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Naturists and social media
The limitations of social media advocacy
"It’s a highly deceptive world, one that constantly asks you to comment but doesn’t really care what you have to say."
— David Levithan
We’re well aware of how social media platforms effectively regulate content, by using algorithms to boost and promote certain kinds of ideas and images and expressions, while discouraging, distorting, downvoting, censoring, or even prohibiting others. But how does this influence our behavior on social media, guide our decisions regarding what kinds of content to share? What compromises do we make in order to build engagement, accumulate followers, and earn “likes?” What happens when naturists compete for attention on the big social media platforms, and how do our social media behaviors impact the larger naturist movement?
Social Media’s Reliance on Junk Content
Carl Jensen, founder of Project Censored, coined the expression “junk food news,” which he defined as "sensationalized, personalized, and homogenized inconsequential trivia." Though “not very nourishing for the public… it’s profitable for media proprietors.” Today, social media news feeds rely on this “junk food” content to draw in users, drive engagement, and attract advertising dollars. Junk content is their lifeblood. Social media platforms encourage the creation of junk content by forcing us to keep our ideas short, sweet, and simple, by forcing us to squeeze our ideas into 280-character Tweets and 5 to 20-second Facebook and Instagram stories. The big social media platforms don’t want their users to discuss and debate topics and ideas, they want them to scroll, spontaneously react, and quickly move on. They know that the sexy celebutante’s selfie, or the funny cat video, or the shocking or patently offensive political post – junk content – will appeal to our raw emotions, our animal instincts, our materialistic urges, or our libidos, and inspire clicks, likes, reposts, comments, purchases, and arguments, driving engagement and attracting advertising dollars.
Savvy content creators, including those that happen to be naturists, are eager to generate engagement, which brings attention to their causes, or possibly economic rewards, or maybe just a dopamine rush. The more successful creators appreciate that the typical social media user has an almost insatiable appetite for quickly consumable, easily digestible content – ideological junk food. There are nudist and naturist social media accounts that produce thoughtful, intelligent, high-quality content. But the vast majority simply regurgitate the same familiar memes, repost the same news stories, or rely on the one form of content certain to receive engagement, the nude photo.
Nude images can be empowering, liberating, and beautiful. But we should question their effectiveness as tools of advocacy on social media, surrounded by junk content, where context is often limited or absent. On social media, the nude photo has become a favorite method of drawing attention to the naturist idea. Sometimes, and problematically, it’s an appropriated image of someone else. Most of the time, it’s a selfie. “Normalize nudity” has become our battle cry. Our hashtag. We’ve convinced ourselves that the way to get people into our movement, or to at least to become more tolerant of our way of thinking, is to get more naked pictures into everyone’s social media feeds, until nude images are no longer seen as shocking or taboo. The hypothesis is that if we show nude bodies engaged in routine and mundane activities, people will begin to differentiate between sexual and nonsexual nudity. But these images get tremendous engagement, and it’s not difficult to understand the motivations of the many anonymous strangers who “like” a photo of a nude body. It’s tempting for us to bias those interactions to correlate with our own personal intent. In a marketplace that thrives on junk content, what demand do our naked images satisfy? And is it possible that we may be doing more harm than good by participating so eagerly and willingly in this exchange of bodies for “likes,” without having an accurate method for measuring how our images are interpreted, consumed, misinterpreted, or misused, beyond a count of those all-important “likes?” What really happens when we toss these images into the world’s social media feeds, with limited or no context or commentary? Who controls the narrative attached to the nudist image, once it begins to circulate across the internet? Are we offering a thoughtful contrast between simple nudity and sexualized nudity, a compelling argument in favor of the naturist philosophy, or are we unintentionally creating another niche of erotic content?
Naturist activism and advocacy is too often based on a false or even a missing premise, leading to flawed solutions to our problems, and unpredictable or undesirable outcomes. This was true long before the advent of social media, or even the internet. In the 1950s and 1960s, our primary advocacy effort, our preferred method of appealing to prospective magazine subscribers and campground members, was to show naked bodies, specifically youthful female bodies. In the 1970s, some prominent clubs held “Miss Nude” pageants, open to the public, hoping to draw mainstream publicity and boost memberships. In the 1980s and 1990s, we sold videos of women frolicking at the beaches and playing volleyball in the clubs. We still use images of female bodies to sell nudism. What has been the outcome? We seem genuinely perplexed why so many single, heterosexual men are itching to visit nudist clubs, and why so many women remain skeptical. We are quick to theorize that it has something to do with women’s fashion industry-induced body dysphoria, and that women are simply too neurotic from all those years of playing with Barbie and reading Vogue to ever consider going nude in the presence of others. It’s one of the more glaring examples of our embarrassing lack of self-awareness, our insidious sexism, and our refusal to accept a bit of responsibility for our own predicament. Our young adult outreach has been similarly misguided, based on unproven assumptions about the younger generations' consumer habits or recreational interests.
Perhaps we’re repeating those same mistakes with our social media advocacy. In his 2003 book Sex, Drugs and Cocoa Puffs, Chuck Klosterman notes that, in those relatively early days of the internet, there were already over 12,000 websites that included the phrase “nude/naked housewife.” He writes, “With computer pornography, the key is normalcy – the surfer is hoping to see the girl next door in an almost literal sense.” This trend has only grown and expanded in the twenty years since Klosterman made his observation. Even professionally-produced porn now mocks the aesthetic of the amateur video filmed using a phone or webcam. Everyday nudity has a market, an audience, but maybe not the one we want. Are we repeating our past missteps by assuming, without corresponding data, that consumers of limited-context nude images are also digesting our ideas and philosophies? Are we mistaking the public’s enthusiasm for boring nude images as something more substantive than it really is? Are we the new “housewife porn?”
The Limitations of Social Media Activism
Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram have enabled enthusiastic fan bases for some naturist individuals. What has been the effect on our overall community? Where is the data that demonstrates our activities on social media platforms have advanced our mission of greater acceptance in some appreciable way? After nearly twenty years of working with the big social media platforms, our organizations are smaller, our publications are leaner, and many of our beaches and campgrounds have closed. Nudity on public and even private land is coming under increased scrutiny by law enforcement officials.
Volunteers to confront our growing problems are few and far between. Almost nobody is stepping in to fill the shoes of those who did the often thankless work to build and sustain our movement. Who’s strategizing to put together a cooperative to buy one of the nudist parks that are currently for sale? Who’s joining the organizations, donating to our political advocacy groups, subscribing to our publications? How many are volunteering to help clean and patrol the few beaches we have left? How many are monitoring and working against evolving anti-nudity legislation?
How many nudists and naturists are willing to get involved with the tedious, behind-the-scenes work that doesn’t provide instant gratification, that doesn’t yield an immediate flood of “likes” and heart emojis and supportive DMs? Social media allows, and even encourages users to voice support for, or opposition to, a variety of causes and issues, without ever actually working to effect change, a form of bumper sticker activism. It’s essential that we recognize the limitations of a meme or a photo or a hashtag in defending a way of life that is facing increasingly sophisticated threats from many directions.
A Smarter Approach to Advocacy
For naturists, the path to fostering a truly meaningful understanding and respect of nonsexual nudity has always been an extraordinarily complicated trail to forge, one that can all-too-easily diverge into stigmatization or fetishization. This was true before the internet, but sharing our message becomes exponentially more difficult in an era of diminishing attention spans, when we’re forced to present and defend our philosophies within the confines established by the big social media platforms, which are designed to encourage rapid and passive scrolling, clicking, and reposting of ideological junk food, rather than an exchange of nuanced, challenging, or thought-provoking ideas, or useful/actionable information.
Building a truly sustainable naturism requires a renewed support for our existing institutions, our organizations, advocacy groups, publications, and spaces, encouraging the growth of blogs and podcasts, supporting our creators, writers, artists, historians, and filmmakers, while simultaneously working to build a more focused, meaningful, and thoughtful social media presence, something more nourishing than what tends to emerge from the free-for-all battle for attention of the current consumer-driven system in which we must market ourselves, sell our ideas, or worse, our bodies, in order to stir engagement, grease the algorithms, get the clicks, and score those deceptive, addictive, all-important likes. It’s going to take much, much more than uncontextualized naked pics and throwaway memes to protect, preserve, energize, or maybe even save the movement. Social media advocacy alone, when not used as a component of a larger advocacy effort, is woefully inadequate to confront the challenges naturists face. 🪐
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