Kerry Washington: A model of social stardom
Celebrities experience the mechanisms of social media in a way that the majority of people never will. Their experiences using social media are valuable to anybody with a passion for making the social sphere pro-social. This year, a featured session at SXSW Interactive gave audiences the opportunity to learn from a famous woman whose social media presence is of particular importance. Kerry Washington, an Emmy-nominated actress and headline-grabbing, woman of color activist, came to SXSW with a lot to say about Social Stardom.
Kerry’s session was structured as a Q&A with Ariel Foxman, the editorial director of InStyle Magazine. Early in the conversation she discussed her motivations for entering the social media sphere. She made it clear that her entry into the social sphere was quite distinct from the average user’s because it was directly influenced by her celebrity status.
“It wasn’t as a consumer,” she said. “It wasn’t because I wanted to follow anyone else.”
For Washington, the utility of social media is multipronged. She uses it to promote her endeavors, do activist work and, quite practically, as a source of news. One way that she pointedly does not use social media is as a place to discuss her personal life. Her social media feeds are not full of, for instance, pictures of her children or details of her romantic life. She was quick to point out, however, that there are multiple valid uses of social platforms for famous people.
“I have no judgement about how other people engage on social media,” she said before articulating her support for celebrities who use social media to dispel media-circulated rumors about their lives. “Having social media has actually been great for their relationship with the weeklies.”
Shying away from discussing her personal life does not mean that her social presence is outrageously manicured or false. She presents the parts of her life that she is willing to let the public see in a manner that is true to her identity.
“The key to everything in social media for me, in order for it to feel rewarding, is authenticity,” she said. “I don’t have the energy to maintain a false identity on these platforms. It would drive me crazy.”
Washington is particularly passionate about social media’s potential as a tool for social justice. As a woman of color who headlines a hit television show, Washington considers herself a de facto activist. She has embraced this position and is proactive about using her platform to enfranchise those who lack privilege. Over the course of the conversation, she gave two examples of incidents when social media allowed her to put her activist convictions into action. Each of them concerned the color of her skin.
In 2013, Washington became one of the faces of Neutrogena. It was an ironic appointment given that the makeup line did not, at the time, have a foundation color that was appropriate for her skin tone. Two years later, she appeared on the March 2015 cover of InStyle magazine and her skin appeared considerably lighter than it actually is. Each of these instances was met with protest from the social sphere and Washington responded to the clamor with open ears and a willingness to start important conversations.
Thanks in large part to Washington’s efforts, things have gotten better. Neutrogena now has a range of foundation colors suitable across skin tones and InStyle has carefully reviewed their best practices to ensure that the incident is not repeated. She credits her ability to help facilitate these changes to the voices that spoke out on social media. Her willingness to engage these voices and use her status to bring attention to the issues they raise make her a model of positive social stardom.
“To be able to say to a woman of color ‘you matter, your voice matters’…that is so rewarding to me,” she said of social media’s ability to open communication. “It’s the great democratizer.”