Saturday, December 4, 2010

Activism in the Internet Age: How Cartoon Pictures and Purse Positions Are Bullshit Forms of Masturbation and Self Aggrandizement.

It started back in October, when countless facebook friends started posting updates that read “I like it on the floor” or “I like it in the kitchen” in order to, apparently or not so apparently, raise awareness of breast cancer. It reached a fever pitch this afternoon, when I began receiving feedback from a slightly drunken status update last night about how changing one’s profile picture to a photo of a childhood cartoon was not going to help any abused children in any way. It started as an annoyance and a mere cause for eye rolling. Now, it has reached a fever pitch of anger.

It is the time to call “bullshit” on facebook awareness campaigns.

I know it may seem a little cynical to state this, but awareness campaigns in general, and facebook awareness campaigns specifically, are utterly useless ways to waste time and energy. This should not be surprising to anyone, as facebook itself is just that; a time waster. Now, don’t get me wrong, I see no problem with wasting time. I don’t even see a problem with people changing their photos because they wish they were She-Ra or Rainbow Brite. However, my problem comes from the fact that these campaigns are so often held up as examples of activism when they are not at all effective and really have no purpose beyond making the person who participates feel as though they’ve done something to affect a positive change.

Awareness campaigns in general tend be pretty bad at doing anything other than make people smug, You see, in order to believe that an awareness campaign will really change anything, you have to truly believe that the issue for which you are attempting to raise awareness is one which no one is aware of already. For example, let’s take the aforementioned child abuse campaign. How many people out there are really and truly unaware that child abuse exists? Assuming there are such people in existence at all, how likely would it be that they would be capable of using a computer or understanding the complexities of an in joke? Even if they could, they’d have to search long and hard to figure out what this one is all about, as most users are just changing their profile pics without a word of explanation. Starting a campaign which is predicated upon the assumption that people are unaware of something which has become a facebook meme is pretty silly if you think about it. The same goes with awareness campaigns which utilize real world tactics such as buying and displaying ribbons or wearing a specific color. All they do is let people know that the wearer or picture changer has spent some time and/or money on something which will allow them to tell the world that they care about something that everyone else cares about, only they care enough to buy something or google a cartoon image.

It is this positioning of participants in such campaigns as do gooders or world changers that pisses me off more than anything.

The fact is that changing anything, be it the rates at which we find cancer cures and causes, the amount of children who are abused, or the amount of AIDS patients who receive good care takes sacrifice and effort. This is why most people prefer to participate in a facebook campaign or purchase a pink ribbon or buy a red shirt from the GAP. These actions are easy, painless, and still allow people to feel like they’ve done something good.

Only, they haven’t.

In some cases, they may have even caused more harm than good. For instance, any cancer awareness campaign which uses plastic trinkets to send a message is using a material which introduces known carcinogens into the environment. How, exactly, is that helpful in curing cancer? Buying clothing form the Gap supports an economic system which exploits and damages countries, such as Africa, where the need for AIDS intervention is greatest. This is improving lives how? Finally, sitting in front of your computer and searching for cartoon photos keeps you detached and removed from the hundreds of ways you can make a difference in the life of a child in need or in the life of a cancer or AIDS sufferer. It not only helps nothing, but it allows you to feel as though you have accomplished something when, in fact you’ve not done anything more than make yourself feel warm and fuzzy.

Now, here’s where it gets tricky for me. I have no problem with people wasting time and making themselves feel good. In fact, as a blogger, it’s in my best interest that people do waste time on the internet. However, it is not ok to dress this time wasting up as change. I truly believe that most people do not intentionally do this. I think that most people want to help affect change. However, I think that most people are truly unaware of how much effort it actually takes to do so, and do not like anything that involves a large amount of personal sacrifice. The fact is that, sadly, that is exactly what affecting change may take.

One person is not likely to rid the world of all its ills and suffering. However, one person can choose one or two areas in which to direct their energy and time and begin to make a small change. One of the argumentative responses I received to my status regarding the child abuse campaign stated that while changing photos would not end all child abuse everywhere, neither would my suggested actions of intervention, volunteerism, real education and actual advocacy. It’s true. Doing any or all of those things will not end violence against children. However, unlike the facebook campaign, it can help to free one or more children from the horrors of abuse, or prevent them from facing it in the first place. Isn’t that the kind of change we can quantify? Isn’t that exactly what we want to do?

So, let’s do it.

Let’s walk away from the silliness of facebook campaigns and find a cause we believe in and actually do something for it.

_Shannon (who will smack a bitch who smacks a kid in front of her)


  1. This made me think of back in the olden days before Facebook when people waved (and still do wave) American flags outside of their homes to signal how much more patriotic they are than everybody else.

  2. Anonymous: That is also bullshit. Actually, to tell you the truth, any time you use a material possession to signify an adherence to a value, you're engaging in the silliest form of bullshit ever. The flag thing was REALLY bad after 9/11/2001.


  3. Changing my FB avatar when the bandwagons circle about has nothing to do with any cause or awareness that is associated with that purpose. It has, however, everything to do with what I want people to see about me. It is the game in itself. "oh everyone is changing their profile pic to Sesame street ilk huh? Well, here is my favorite." Then we try to convey a bit more of our own personality through that measure. It is about communication rather than awareness. The activist premise is just an excuse to get folks engaged in sharing & communicating in a trend, rather than an arbitrary non-relevant manner. I think people are smart enough to know that changing their profile to "Jem" does absolutely nothing. It does however give a "hey me too, I am a part of it" sense more than smugness that something might actually be accomplished.

  4. Rick, the thing is that memes like this are NOT being presented as a group of people presenting their personal tastes and communicating about them. They are absolutely presented as awareness campaigns. As such, they are susceptible to criticism as set forth above. Again, as I said in my post, I have NO problem with people using facebook for anything fun and silly. However, I do think that social networking often lends a false sense of a lot of things to the general consciousness of its users. Chief among these false senses is the sense of closeness and communication they foster. It's not the act I take issue with, it is the premise.

  5. NALAYT, "Buzz" (a word that I utterly despise) is what these activists are clearly trying to create - to what end remains to be seen. Sure, their premise should be construed as manipulative. If, however, it gives folks an outlet to show off how clever, cute, obscure, etc. they are & possibly have others care to some degree; where is the harm? Why is the "closeness" created then false? IMHO, the general consciousness is completely aware of the B.S.-ness of it all; please give us some credit. Which is the point I was attempting to get across that differed from your otherwise well written article.

  6. Rick, I do think that many people are aware of the fact that changing their photo isn't going to do anything, but I think that there are just as many people who think that it is. This theory has been born out in both my friends list and many others.

    To answer you question about closeness, it's false in the sense that it is simulated. When you are interacting through facebook, your representative (i.e. the things you choose to reveal about yourself in a public forum) is interacting with other people's representatives. Even though there is absolutely nothing wrong with this and it is valuable for what it is, it does not foster the same actual closeness that one gains from in person human interaction.

  7. Wow, you must really think people are stupid then. RE: your second paragraph, duh. Good luck with your pessimism.

  8. Rick, It's not that I think people are stupid, but that people have and do behave in rather stupid ways on the internet. This isn't just me sitting here postulating that people will often behave in stupid ways. It's me watching people on my friends' list behave in stupid ways, and argue that, by changing their profile photos to a cartoon image, they are doing something to affect change. They are not. Plain and simple. And yes, the belief that they are is kind of stupid.

    To answer your charge of pessimism, I have to say that you've got the wrong girl there. I actually believe that most people truly want to do the right thing and truly want to be helpful. I believe that most people are inherently good and strive to be good citizens. However, I think that sometimes even good and smart people engage in actions which are not as helpful or as smart or as useful as they might appear. The point of this post was not to say that people who engage in these sorts of campaigns are stupid or lazy, but that they may not be aware of how ineffective they are.

    My point on the false closeness which is fostered by social networking is, likewise, not pessimistic but realistic.

  9. what a load of rubbish. NSPCC has benefited from this facebook cartoon thing greatly. The FREE publicity is great! Raising awareness for a charity leads to donations, do you not see that? That is why large charities pay for advertising campaigns on TV too. Or would you argue that putting actors in an advert in no way helps abused and neglected children and only promotes smugness in the makers of said advert?

  10. Shannon, while I admire (and fundamentally agree with) your opinions on this campaign, it's just symptomatic of the world we live in. You have to play to your audience.

    Most people are lazy and self-absorbed. So to generate any significant interest around a charity through social media sadly requires a level of pandering to that.

    While I'd have done things differently (incorporating a link to the NSPCC into the status, for example), I see the idea with the cartoon pictures as actually a sound one. It's something that links well to a very worthy cause and uses subject matter that we can all relate to. In other words, it has the potential to be picked up by millions of people. But if you dilute the message with by suggesting that people actually do something that requires effort, your campaign will not spread and your message will be lost, believe me.

    I completely agree that it's actions that change the world, but those actions can only really be kickstarted from within someone. And while Joe Public has to make that decision themselves, something as simple as a cartoon character might just be simple enough to trigger that reaction.

  11. Roxanne, it would be effective if every poster actually let people know that they were doing it to raise support for the NSPCC, but that is not the case. Out of 228 friends on my own face books face and easily double that on my boyfriend's, not a single person who changed their photo let anyone know that they were raising awareness for the NSPCC or included a link to any organization which helps prevent or address abuse. They simply stated something like "Oh, it's to support abused children."

    So, no, I don't think it is effective at all.

    Free publicity is only helpful if it actually publicizes the organization which started it.

    This not to say that organizations such as the NSPCC are not effective in of themselves, or that their intent was not to raise funds in order to continue helping children. It is to say that individual facebook users here in the US have taken their original intent and used it as a means of making themselves feel good about sitting around on facebook.

  12. Adam,

    The thing is that the original meme did include a link to the NSPCC, but the link was somehow lost in the chain of action on facebook.

    Again, this post is not an indictment against the organizations which provide child abuse intervention and prevention, but a commentary on the efficacy of the resulting individual actions and on the attitudes of those who carried out those actions.

  13. Thank God I'm not the only one who feels this way.
    It was getting to the point where I felt like it had turned into a case of The Emporer's New Clothes.

    Everywhere I looked, I saw random pictures of Papa Smurf Or Donald fucking Duck.
    How exactly is it going to stop violence against children, as some of the earlier incarnations of the message read. Of course, this is before they tacked on the NSPCC line.
    The NSPCC deny it has anything to do with them...not that people seem to care.

    Other than making a lazy activist suddenly feel warm and fuzzy about their visual show of support that will end on the eve of December 6th, how exactly does it benefit an abused child?

    Somebody responded to my question with a "It's raising awareness to the issue."

    Staggering. "So you were unaware that children were being abused but thanks to Daffy fucking Duck, you're all clued up now? Meanwhile, in other news, water is wet."

    So with this new found knowledge, what will they do?
    Donate money to the NSPCC? Not acording to NSPCC figures.
    Will they rush out and volunteer a few hours for Childline?
    Don't think so.

    Now perhaps I'm being too harsh (don't think so) and some people who have been living under a rock will go out and donate (if they can tear themselves away from their PC or reality TV), but the only thing I see happening is some other ridiculous "Aren't I great" self promotion drive.


  15. Johnny,
    I didn't even know that the meme did not start as a means to raise money for a specific organization. This probably due to the fact that, in order to find any information about why people were doing this, I had to google like I've never googled before.

    I don't think you're being too harsh. I think that people who are going to do something to actually help a cause are going to do so regardless of what happens on facebook or any other entertainment venue.

    In fact, I think calling those who feel that changing their profile photo is enough "activists" is a little too kind.

    Again, and I will say this until I am blue in the face, I have absolutely no problem with people NOT pitching in for any cause. I only have a problem with people dressing up their cute and amusing wastes of time as activism.

  16. Hence it being lazy activism.

    I have an idea.
    There are a number of innocent Iraqi and Afghan children who are being blown to bits under the banner of 'collateral damage' through U.S intervention (bully boy tactics).

    Now to show that we do not accept the murder of innocent children, let's all change our Facebook profile picture to either a flag of Iraq or Afghanistan and stand shoulder to shoulder with the Muslim victims.

    (Cue slack jawed response.)

    Or, how about, we support the innocent children being snipered by the good ol' Israeli Defence Force, and change the picture to a flag of Palestine?

    (Cue chants of 'anti-semite')

    Or, and work with me on this, we show how we are opposed to the treatment of innocent children in Burma by the fascist junta, and yep, you've guessed it, put up a flag of Burma.

    ...yeah I can hear the collective wheels skidding to a stop, because that would actually require a little more effort, unlike the blind sheep sitting on fences nodding their heads in smugness.

    I too have no problem for radical indifference, but please, don't pretend you're making a difference when you're actually doing fuck all.

    If you're not gonna be part of the solution, quit being part of the fucking problem.

  17. Johnny,

    Everyone knows that only AMERICAN children are worthy of our concern.

    If we're off killing Muslim children in Iraq or Afghanistan,it's because God loves the US more than any other country!

    (For anyone else who may be reading this, just in case it's not abundantly clear, the above comment is sarcasm. I do not believe that the US or any other political entity is justified in killing anyone in the name of God or anyone else)

  18. Sucks to have to put a disclaimer on your posts juuuust in case 'Outraged' from Buttphuck, Ohio may take offence.

    Anyway, I shall now step down from my soapbox and go back to my own blog or Facebook and count the 'Lols'.

    Talk Hard!

  19. As much as I'd love to, my blog is more a reflective work in progress journal of a broken man trying to get fixed.

    You can translate that as "whiney he-bitch, "this" close to a man period in need of a slap and a dirty encounter with a cheap woman."

    It just ain't fit for public consumption and could ruin my public reputation as a tourettic firebrand.

    Facebook on the other hand is like so cool, that we could Lol the hours away. and play on Farmville and send requests for wood for a new barn.

    Word Verification:'s the shit.

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  21. Hey, Shannon. Good article! I agree with (my own personal innumeracy aside) 90% of it. I do, however, take issue with your point about ribbons (and probably t-shirts), although not entirely. It occurs to me that if the object of awareness is distributed by a good institution, which will give the proceeds directly to the cause, then it serves as both a contribution to the good fight as well as functioning to bring awareness to the institution (if not the cause itself). The latter I feel is more significant. All vanity aside, this seems to be ok. Of course, I realize that I have slightly adjusted the terms of your complaint.

  22. I must make one correction: when I said "The latter I feel is more significant", I wasn't attempting to suggest that the institution is more valuable than the cause. Somehow, I had collapsed the preceeding benefit and my vanity concept into one and compared that with the adverising of the institution.

  23. Joseph, I do agree with you that the result of the sales of T-shirts and ribbons benefiting causes in terms of funding research, intervention and other forms of outreach is a positive and beneficial result. I think I was unclear about my feelings on them in this article. What I should have said was that I dislike the concept of ribbons as badges of donation, but understand how they can help to generate badly needed funds for things such as medical research. I really should have differentiated better, or left the ribbons out of this.