Indigenous Australians and social networking

Bec Allen
Bec Allen
Apr 7 · 10 min read

Post-colonial challenges and innovative digital practice Public Domain

The engineering of positive representations of non-Indigenous Australians of European descent in the Australian mainstream media reflects the dominant, post-colonial value systems that underpin modern Australian life. These values are woven through legacy media forms such as film, television and print news and inform the “economic and cultural policy” of modern Australia (Williams, 2004, p. 739). The Internet, as a global, mass archive of knowledge and social practice, is laden with a post-colonial value system which Brabazon (2001) describes as “invisible” and a “structuring grammar for social truths” (p. 3). Similarly, Duarte and Belarde-Lewis (2015) emphasise that “how we structure our knowledge shapes who, what, and how we can know” (p. 684). SNSs, and FaceBook more specifically, are often celebrated as spaces for cultural expression and collective empowerment (Jarrett, 2008). However, scholarship into the field of online networked communities identifies that not all sectors of society have equal access and participation in this space. Once a promoter of Web 2.0 as an agent of democratisation, Henry Jenkins (2014) shifts his perspective to advocate for a systematic broadening of participation and to “push back” against corporatisation and government control of the Internet (p. 290). Despite the potential for SNSs to transcend economic, political and cultural boundaries, for Indigenous Australian users, post-colonial ways of presenting and managing knowledge continue to present challenges in the online world. This paper will begin by providing context to the Indigenous Australian experience in modern Australia and the ways in which this intersects with access to the Internet. It will then discuss the many forces at play within SNSs and some of challenges faced by Indigenous Australian users when participating in these online communities, specifically in the areas of social capital and identity and intellectual property and cultural protocols. Finally, it will show that the up-take of SNSs by Indigenous Australians, and FaceBook in particular, is increasing rapidly, with users capitalising on the open and flexible nature of this online community to produce innovative digital practices that facilitate kinship and connectivity and address the lack of political listening.

Australia’s turbulent history of colonialism and the subsequent inequity that plays out in the ‘gap’ between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians is well documented. Current studies show that Indigenous Australians can expect to live 10 years less than non-Indigenous Australians (Life expectancy & deaths, 2017), with inequity manifesting in areas of health, education, politics, housing, employment and media messaging. A decade on from the implementation of the “Closing the Gap” policy, Bunuba Elder and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Justice Commissioner, June Oscar indicates that the life expectancy gap has in fact widened and that the policy has been “all but abandoned” (Oscar as cited in Lane, 2018). Additionally, parity of access to the Internet is an area of research highlighting that Indigenous people in remote Australia have slower Internet connections, less infrastructure and a lack of training in Internet usage (McCallum and Papandrea, 2009, p. 1233) compared to their non-Indigenous counterparts. Although commentators often position the Internet as a catalyst for positive social change which puts users in control of the technology and the message, (Wellman and Gulia, 1999, p. 2) this perspective overlooks which sectors of society are excluded and how code is controlled. Noble (2018) challenges John Perry Barlow’s influential manifesto, “The Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace” where he envisioned the Internet as a world that “all may enter without privilege or prejudice” (Barlow, 1996 as cited in Noble, 2018, p. 61). Noble argues that scholars are countering early commentators, such as Barlow (and even Jenkins), who pushed “utopian ideals associated with the rise of the Internet and its ability to free us” (p. 61). Importantly, Noble emphasises the significant control that the engineers of the Internet have “over the mechanics of sense making” (p. 60) when we are participating in online communities. Similarly, Arnstein (1969) warned that without the relocation of power and the access to knowledge about its workings, the dominant hegemonies will continue to advocate that all people are considered, all the while preserving the status quo (p. 216). The Internet is complex archive of knowledge and social practice; however, it is evident that members of marginalised communities can experience the same challenges that they confront in the offline world.

Social Capital and Identity

SNSs such as FaceBook are participatory, online communities that facilitate the formation, development and maintenance of social capital and identity (Ellison, Steinfield, Lampe, 2007, p. 1). Social capital is defined as the “tangible assets…namely goodwill, fellowship, sympathy, and social intercourse” (Hanifan, 1916 as cited in Brian, 2007, p. 102) that are generated by human interactions. Facebook’s 10.82 million Australian users (“Number of Facebook users in Australia”, 2018) are participants in an “attention economy”, which encourages an assemblage of “self-presentation” techniques to entice other users, mainly through the disclosure of personal information and insights (Marwick, 2015, p. 138). boyd (2006) points out that SNSs are performative by their nature and exist in an egocentric realm of “context collapse” (p.1) where identity can be adapted for the benefit of accumulating “friends” and building the social network. A study by Carlson (2013) finds that Indigenous Australians are using FaceBook as a vigorous means of strengthening social capital within their own communities and to represent their Aboriginality to other users and groups (p. 147–148). Significantly, users are “Aboriginalising” their profile pages to proudly demonstrate their identity (p. 149). Carlson also notes that research into the area of “disembodied space” (like boyd’s notion of “context collapse”) cannot necessarily be applied to Indigenous Australian FaceBook users, where it is evident that “Aboriginal people embody rather that disembody their identity and social engagements” (p.148). While it is evident that there is a strong element of self-determination in the act of resisting censorship of identity, there are also risks associated with the embodiment of Aboriginality while engaging in the Facebook community. Social commentator and activist, Celeste Liddle is an Arrernte woman who represents herself by the social media handle, “@blackfeministranter”. Liddle uses FaceBook to discuss political issues and the ways these intersect with Indigenous identity in contemporary Australia. A challenge faced by Liddle and many other Indigenous Australians is “platformed racism”, defined by Matamoros-Fernandez (2017) as “a new form of racism derived from the culture of social media platforms ‒ their design, technical affordances, business models and policies ‒ and the specific cultures of use associated with them” (p. 930). Matamoros-Fernandez discuss Liddle’s open criticism of Facebook’s community standards after she shared an image of two Aboriginal women, bare-chested, participating in traditional ceremony. She was subsequently banned for publishing the image that was deemed sexually explicit, with Facebook indicating that such content infringed their policy and could “culturally offend” some users (p. 931). Liddle reflects on the experience of being “trolled” by “a group of narrow-minded little white men” which she believes ultimately led to the ban. She raises concerns about response by the” trolls” and the platform which “took great offence at Aboriginal women… not only inhabiting their bodies in a way that showed no shame… but also undertaking culture within a country which has continually tried to stop them from doing so” (Liddle, 2016).

Intellectual Property and Cultural Protocols

Facebook engineers the interpersonal connections of 2.2 billion active monthly users (“Number of monthly active Facebook users”, 2018). It is these connections, and the personal data that was harvested from its users and distributed to advertisers, that generated Facebook’s $12 billion in the first quarter of 2018 (Solon, 2018). Benedict Anderson argued that the “convergence of capitalism and print technology…created a new form of imagined community” (1991, p. 29). Certainly, the commercial foundations of Facebook where the act of sharing intellectual property (IP) in the form of written text and images is rewarded with “public approval, attention and recognition” (Malik, Dhir and Nieminen, 2015, p. 130) is testament to Anderson’s assertions. For Indigenous Australians, Lumby (2010) points out that “Facebook provides possibilities for extending community, for establishing connectedness and cultural belonging, through networking aspects of pre-contact culture, language, the sharing of practiced rituals, information about kin or mobs that may have been lost, photographs, stories and so on” (p. 69). However, there are community concerns around IP being shared, copied and remixed on the Internet which can contest important spiritual and custodial obligations (Dyson, 2011. p. 257). Christie (2001) highlights that the Yolngu people of Arnhem Land view certain knowledge around land, language and ceremony as sacred. Although Yolngu can share specific knowledge about their own IP, they are obliged to be mindful about sharing the IP of others (p.36). Further, Christie argues that “this is very different from the western notion of knowledge, which is represented as abstract, universal, value free, not belonging to anyone in particular” (p. 36). Notably, Facebook’s Data Policy shows that public posts may be downloaded, re-shared and seen by anyone through search engines, apps and even offline media forms such as television (“Data Policy”, 2018). Carlson and Frazer’s (2015) research looks specifically at Sorry Business (cultural observances surrounding the death of a community member) and the ways in which FaceBook has become a space for Indigenous Australians to grieve and strengthen kinship during this cultural practice. In their study, though, Indigenous Australians expressed significant concern about the use of FaceBook during Sorry Business as the lack of control over images of the deceased can cause distress to community members (p. 215). Facebook’s ability to memorialise the accounts of deceased users may be a useful point of remembrance for some family members. However, to have the account of a deceased family member removed may prove challenging for some Indigenous Australians. As of 2016, one in five Aboriginal births were unregistered in Western Australia (Gaffney, 2016). Facebook’s policy for having accounts removed requires proof of identity, such as a birth certificate or will (“Memorialized Accounts, 2018) and without this kind of legal documentation, the profile of the deceased potentially remains visible, active and ultimately becomes known as “Sorry Pages” (Korff, 2017).

Kinship and Connectivity

Recent research into the use of Facebook by Indigenous Australians indicates that while many users face challenges, this is not preventing them from joining online communities. SNS use by Indigenous Australians is “20 percent higher than the national average” and over 60 percent of the population in remote communities are active users of Facebook (Carlson and Frazer, 2015, p. 215). Despite the issues that most Indigenous users are confronted with while online, Facebook has become a “modern site for kinship connectivity and community” and (Lumby, 2010, p. 70) can preserve cultural knowledge, grow resilience and assist in the building of social capital (Molyneaux, O’Donnell, Kakekaspan, Walmark, Budka and Gibson, 2012, p. 3–4). Rice, Haynes, Royce and Thompson (2016) found that Indigenous Australian young people use SNS to preserve cultural identity and strengthen kinship connections to family members and their broader communities. They also found that these connections enhanced health and educational outcomes. The notion of “hidden transcripts”, a concept coined by anthropologist, James C. Scott, describes tactics of resistance that marginalised communities employ when in public life. The deployment of “hidden transcripts” to communicate and maintain connectivity on Facebook illustrates how Indigenous dissent can materialise online. Users “improvise, interpret, bend and negotiate” their online experiences (Soriano, 2011, p. 2), using cultural nuances to protect knowledge from wider public consumption. For example, the FaceBook pages, “Noongars Be Like” and “Kooris be Like” build and maintain social capital and kinship connection through memes and colloquialisms which require cultural and contextual understanding for users to participate meaningfully in the online community. Soriano (2011) further explains that this form of resistance is designed to push back against the dominant hegemony and is visible only to those with membership to the subordinate group (p. 3). This kind innovative practice is permeating through FaceBook despite the constraints that post-colonial value structures present to many Indigenous Australians.

The Politics of Listening

The representation and debate of Indigenous affairs has traditionally been restricted to legacy media forms such as film, television and print news. The affordances of SNS have facilitated an “open journalism” movement that has mediated a diverse range of perspectives in the conversation around complex issues such as Aboriginal land rights and constitutional recognition (Ingram, 2016). In response to the mediatisation of Australian life, Indigenous Australian Facebook users are using “guerrilla tactics to create alternative spaces of meaning, memory and identity” (Brabazon, 2001) and to produce innovative digital resistance against oppressive government policies. The #Sosblakaustralia movement grew out of a “grass-roots” response to the proposed government closure of Indigenous communities in remote Western Australia. Women from the Kimberley desert community of Wangkatjungka used FaceBook to campaign against the policy and to draw attention to the injustices faced by Indigenous Australians. The movement generated international attention and verified that Facebook could be used as a tool for self-determination and activism (Carlson and Frazer, 2016, p.1). The campaign was largely omitted from the Australian mainstream media news cycle, however an offline protest in Melbourne gained attention when it featured on the front page of the Sydney Morning Herald with the headline, “Selfish Rabble Shut City” (2015). Despite the attention and protest that was generated by the women of Wangkatjungka, Dreher, McCallum and Waller (2016) find that Indigenous voices are consistently challenged by the volume of content that is generated on SNS which ultimately affects their ability to be heard (p. 28). Dreher et al points to the “politics of listening” as an essential part of an “ensemble of practices that are as necessary for democratic communications as ‘voice’ or speaking” (p. 27). For meaningful engagement with Indigenous affairs to occur, a focus on listening rather than speaking will move the emphasis from those who are subjugated to those who dominate the political conversation (p. 28). #Sosblakaustralia remains a strong example of Indigenous Australians using Facebook to challenge the mediatisation of Indigenous issues and to enhance offline activism (Petray, 2001, p. 925). While the rigours of a new form of “open” media has birthed collective action by Indigenous Australians, the need for long-term political transformation beyond the short-term collective disruption of protest remains a critical issue (McCallum, 2016, p. 38).

Conclusions: Growth despite challenges

This paper has addressed the challenges that Indigenous Australians face when using SNSs. The Australian mainstream media reinforces the dominant, post-colonial value systems that permeate through modern Australian life. These hegemonic frames are also embedded within our social network. Aitchison rightfully argues that “technology is embedded within social relations of hierarchy and control” (2013, p.2). SNSs are often heralded as a democratiser of knowledge, however, this paper has demonstrated that not all sectors of society have equal access and participation in this space. Indigenous Australians are often excluded due to the lack of infrastructure, training, literacy and conflict with the dominant social paradigms that work against cultural protocols. But Web 2.0 is providing Indigenous Australians with a platform to enhance the exploration of Aboriginality and a vehicle to bypass and challenge the gatekeepers of legacy media. Notably, the Indigenous media sector in Australia is growing exponentially in reaction to misrepresentation and the desire for self-determination (Meadows and Molnar, 2010, p.19). Indigenous Australians continue to join Facebook and use the platform to enhance self-determination and produce innovative digital resistance, both online and offline.

Banner image CCO Creative Commons

References available on request


Being curious is about exploring perspective. Through the lenses of technology, media and culture we are ‘trained’ to perceive our world in a predetermined way. These musings are about my admiration and distrust of these three entities.

Bec Allen

Written by

Bec Allen

Bec is an Arts Worker and Media Educator who works with young people in the remote Western Australia



Being curious is about exploring perspective. Through the lenses of technology, media and culture we are ‘trained’ to perceive our world in a predetermined way. These musings are about my admiration and distrust of these three entities.

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade