We didn’t see this year coming, but we heard it from all sides. In Signal & Noise 2016, you’ll find the way we made sense out of all of that sound.
Our relationship with social media has overwhelmingly been reduced to an ugly stereotype. Young people are supposedly so obsessed with ourselves and our Facebook “likes” that we can’t possibly think of any other use for these digital platforms other than selfies and artfully staged photos of latte art. In reality, there are plenty who are using social media to make a difference, whether by raising awareness about the things they care about or amplifying the voices of the most marginalized among us.
From protesting an environmentally dangerous pipeline, to raising awareness about underrepresented gender and sexual identities, to generating much-needed conversations about mental illness, these badass Social Media Warriors are specifically (and creatively) using social media as a tool to talk about important social issues. Get to know them — and the awesome things they’re doing — below.
EVELYN ATIENOEvelyn Atieno
City/state: Baltimore, Maryland
At 16, Evelyn Atieno found herself frustrated with the complete lack of journalistic publications that are for teens, by teens. So she founded one herself. Her social justice–focused online publication, Affinity Magazine, which is now read in all 50 states and more than 178 countries, covers issues from politics to feminism. Evelyn has expertly used social media to gain readership and spread Affinity’s message. The mag has more than 35,000 Twitter followers and serves as a community for teenagers to read about and discuss social issues often ignored by the media. Through Affinity and its reach, Evelyn has not only shined a light on issues young people care about, but has also provided an outlet for young writers to gain unique career experience.
When she’s not managing her editor-in-chief duties, Evelyn is binge-watching Gossip Girl or, you know, going to college. —Taylor Vidmar
SAMMY NICKALLSLauren Loncar
City/state: Brooklyn, New York
It’s easy to tweet about how annoying seasonal allergies are or how sore we get after a Pilates class. It’s much harder to tweet about our mental illnesses. Sammy Nickalls (follow her here), the nights and weekends editor for Esquire, wondered why this was, and then she decided to change the way she uses social media by creating #TalkingAboutIt to help openly discuss her own anxiety and depression. The hashtag quickly blew up, allowing Twitter users to not only share their struggles with mental illness, but also to build communities of support and friendship. Nickalls created a movement that is helping to end stigma surrounding mental health with just a simple but powerful hashtag. —Bizzy Emerson
ELLA DAWSONElla Dawson
City/state: Brooklyn, New York
When you google “Ella Dawson,” you’re automatically met with the word “herpes” — and for an important reason. After being diagnosed with the disease a few days before her 21st birthday, the TED.com social media manager and self-described “Eggo waffles enthusiast” has unapologetically made it her mission to break down the stigmas often associated with STDs, becoming a leading voice in online communities.
Her activism, writing, and social media presence have made Dawson one to watch — a distinction that unfortunately also comes with its downsides. Most recently, Ella became a preferred target of the alt-right, ultimately penning a piece for Medium about her experiences with online harassment. The bright side? Hillary Clinton (yes, that Hillary Clinton) wrote her an encouraging letter in response, thanking her for taking a “courageous stand” against the haters. Like Hillary, we’re with Ella. —Emma Havighorst
HILDE KATE LYSIAKGetty
City/state: Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania
Hilde Kate Lysiak hasn’t even graduated from elementary school yet, but she already has a lengthy journalism résumé fueled by her passion for breaking community news and crime stories through her monthly newspaper, Orange Street News, headquartered out of her hometown in Selinsgrove, Pennsylvania. Lysiak has accrued hundreds of subscribers who receive physical copies of OSN, as well as thousands of readers online, through her persistent coverage and love for “letting people know all the information.” Though she’s faced some negative backlash in regards to both her age and her gender when reporting on heavier news topics, such as a homicide in her hometown that she was the first to report on earlier this year, Lysiak — who was named one of America’s most ambitious journalists by NBC Today — is determined to prove to the world that kids can accomplish amazing things if they work hard.
So what’s next for Hilde? The young journo has a four-book Scholastic series on the way (NBD) that she’s writing with her father, former New York Daily News journalist Matthew Lysiak. In the meantime, we’re guessing it’ll just be a few short years until Hilde is the boss of all of us. —Emily Tantuccio
SAM ESCOBARKathryn Wirsing
City/state: Brooklyn, New York
Sam Escobar is a queer, nonbinary Latinx writer and editor, whose tweets are accented with hilarious memes and adorable cat pictures. Their work stands out in Cosmopolitan, Esquire, Brooklyn magazine, and The Observer, detailing their experience with society’s misunderstanding of gender identity and makeup. From tweeting about eating disorders to discussing the complexities of gender identity, Sam’s words challenge us to think differently and more openly (check out their powerful coming-out piece in Esquire).
As the senior commerce editor at Bustle, Sam continues to aim for progressive and inclusive thought on social media, where they’re not afraid to disclose numbers like their weight and height in an effort to help destigmatize body image issues and create community for those who have struggled with them.
“I don’t need to look a certain way to identify, and to feel, the way that I do,” Sam wrote earlier this year. We couldn’t agree more. —Kamrin Baker
THE STANDING ROCK TEENSTariq Brownotter
City/state: Standing Rock, North Dakota
About the Standing Rock Teens:
While their efforts started months ago, it seems the media has only recently begun to highlight the courageous work of the young Native Americans defending their land and their rights in North Dakota. Residents of the Standing Rock reservation are protesting a proposed pipeline (the Dakota Access Pipeline) that would cross the Missouri River less than a mile from their reservation, posing a major environmental risk to their land and their drinking water. These protests have been led by some of the youngest members in the community.
This past summer, for example, a group of youth activists physically ran to the White House in D.C. to deliver a petition with over 150,000 signatures — many of which had been garnered by spreading the word on social media — protesting the Dakota Pipeline. (Tariq Brownotter wrote about that experience on MTV Founders at the time.) And they haven’t given up since, documenting their efforts through hashtags like #NoDAPL and #IStandWithStandingRock and their own accounts, like @ReZpectOurWater — even though in recent weeks, their peaceful protest has been met with violence. Police reportedly shot concussion grenades and water canons and sprayed tear gas into crowds of protesters — in freezing weather, no less.
And their efforts have yielded an incredible result: The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said that it won’t grant an easement for the Dakota Access oil pipeline in southern North Dakota — a potentially huge victory. But the battle isn't over yet, as the company building the pipeline has stated it still plans to build the pipeline anyway. While these young people certainly deserve immense praise for their efforts, therefore, what they still undeniably need more than anything is support. Visit their website to learn about how you can help. —Julie Zeilinger
ALEXIS ISABEL MONCADAAlexis Isabel Moncada
City/state: Tallahassee, Florida
About Alexis Isabel:
Alexis Isabel Moncada is no stranger to social activism — the Mexican-American teen founded an entire website to promote just that. Feminist Culture, a platform for young adults, provides a space for people to discuss the underrepresented issues that matter most to them, whether it’s sexuality, race, or religion.
Taking her badassery up a notch, Alexis Isabel, who’s a big fan of the Disney movie Frozen, gained national attention earlier this year when she started the viral hashtag, #GiveElsaAGirlfriend. In a first-person piece for MTV Founders, she explained that she had been inspired to start it because of the lack of queer relationship representation in princess pop culture.
“Giving young girls the chance to understand that a princess can love another princess the same way Cinderella loved her Prince Charming is vital to their development,” Alexis Isabel wrote. “No one deserves to feel isolated and confused about who they are.” Your move, Disney. —Taylor Trudon
JAZMINE ALCONJazmine Alcon
City/state: West Deptford, New Jersey
Like many other young people across the country, when Jazmine learned about the Black Lives Matter movement, she knew she had to get involved. While she began pursuing (and continues to pursue) her activism on Instagram, last year the 17-year-old activist launched Risen, an online community for teens that offers a platform for them to creatively express themselves, learn, and teach others about the most pressing issues her generation faces. From social and political issues like LGBTQ rights and systemic racism, to the everyday injustices and challenges teens face, Risen offers a safe space for young people to use their voices to bring about the change they want to see in the world. Keep up with Risen on Twitter and the ’Gram. —Julie Zeilinger
MIKAH MEYERMikah Meyer
City/state: In a van down by the river (seriously); but most recently, Washington, D.C.
In 2005, Mikah Meyer’s father passed away from cancer. Today, Mikah is honoring his father’s life by traveling to all 413 U.S. national parks in one massive road trip. Mikah’s trip qualifies him for a double world record: being the youngest person to visit all of the U.S. national parks and doing so in one continuous journey. In addition to traveling across the nation, Mikah is the author of the book Life’s More Fun When You Talk to Strangers and aspires to increase LGBTQ visibility in the outdoor and travel industries with his journey. As Mikah says, “You don’t have to Eat Pray Love in Italy, India, and Indonesia to have a transformational experience.” You can follow Mikah's expedition and keep up with all of his sightings on Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram. —Justin Clay
SANAH JIVANISanah Jivani
City/state: Spring, Texas
After struggling with self-hatred and self-harm for years, Sanah Jivani is using her past as motivation to spread a beautiful message to the world: You are so worth loving as you are. The University of Texas at San Antonio double major founded the nonprofit organization The Love Your Natural Self Foundation after losing her hair to alopecia in the seventh grade. Since then, Sanah travels across the country to host speaking engagements and empowerment sessions, interacting with people around the world and motivating them to love themselves, no matter what. The Love Your Natural Self Foundation also hosts the annual International Natural Day on February 13, which challenges individuals to let go of their insecurity and join in conversations about self-love on social media, encouraging participants from all over the world to take part. Needless to say, Sahan is a supergirl for the books. —Sara Li
JACKSON BIRDJackson Bird
City/state: New York, New York
When Jackson Bird launched his YouTube channel in 2010, his first video got just a few thousand views. Today, his videos — which focus on social justice, identity, and what happens when you put tacos on a waffle iron — have collectively been viewed over 1.9 million times.
Last year, the 26-year-old came out as transgender in a powerful video simply titled “Coming Out.” Since then, Jackson has created informative videos on many topics, from dealing with unaccepting family members during Thanksgiving to general perceptions of bisexuality, using his channel to reach members of the LGBTQ community.
In addition to raising awareness and tolerance, Jackson is the director of wizard-muggle relations for the Harry Potter Alliance, a fan-activist organization that turns stories into social action. You can also find him watching Gilmore Girls (he’s just started the series and agrees that all of Rory’s boyfriends suck), being a Quizmaster with Geeks Who Drink, or working with Wizard Punk, the zine collective he helped found. —Mariah Woods
MARLEY DIASAndrea Cipriani
City/state: West Orange, New Jersey
Marley Dias hasn’t even made it to high school yet, but she’s already making her mark in a big way. The 11-year-old is behind the hashtag and international movement #1000BlackGirlBooks, which strives to collect and donate children’s book that feature black female protagonists. Marley was frustrated with the lack of black girls as lead characters in literature, so with the help of her mother’s organization, GrassROOTS, she started #1000BlackGirlBooks with the goal of finding 1,000 of these books by February 2016. Marley’s story soon went viral, and she has since surpassed her goal, having collected over 8,000 books to date.
As she continues her literary crusade, Marley isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. The young activist began her role as editor-in-residence at Elle.com in September (where she interviewed Hillary Clinton and Misty Copeland), and she continues to advocate for social justice with the hopes of some day launching her own magazine. We can't wait to get our hands on her first issue. —Taylor Trudon
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Check out more from the year in music, culture, politics, and style in Signal & Noise 2016.