The ups and downs of Social Media Activism

Author, Activist, and Public Speaker Charlie Craggs tells us about her journey using social media as a tool for activism and the ways in which it has positively and negatively affected her.

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Nail Transphobia is a campaign I run where I travel around the UK with a pop-up nail salon and my squad of trans nail techs and offer the public free manicures for the chance to sit down and have a chat with a trans person. While people are getting their nails done they can ask us questions about trans stuff, or we can just have a chat. The point is they’re getting to meet and speak to a trans person because most people haven’t met a trans person and that’s where misconceptions, and in turn transphobia, comes from. My campaign isn’t really about nails, it’s about conversation, the nails are just a catalyst for that conversation and my way of bringing people into the conversation around trans issues who wouldn’t normally be engaged in it. 

In the 7 years since starting the campaign, life has changed - social media *is* life now. Our friendships are online, our dating is online, our banking is online so why wouldn’t our activism move online too? We’re on our phones all day every day so it would be silly not to harness social media for social good. It’s also stupid, and elitist, to think that online activism is any less valid than the traditional sort.

Nail Transphobia

One of the Nail Transphobia workshops (Image courtesy of Charlie Craggs)

Though my activism, in general, is still primarily physical and IRL with my Nail Transphobia pop-ups, I am limited to the number of people I can talk to, one manicure can take 20 minutes and the pop-ups only last for a couple of hours. Whereas I can post the same messages I have in conversations with the 30 people who come to the pop-up on my Instagram and speak to my 30 thousand followers all at once. 

This understanding and shift in my activism came a few years into the campaign. When I started Nail Transphobia back in 2013 Instagram influencers weren’t a thing, Instagram activists weren’t a thing, Instagram itself was hardly a thing. The catalyst for this pivot in my campaigning came when I started getting written about, and as a result, was given a social media following and began to see the opportunity and influence I could potentially have online.

I was running Nail Transphobia for about 2 years before I got any press around it, I wasn’t looking for press, to be honest, I was just doing activism for activism's sake. I was approached by the Editor of Broadly, Vice’s feminist platform who saw I was going to be doing a Nail Transphobia pop-up at an event at the feminist library in London. I was a bit nervous because I’d never done any media stuff before, and I didn’t really know what would come from this or how my life (or activism) would change positively or negatively. Anyway, I did the interview with the journalist and got on with the event painting nails and having conversations, and thought nothing of it again.

Until.

A week later when the piece came out (which was really exciting in itself) I got an email from make-up guru Bobbi Brown’s people, telling me that Bobbi loved my mission and wanted to speak to me and potentially get involved. She wasn’t the only one- for the next year I was doing interviews for the biggest magazines and newspapers *literally* every week, it was insane! I couldn’t have predicted this when I said yes to that vice interview, but I was so glad I did because with all this media coverage came things like a following, a platform, and a voice. Essentially, that first interview changed my campaign and changed my life forever. 

Richard Branson and Charlie Craggs during a Nail Transphobia workshop

Richard Branson and Charlie Craggs during a Nail Transphobia workshop (Image courtesy of Charlie Craggs)

As well as giving me a voice in the mainstream media, doing segments on BBC and ITV news and writing articles, the press also gave me a voice on social media, which unexpectedly I’ve found holds a lot more power and influence (at least at my level) than a voice in the actual media. I guess it makes sense, I don’t know about you but I don’t read magazines, I do read Instagram (captions and stories) all day every day, which brings me back to my point about why it’s stupid and kind of snobbish to think that online activism is less valid somehow than traditional activism.

Getting involved in online activism is something I’m really proud of- I’ve helped raise a lot of money, I’ve helped educate a lot of people and I’ve helped do my bit for a lot of causes I care about. However, it’s not all been positive, if I’m honest there’s been a negative side to it all too, and I’m not just talking about the INSANE amount of hate I get online that really affects my mental health, but more so the toll of feeling like you have to constantly be politically engaged and consuming depressing political stuff constantly on Instagram - an app that was literally set up to take cute photos of your morning coffee to share with your friends.

Nail Transphobia

Somone getting there nails done during a Nails Transphobia workshop (Image courtesy of Charlie Craggs)

I think what I’ve found hardest most recently is that all my activism has moved online in the last year because corona stopped my physical talks and nail pop-ups.  It’s hard to switch off and set boundaries because I’ve had nothing to do but sit at home on Instagram all day every day, and as an activist, I feel like I have a duty to be “activisting” all day and all night. The constant consumption of all that negativity really took a toll on my mental health, which wasn’t great, to begin with, so this constant consumption of trauma added to the constant pressure (I put on myself) to be posting about said trauma, my mental health definitely got worse. I was in an unhealthy cycle of waking up going straight on my phone, consuming a bunch of sad stuff, and feeling a duty to talk about it. 

I think the moment I realized I had a problem was when I was speaking to my producer friend about starting a podcast, they asked me what ideas I had for a concept for my podcast, and all my ideas were very negative and political, and activist-y. They said something that really stuck with me, they reminded me that I’m allowed to have fun. It sounds silly but with my job (and life) being centered around being a political identity for almost a decade I’d almost forgot that I was allowed to have fun and not always have my activist hat on. I’m a person before I’m an activist and as a person I deserve joy, and I *need* joy, otherwise, life isn’t worth living. 

I guess the moral of this story is that there’s great power in social media and you really can affect change by utilising it in the right way, but don’t let fighting for change on social media (or in real life) consume you to the point where you lose your own joy.