One of the books from my pandemic reading list that has stayed* with me is Ballad of the Bullet: Gangs, Drill Music, and the Power of Online Infamy by Forrest Stuart. I binge listened to it while exploring my local trails and remember the unease and awe it provoked despite my scenic surroundings. The book opened my eyes to a phenomenon I had no idea existed: a violent social media spectacle that spills into real life. We have known for some time that violence sells in movies and in video games. Forrest Stuart’s Ballad of the Bullet shows that violence sells on social media too. What is fascinating to me, as someone who did not grow up with social media, is that the product sold in the social media marketplace is the image of an “authentic” self. (Young) people nowadays can attempt to make a living by turning themselves into products to sell. Consumers, in turn, can choose which selves to celebrate, i.e. to buy.
This new marketplace, like those before it, is not separate from the rest of society but is embedded in it. Broader social inequalities (economic, racial, and gender ones in particular) affect social media producers and consumers. Social media consumers, it turns out, enjoy social media slumming, a sort of voyeuristic appreciation of impoverished and racialized urban spaces from the comfort and safety of their devices’ screens in their well-off neighborhoods. Demand for social media slumming creates perverse incentives for producing images of the ultimate slum self of a violent gang member. The economic logic of this argument is bold and powerful. It is not too big of a leap to imagine this marketization of violent social media images as one of the sources of mainstream media’s obsession with urban violence.
Stuart’s engaging ethnography shows how poor youth from Chicago’s South Side engage in the social media marketplace in order to make something of themselves and make a living. Stuart builds his argument by inviting us to follow his interactions with a group of young men he calls the “Corner Boys.” The author’s participant observation is enhanced by the extended case method situating the “Corner Boys”’ experiences in a broader social and economic context. In the absence of other livelihood opportunities, the “Corner Boys” join the “drill music” social media scene portraying violent gang members in their hip-hop videos in the hope that the videos would go viral and bring them notoriety and money. The over-the-top characters the “Corner Boys” portray in their videos contrast with the vulnerable and relatable young men Stuart encounters. The artistic marketplace of social media and the pursuit of authenticity for sale, however, blur the boundary between the violent images sold and the real selves behind these images.
Through the experiences of the “Corner Boys,” Stuart traces the various aspects of the social media production process. The “Corner Boys” show great resourcefulness and ingenuity navigating this process and managing to go viral. With limited access to the resources necessary to produce drill music videos and having to rely on more affluent third parties demanding significant cuts from any profits, the “Corner Boys”’ payouts from producing and selling their violent images are limited though.
At the same time, for the “Corner Boys” the negative consequences of producing and selling authentic social media selves are significant. Challenges to their authenticity as violent gang members from other groups present difficult choices to them, if they have choices at all. They can either admit lack of authenticity and lose their social media position or defend their authenticity by accepting the possibility of actual violence. Violent interactions with challengers lead to loss of home, loss of safety, and loss of life, to encounters with law enforcement, and to entanglements with the justice system. The opportunity to engage in the social media marketplace, for the “Corner Boys,” thus appears too costly. The question remains as to how common their experiences are.
Stuart’s captivating account raises important general questions about the unequal access to and cost of participating in the social media marketplace for people from different backgrounds. Stuart suggests that given these unequal opportunities, a lot of talent gets wasted and many lives get ruined. The book also raises questions about the implications of blurring the boundaries between the images sold in the social media marketplace and the real selves behind these images. How do realities in the social media marketplace relate to realities outside of it? In particular, how much can and should law enforcement rely on social media? Finally, the book invites scholars of social movements and collective behavior, and of violence specifically, to revisit questions about the links between economic inequality and social injustices, technological transformations, collective identity construction, and violence.
*Disclaimer: This review is based on how I remember the main contributions of the book.