national security level, large swaths of users repeatedly report sites like this one as integral to community building and indeed survival. Research showed, for example, that TikTok facilitated online support for gender and sexual minority youth during COVID-19 when many of these young people were otherwise forced to stay in unsupportive, homophobic home environments at the height of the pandemic.2 These reports might seem novel. But the continuum of pleasure and danger long predates social network sites. Reality television, for example, set off shock waves in the early 2000s for its “revolutionary” peek at everyday life, on the one hand, and the supposed furthering of negative stereotypes, particularly of Black women, on the other.3 Dating further back, media scholar Anna Everett famously charts Black publics’ historical engagements with technology, from radio to the Black press, and concludes that they have always been early adopters—and critics—of ICTs (information and computer technologies).4

As Everett demonstrates, when one pinpoints the experiences of those historically on the margins, deeply rich inquiries are possible. That is, we might begin here by reframing the question of social network sites’ ability to enact pleasure or harm and instead look to the users’ engagements with these technologies over time. Rather than being acted on, Black and other marginalized groups show how they, in fact, circumvent the logics of pleasure/danger, decentering the ubiquity and power of any one platform or technology. Writing about Black digital feminism, for example, Catherine Knight Steele argues through her case studies that some Black women used passed-down knowledges from the beauty shop (i.e., marketing and maintaining a loyal customer base) to build their brands independent of Twitter when the site no longer served them.5 What this reframing means is that explorations of, for example, the interiority and business acumen of Black women on X (formerly known as Twitter) should be viewed less in terms of X’s ability to provide such prowess and more toward these users’ ingenuity to retrofit the platform’s affordances to their learned skills and present needs.

The emerging works on digital resistance and/as Black joy might also provide traction to think through the space between pleasure and danger online.6 In Black Networked Resistance, for instance, I write about the concept of “Black evergreen networks” and trace Black resistance strategies across media such as the Black press, oral traditions, and social network sites.7 In the book, I make the epistemological move from evergreen content, or that which has no expiration date, to networks to signal the potentials of investigating digital discourse that is not beholden to a particular moment or media format. That is, tracing the historical contours of Black publics’ engagements with various media reveals less about the impact of, say, X or TikTok and more about the strategic ways that these publics act on various platforms to suit their needs at any given time. As Black studies and technology scholar Ruha Benjamin aptly writes, “Let us shift, then, from technology as an outcome to toolmaking as a practice, so as to consider the many different types of tools needed to resist coded inequity, to build solidarity, and to engender liberation.”8 Thus, the space between pleasure and danger must begin with the agentic practices of those whom we study, report on, and are in conversation with.

We must, however, acknowledge the impact, and, yes, harms, of technology even as we decenter its outcome or solution model. There is now a well-established body of literature that assesses the harms of social networks sites, from recommendation algorithms that push users deeper into the depths of white supremacy, for instance, to the corporate ethos of these sites that rely on the replication of Black death and exploitation of our content to function.9 Important organizations that respond to such discrimination, such as the harms caused by facial recognition software, include groups like the Algorithmic Justice and Data 4 Black Lives and are made up of the cross-pollination of scholars, activists, and technology designers. The question arises, then: how do media studies scholars write about the impact of technology on Black life while addressing these users as agentic and joyful but also historically pathologized? And, how do researchers immerse themselves online without causing additional harms to their own subjectivities?

The following roundtable was convened at Washington University in St. Louis, featuring two leading scholars in the field of race and digital media, Kishonna Gray and Brooklyne Gipson to address these and other concerns from a Black digital feminist perspective. Both scholars examine Black feminism, queerness, and intersectionality in their approaches to digital media studies and the conundrum of harm, pleasure, and nuance online. Gray, for instance, writes about gaming and is intentional about telling the stories of those intersecting at the margins. Her book, Intersectional Tech: Black Users in Digital Gaming, argues that Black people are technologists who resist problematic spaces of violence, discrimination, and microaggressions in gaming culture.10 Gray demonstrates in her work the ways that we can position Black people in and beyond gaming to avoid harms caused by technology. Gipson writes about Black women and is attuned to the diversity within Black online spaces in her work on mis- and disinformation. She is working on her first book, which pries open the space of disinformation within Black online publics. In this discussion, Gipson’s voice and perspective is sharp as she focuses on the agency of Black folks while writing about the harms of technology.

Both scholars reflect on a series of questions designed to probe further the nuance between pleasure and danger online. They discuss themes such as storytelling, methods, and play to push the boundaries of the binary and chart a path forward that is neither afraid of nor essentialist about the role of technology in our lives.

Raven Maragh-Lloyd:

This idea of pleasure and danger of online media is not new. How do each of you engage with this debate of community and harm in your own works?

Kishonna Gray:

Thank you for asking that question. Historically we have not put Black folks into the conversations of play or leisure and recreation. In conversations of work and class, I think it is really beautiful how Black folks have, despite limited time, found these moments of being able to engage in play and leisure and recreation. For example, Black kids often replicated the auction in how a plantation would be prepped. And they would play these roles out. Somehow, they still found ways to play. I think a lot of the elders, parents, and guardians of these young folks also facilitated this kind of play to get them prepped and ready for what was to come. In my work, I’m really trying to track the progression and the trajectory of that play in digital spaces.

Brooklyne Gipson:

Black joy is a different type of resistance that is not always legible, but it’s something that works as a survival tool and coping mechanism. So, when we see folks share memes that make fun of tragic incidents or instances of discrimination, this activity can be misread. Similarly, in the mis- and disinformation scholarship, researchers often consider how white folks experience harm from consuming bad information and then everybody else later. As a result, the ways in which mis- and disinformation come up in Black spaces is either not getting talked about or Black people are being pathologized. In my work, I try to get at the nuance of that and also point to the actual problems—the underlying systems of patriarchy that both Black men and women are victims of.


I think both of you are getting at this idea of play as preparation, which maps onto pleasure and danger in interesting ways. Like, play as pleasure, and the preparation part might be the danger, right? And, Kishonna, could you speak to mis- and disinformation and Black folks?


I would love to. Thinking about Gamergate in 2014, that was one of the crucial examples that we had to understand how mis- and disinformation can permeate in gaming spaces. The story that gets told about Gamergate was [that] it was this harassment campaign against white women in the space. Many of us were like, wait a minute, folks were trolling us [Black women] and being harmful to us. And those stories were erased. We weren’t visible in a lot of those conversations. What David Leonard and I argue in Woke Gaming is that this is the precursor to how to have a successful misinformation campaign. The tools that folks utilized inside those gaming spaces were replicated leading up to the election of Donald Trump, and Bolsonaro, and Brexit. These folks were using the tools, and they perfected them in the gaming space. They were savvy in using bots, in using fake accounts, and “finstas.” They did all that in and around the gaming space. But people never paid any attention to the convergence of all these media inside gaming. So, there’s all these convergences around gaming that really makes a lot of us vulnerable. It was Black and Brown women who had to be like, “y’all got to do something, but if you don’t, we’ll do it.” We were really technically savvy in making sure that we were protected and that other folks were protected in those spaces. I often call gaming the ‘canary in the coal mine.’ And if we paid attention to those kinds of examples, then we could have done something or been ahead of the conversation.


Thinking about the convergence of gaming and something like Black Twitter, are mainstream outlets or even digital media scholarship overcelebratory or condemnatory about Black Twitter? And if so, what are some more productive or nuanced ways to study Black communities online?


I want the broader community outside to understand that we have very complex digital lives. And that’s something that I try to get at in my research because anti-Blackness and racism reduces us to all feeling the same way and thinking the same way. There are a lot of Black folks who are not on the same page with other Black folks. Spoiler alert, we’re all over the place, just like any other group, as far as how we’re talking about politics or class. And we’re interacting with these conversations differently depending on the platforms.


So, how might we avoid the binary trap of pleasure/danger that this conversation might surface? Are there ways of bridging Afro-optimism, Afro-pessimism, in digital renditions of this debate?


In my mind I’m just thinking about the tyranny of the binary all the time. And so, for me, especially with how I write, I’m like, it’s both. And yeah, we’re struggling, we’re going through all this oppression, and all this racism and sexism, and transphobia, and homophobia. Black folks are experiencing all that, and we’re still having a great time. We have that power to just move in and out of those spaces.


I’ve been thinking, really thinking, about the power of storytelling. Like, sitting around the grill and telling stories. That’s been a huge part of our history and culture.


So brilliant. The way we tell stories out of the binaries. Storytelling seems to also relate to how you both approach your works methodologically.


I found that early on in doing this, I struggled finding a method that could help me make sense of the spaces that I was in. Because with traditional methods, at the time we had digital ethnography, but it didn’t really help me account for all the sexism and the racism and the misogynoir. So, I felt like we had to piecemeal methods together. And, that’s how we became multi- or transdisciplinary. Because we had to put things together when there was not a space for us to go to. I remember being told early on that I was too close and too intimate to my participants. And I had to keep saying no to the language of “subjects.” You are not going to call these beautiful humans in here “subjects.” The colonial approach to doing this work was so incongruent with what we were trying to do. Because we were a part of these communities too.


And then also, you want to count something, but that’s not going to tell you anything about the expansiveness of Blackness and Black culture. These categories have to be disaggregated in a lot of ways because we have so many different experiences. Flattening them is what science teaches us to do—put them all in one category—and you cannot actually do that, because Blackness is so expansive, it’s always going to push against boundaries, always going to push against counting. So, it’s almost impossible to do that work without having a critical historical account of what’s happening. You cannot say, “you can know everything about what Black folks are doing online by looking at one platform,” because we are on everything, cross-pollinating. We have to be looking back to these histories and taking critical approaches.


Exactly. And, what onus do tech companies have to protect marginalized users online? What are the ideal social media practices or regulations regarding dangers online?


If you want to see what a platform values, look at what you can report to them. See what kind of information you can give to them. Because with most of these platforms, racism is not even a thing that you can even report. It was only after Gamergate that allowed us to report gender-based harassment. It took Gamergate for us to protect women and girls in these spaces, right? So, I think it’s a very important part if we think about what do they care about. In gaming they care about cheating. They don’t want you cheating in the game. Because, listen, they get really savvy when they think about how to reduce cheating in the space. So, let’s keep that same energy for racism.


The tech companies have to see what they’re going to gain from it. And this is really pessimistic for me to say, but they’re not fixing these problems because they care; they’re fixing these problems because they don’t want liability, they don’t want the loss, they don’t want smoke. So, essentially, they’re not going to change anything until it’s going to make them look good. So, what stories can we tell to make this important, to make this serious to other groups.


I think you’re saying something so provocative about this idea of storytelling and policy in the conversation of pleasure and danger.


Our stories are what’s sticking. That creative work is going to speak to more people. Our research is important, but how do we tell that story that’s going to travel?


The narrative is so powerful. In my book, it was freeing for folks to just be able to tell their story. They’re like, “Wait, you want to know what’s happening to me on Facebook? You want to know what’s happening to me when I play Call of Duty? You care about that?” I’m like, “Yeah, I care about your story.”


Sapna Maheshwari and Amanda Holpuch, “Why Countries Are Trying to Ban TikTok,” New York Times, August 16, 2023, sec. Technology.


Alexa Hiebert and Kathy Kortes-Miller, “Finding Home in Online Community: Exploring TikTok as a Support for Gender and Sexual Minority Youth throughout COVID-19,” Journal of LGBT Youth 20, no. 4 (October 2, 2023): 800–817.


Kristen J. Warner, “They Gon’ Think You Loud Regardless: Ratchetness, Reality Television, and Black Womanhood,” Camera Obscura: Feminism, Culture, and Media Studies 30, no. 1 (May 1, 2015): 129–53.


Anna Everett, Digital Diaspora: A Race for Cyberspace, Cultural Studies in Cinema/Video (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009).


Catherine Knight Steele, Digital Black Feminism, Critical Cultural Communication (New York: New York University Press, 2021).


Jessica H. Lu, and Catherine Knight Steele, “‘Joy Is Resistance’: Cross-Platform Resilience and (Re)Invention of Black Oral Culture Online,” Information, Communication & Society 22, no. 6 (May 12, 2019): 823–37.


Raven Maragh-Lloyd, Black Networked Resistance: Strategic Rearticulations in the Digital Age (Oakland: University of California Press, 2024).


Ruha Benjamin, Race after Technology: Abolitionist Tools for the New Jim Code (Medford, MA: Polity, 2019), 168.


Safiya Umoja Noble, Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism (New York: New York University Press, 2018); Tonia Sutherland, Resurrecting the Black Body: Race and the Digital Afterlife (Oakland: University of California Press, 2023).


Kishonna L. Gray and Anita Sarkeesian, Intersectional Tech: Black Users in Digital Gaming (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2020).