Jordan K. Thomas
KingVader and the Doomsday Machines
I keep seeing all these articles and think pieces about the toxicity of social media, the evils of Facebook and Twitter, the death of debate and discourse and blah-de-blah-de-blah. There was one on Wired that caught my eye the other day, “The Case for Less Speech” by Jason Pontin. He writes, Social media are doomsday machines. They distract, divide, and madden; we can no longer hear each other, speak coherently, or even think. As a result, our social, civic, and political ligands are dissolving.
And maybe that’s true—for White people.
For Black folks though? Social media’s been a place for us to grow those ligands, to establish and sustain those social and civic bonds that the White racist society we live in seeks—and has always sought—to silence, undermine, and destroy. There was a 2015 Pew Research Survey in which 78% of Black respondents said social media helped give marginalized folks a voice; 80% of Black respondents also said that it was crucial in focusing attention on issues that folks would otherwise overlook or ignore. Social media has become a crucial tool and a weapon against a system designed for our destruction.
More than that, it’s become an empowering, voice-amplifying, community-creating force, one that has saved me. Where I once felt isolated in my Blackness, a person without a people or a community, worrying over whether or not I was ‘Black’ enough, today I feel neither isolation nor aloneness, only a love for Black folks that has removed from me the question of authenticity.
I was only able to find that sense of community with other Black folks once social media was on the rise, once it was as easy to find news of another shooting, another officer cleared of any wrongdoing, or another district attorney deciding not to press charges, as it was to find our moments of joy, too. It was only through these “doomsday machines” that I found our memes and our tweets and—most of all—our Vines, and began to feel comfortable and joyous in my skin and with my skinfolk.
To explain, I grew up in Clive, a 98% White suburb of Des Moines, the 89% White capital city of Iowa, a 96% White state, in a subdivision called Country Club that was built around a manmade lake where swimming, using motorboats, fishing, ice skating, jet skiing, and all sorts of other lake-related activities were strictly prohibited. It was one of those places with a fancy sign and a bunch of fountains at the front entrance, where no one played in the streets and only sometimes in their driveways. I don’t think I ever even met one of my next-door neighbors in the nine years I lived there.
My father moved us to Clive, a decision he’d made after he moved his dental office to the neighboring suburb of West Des Moines. Because my father made all the decisions. It was 1995. All the White folks were fleeing Des Moines, on the run from the city’s increasing diversity (keep in mind that we are still talking about Iowa, here), and taking their money with them. My father, tired of filling cavities and putting on braces and doing a lot of work for not a lot of money, decided that he wanted to change his practice to perform cosmetic dentistry, selling people well-crafted porcelain smiles for thousands and thousands of dollars.
My father believed that the best way to achieve his goals was for us to be upstanding, excellent, and acceptable examples of Black folks (as dictated by our White racist society’s ideas of what is acceptable) to gain access to some of their power, their privilege. He’d grown up a poor Black boy in St. Louis and never wanted to return to that, never wanted to feel that he was “less than.” The money was part of proving he wasn’t. So was moving to Country Club and leaving behind the Black friends we’d made that, in his eyes, weren’t good enough, wealthy enough, enough of the right kind of Black to meet his standards.
Even though our new house was only ten miles away from our old neighborhood, all of my old friendships withered away. Clive had no public transit to speak of (then and now, it takes two hours to bus from my house in Clive to our old house in Des Moines), we didn’t have smartphones, we couldn’t message online because home internet connections weren’t widespread yet, and I’d just changed schools. I felt like I had no one. No one like me to talk to, to play with, to feel safe around and connected to.
The day our cable modem was hooked up was one of the greatest days of my life. Pages were loading in less than a minute. And the connection wouldn’t drop if someone tried to make a phone call. I remember connecting to the internet and then picking up the phone, hanging it up, and picking it up again, just to be sure. An entire universe had opened up before me. When we were on dial-up, I didn’t use the internet for much more than looking up strategy guides and cheat codes for video games—anything else would take too long. But not anymore.
I was on the computer every chance I got. I would lose track of time until the sun began to peek over the horizon, the early light shimmering on the lake’s surface. I’d spend all hours of the day in the internet communities that put out some of the oldest memes: in play-by-post Dungeons and Dragons-type roleplaying games on message boards, in heated debates about religion, the War on Terror, and on the enormous size of the first Xbox. I’d be talking with five, six, ten people at one time, on top of being active in chat rooms. My fingers were a blur over the keyboard, jumping from window to window, making Mavis Beacon proud.
I lived on the internet. Reality was just the in-between stuff I had to get through, but the internet, that’s where I felt free. Except, back then, back before social media, I thought freedom was anonymity. I thought freedom was no one knowing I was Black unless I told them, because folks just assumed you were a White male when there wasn’t substantial evidence to the contrary. I thought I could just lay in the cut and pass and reap the benefits of the power of presumed Whiteness.
I’d learned this from the distinct, abrupt shifts that had taken place the few times I let slip that I was Black. People’d message me ASCII art of hangings, swastikas, KKK hoods. My posts would be met with resistance, at best, but most commonly with people spamming posts that’d say ‘nigger’ or ‘darky’ or ‘porch monkey.’ Debates over politics or religion would be derailed by the wholesale discounting of my opinion because Blackness and intellect were at odds. In other words, it was much the same as it is now, 15 years down the line, but the power of presumed Whiteness used to be just another screen name away. That’s all it took to be free again. I am ashamed of this. I am ashamed that it took me such a long time to realize that the thing I’d called freedom—that presumption of Whiteness—wasn’t any kind of freedom at all, that I’d confused being unseen or hidden with being free, that I’d forgotten the importance of joy.
I’m not sure how I missed its rise to prominence, given that I was working with middle school kids when it was released in January 2013, but I didn’t find out about Vine until the summer of 2016, just months before the service shut down. I was in Miami that summer attending a weeklong workshop for writers of color. It was the first time that I’d ever been around so many other grown Black folks at one time outside of a protest or a church service.
One of the people in my class rocked a big afro and dressed like a high-end business-casual Jimi Hendrix. He’d be talking about Dragon Ball Z one minute, going hard about the Cavs and LeBron the next. He was a deep nerd, but he moved through the world with style and grace, and confidence in his Blackness. He helped me see who I wanted to be, how I wanted to present myself in the world.
About halfway through the workshop, he and this other dude were chilling on some couches near the elevators, engaged in a heated debate about anime, I think. It was a revelation to me to witness Black boys having heated nerdy conversations. Finding Black nerds in Minneapolis, where I was living, was difficult. In Des Moines, when I’d grown up, it’d been all but impossible. I didn’t know what show they were talking about but I sat down anyway, joined them, the conversation sprawled, and I can’t remember how it came up or why, but late in the night, the dude from my class showed us a video that he’d been watching over and over, that made him laugh as hard as the first time, every time.
What are your talents, asks a Black boy dressed like an unremarkable manager—or a shift supervisor, at the very least—from his seat in a dull conference room in a bland office with three equally unremarkable coworkers. Then the video cuts to another Black boy, tall and mid-stride, who’s just entered the room. He’s wearing a black, oversized button-up that’s not tucked into his pants, which is most certainly in violation of the employee dress code, but he doesn’t seem to care. His face is as casual as his clothes, as relaxed as the fit of his jeans.
His right arm rises to answer the question, revealing the plastic water bottle in his right hand. He lets the bottle go with a flick of his wrist, and a song begins to play. The half-full bottle flies up into the air, catching the light from the fluorescents overhead. It seems to hang there, just for a moment. All eyes are on the bottle, all except from the boy who threw it; he’s already walking out the door because he knows what’s about to happen. They follow its ascent, they watch it spin, they stare as it falls. The sound of a woman’s voice—she says roses—and then a quiet, just for a quarter of a second, maybe an eighth, as the plastic water bottle lands, upright. Impact.
Then: A shockwave pulses through the room as the sheer beauty and artistry of the perfect bottle flip is transformed into a wave of energy. One of the office workers is blown out of his chair. Another loses all control of his body and he flails his limbs. The sole White person in the video spills the coffee in his cup everywhere, his face disappearing behind a spray of latté. Another’s face is frozen in panic because a keyboard is heading right towards him.
The boy, though? He’s good. The video cuts back to him. He’s walking out of the room, wearing sunglasses that have appeared out of nowhere. Everything moves in slow motion and it’s like he’s in an action movie, like he’s a vigilante walking away from an explosion he caused, knowing it’s just one of many more to come.
The video ends here; its six and a half seconds are up. But there’s a longer version that continues for another five seconds or so and, in that version, we see the interviewer as he continues to lose control of most of his body in what is, without a doubt, my favorite part of the Vine.
In those closing seconds, we see the interviewer’s notepad and pen tumble out of his hands. He slumps in his chair, his body stiffens, and he braces himself against the wall as he starts to slide out his seat and to the ground. The entire time—the entire time—his face never changes. His eyes stay on the boy leaving the room. His mouth is hanging open, he’s not blinking, and he’s got this dumbfounded expression on his face, one that I take as: Goddamn, when can this nigga start?
That was how I found out about Vine. And I was not the only one, by any means, who was being sustained by and supported by our Vines and our memes. In her article, “People of color are the only reason why Vine was good,” published on Bullshit.ist, Bridget Todd describes one of her favorite Vines, A handful of Black tweens are playing around and singing the Marvelette’s 1961 classic “Mr. Postman” to their letter carrier. The kids are having fun — they all have big cheesy grins on their faces. Wherever they are looks safe, clean, and cared for. The letter carrier, also Black, is pleased to see them and reacts like he sees these same kids enough to know them all by name.
It is a snapshot of Black joy, a brief moment of respite. She goes on to say, To me, something about this video came to represent an idyllic slice of Black life, where it’s okay for Black kids to just goof around and be kids. After a summer of Trayvon, Mike, and Tamir, I needed this and Vine delivered.
For me, Tamir’s murder near the end of 2014 kicked off a long stretch of time where every video game I played, every TV show I watched, and every movie I saw strayed far away from the real. I lost myself in Skyrim’s massive, fictional, fantastical world for hours on end. I went deep into superhero shows, mostly cheesy CW shows like The Flash and Arrow. I ran through Rotten Tomatoes’ list of the Top 100 Science Fiction and Fantasy Movies as well as their annual ‘best of’ lists, scrounging for whatever I hadn’t seen before.
I thought distracting myself with games, TV shows, and movies that took place far from here, far from now, or in other realities altogether would counter the sorrow, the grief. I thought I would be okay with just that as my defense but the deaths continued. The shooting in Charleston, the arrest and death of Sandra Bland, the murder of Samuel DuBose—they kept coming. In response, I found more ways to distract myself, more ways to hide.
Then Philando was murdered, followed by Alton that night, the officers in Dallas two days later, and I couldn’t hide from all that death. I was afraid to leave my house; the streets felt unsafe. Philando had been murdered less than fifteen minutes from me, Jamar’d been even closer than that when he was murdered that past November, and I thought cops everywhere would be out for Black blood, cruising around looking for an excuse. I shut myself up in my room. I closed the blinds and shut the curtains, made the room dark and quiet and calm, and I cocooned myself up in my blankets and alternated between sobbing and staring at the ceiling as I tried to keep myself from thinking about all the ways I could die, by my hand or someone else’s.
My roommate was no stranger to my depressive episodes, but this worried her more than usual because I was so unresponsive, so still. I have memories of her talking to me, but I don’t know what she said. I just know that whenever she asked me something I couldn’t find the words to respond, couldn’t slow down the thoughts in my head long enough to grab one and tame it and push it out of my mouth.
At some point, she called a friend of ours and he and his wife came over. They sat on my bed and talked to me, trying their best to soothe me, to get me to talk to them, to say anything. I’m not sure if I did. I might have whispered that I was fine, that there was nothing they could do to help, that I just needed to be alone and to be left alone. And if I did say all that, I was lying, because I knew I didn’t want to be alone. It was just that I didn’t want to be around anyone who wasn’t Black, who wasn’t afraid and grieving like I was. My roommate was White, as was our friend’s wife. He was Middle Eastern, so I knew he understood, somewhat, but not enough.
Once they were gone, I opened up my laptop and quit out of my browser as soon as I could, not wanting to see the new comments on my Facebook feed or new posts on Twitter about Black pain. Then I opened a new window, went to YouTube, and watched KingVader flip that water bottle in the air and laughed to myself as it landed with a thunderous boom. That was the first moment of joy I’d felt in days, the first moment that wasn’t filled with thoughts of Philando’s daughter, Alton’s son, and the kinfolk of every one of us that’d been taken too soon. It was the only thing that could get me to react or respond. I started going through all the compilations of the best Vines by Black folks that I could find.
I saw a Vine of KingVader dropping verses about the cartoon Avatar : The Last Airbender and another of him and his friends all going full nerd and doing the Naruto run with their arms splayed out behind them, their torsos parallel to the ground,
I watched the Vines of this kid, JayVersace, who is 20 years old now but looks all of 13. Most of his Vines didn’t include other people and had no elaborate setup. Instead, he used puns and wordplay, made more jokes than scenes. My favorite of his, subtitled when the librarian cool:
Jay appears on screen, shouts, eyyy, you know where I can get some drugs from? The video cuts to a different Jay who responds, Excuse me, you’re in a library!
Jay-1 says, in a normal speaking voice, My bad. Then he drops to a whisper: You know where I can get some drugs—
Jay-2 answers, yeah yeah what you need bruh?
In another, Jay keeps it simple. How do you discipline your pet rock? You hit rock bottom! Then he crinkles up his face, starts snort-laughing to himself.
I watched AlliCattt’s vines of her going extra on the everyday tragedies, like someone leaving an empty box of Cheez-Its on the counter. There’s one I’ve rewatched over and over, where she appears on screen, her voice hurried and forceful: There are two things I won’t do, chase a guy and compete for a guy! Because chasing reminds me of running and competing reminds me of sports. And I ain’t in shape.
I went through the many, many Vines of Vine’s largest star, KingBach, who’s gone on to have a lot of success in Hollywood, appearing alongside Don Cheadle in several episodes of House of Lies and a main role in three seasons and counting on Adult Swim’s Black Jesus with Black acting legend John Witherspoon and the late Charlie Murphy. At his peak, KingBach had 17 million followers and over six billion plays of his Vines.
His Vines were almost all skits, executed to perfection. There’s one that I love. A thief rushes by and steals a woman’s purse. She cries out for help, and we see KingBach appear. He’s running as he enters the frame, his back to the camera, but he’s not heading after the thief. Instead, he runs straight towards the concrete wall in front of him and then plants a foot on the wall and does a backflip. The woman, irritated, says, He’s already gone! Then the camera focuses on KingBach’s face, his arched eyebrows and his wide, impish grin as he says to the woman, Yeah, but that backflip tho .
The thing about every one of these Vines, every one of these Viners, is that they’re Black folks expressing themselves, goofing off, laughing and living and enjoying their lives. I didn’t see much of that, growing up. I don’t see much of it still, even now. It’s easy to find videos of Black folks in pain, of excellent Black athletes, of Black actors and rappers and musicians. It’s real easy to find videos of Black people getting arrested, going to prison.
To see such a wide diversity of Black folks just messing around, to watch JayVersace balance increasingly large objects on his head in his videos and act like everything’s normal, to see KingVader firing off hadoukens and kamehahas and other energy blasts in his Vines, these are the kinds of videos that are hard to find, the ones about us being us, about us being alive and joyful. I needed to not feel so alone and isolated from Black folks, to not see more Black folks dying or going to prison or under suspicion or in caskets or in handcuffs, to see Black life and Black living instead of Black death and pain. And, as it did for Bridget, Vine delivered.
Vine has been in an archived state for almost two years now. For a while, you could browse or search that archive but that ended earlier this year, in April. You can still find Vine compilations on YouTube and, if you have the link, you can watch them on the Vine website, but the site and the service are effectively defunct. Its stars have left for Instagram or have taken their talents to Hollywood, and the Vine webpage reads like a gravestone for the community that once was.
Its loss was—and still is—felt by many. It was one of a rare few spaces where you could find Black joy, Black weirdness, and Black life in abundance. Our bodies are so heavily policed in the real world that, often, the digital world feels like the only safe place for us to let down the mask, relax our guard, and allow ourselves to be as silly and childish and over-the-top as White folks, from your everyday White person all the way up to the idiot we have for a President, get to be all the time without repercussion.
For Black folks, social media has created possibility and power. An entire enduring social movement by and for Black folks was made possible by these doomsday machines. Black Lives Matter was born, in large part, through social media and fueled by the hashtags of too many Black lives lost, the Vines of protests in Baltimore or Ferguson. It’s led to the smaller, but important victories over everyday White bullshit, as in the cases of BBQ Becky, Permit Patty, Cornerstore Carolyn, and others. It’s given us hashtags like #ifslaverywasachoice, deep wells of humor much needed to counteract the incessant murder of Black folks by police, like Stephon Clark, like Botham Jean.
I no longer feel so disconnected from my skin and separated from my Blackness. Because I can get online and see our multitudes. I can see Vines born of our strangest thoughts. I can see memes about Thanksgiving with Black families by folks I’ve never met that read like they’re about my auntie or my cousins. And I can know that there is no role I have to play, no rules of Blackness I need to follow, except one: to always, always do it for the Vine.