Guess what, ladies and gents? I’m hopping on a soapbox, and if you’re reading this right now it means you’re coming along with me.
When a straw breaks the camel’s back on the internet, how does one respond? With a strongly worded blog, of course. What camel’s back has been broken for me today? And why? Simple: Cartoon pictures on facebook. Harmless, right? Wrong. While not harmful I’m not convinced it’s not all harmless. It’s all symptom of a large scale problem with the information age, a slow disconnect with actual society because of our internet based one.
Last week on facebook you may have noticed people changing their profile pictures to pictures of cartoon characters and then posting this to their profiles: “Change your FB profile picture to a cartoon from your childhood. The goal? To not see a human face on FB till Monday Dec. 6. Join the fight against child abuse. Copy and paste to your status and invite your friends to do the same.” This is ludicrous. And yes, I understand the irony of posting a rant about this on the internet. But how in any way does changing one’s profile picture to a cartoon character fight against child abuse? IT DOESN’T. Oops. I guess someone forgot to tell us that armchair activism is pointless. Because that’s what this is: It’s armchair activism designed to create social movements that don’t move and a call to action that requires no action.
A few years ago I had people constantly inviting me to different causes on facebook through an application called, conveniently enough, Causes. I had invites from everything from Puppy Care to Iranian Policy Change to Donations for Haitian Refugees. While I may care about certain of these issues, and while this application may have even raised money for its respective cause, I never participated because I believed such behavior on the internet to be futile. If I care about Iran’s treatment of the press, for example, what am I doing by stating it with a “like” button? I’m doing nothing. Social activism is boiled down to action, even if it is the action of one lone person. The sum total of action required and exerted in internet activism is the action it takes to reach forward and click with your mouse. This type of social change is not going to take place with a mouse click.
Maybe I’m simply bitter towards it because as a youth I was rather militant in my activism. I attended rallies, protests and pickets. I helped organize events for the causes I found important. I was a part of different groups and did everything I could to participate in the events that I felt would make a difference. Maybe I look on a mouse click with disdain because if they really work then I wasted a lot of time. I could have been home on my computer clicking an online petition to stop a new commercial development instead of actually out picketing it. But guess what? As hundreds of Dollhouse fans will tell you, online petitions mean squat. They do nothing. If internet activism has an influence it is over the world it governs – the internet. That influence is going to have a terribly tough time to break into the real world.
Part of it is a semantic argument. I wouldn’t be so frustrated if instead of “joining the fight against child abuse” the attempt to plaster facebook in animation was accompanied by “raising awareness of child abuse,” and coupled with facts about child abuse, like “A report of child abuse is made every ten seconds.” Or “Over 50% of cases of child abuse are cases of neglect. Only about 11% is physical abuse and 8% sexual abuse.” This would at least be an attempt to clarify understanding of child abuse’s prevalence in the world, or how we misunderstand child abuse. If the call to “join the fight” even included a call to physical action, or a request to actually do something, it could be less wrongheaded. Instead it acts with the common misconception of armchair activism that acknowledgment is equal to engagement.
Another reason why things like this bother me is that is created as a guilt-based initiative. It contains no real sense of engagement and action, and draws its power from inspiring guilt in an individual. “If I don’t change my profile picture then I must support child abuse.” So the picture changes. Guilt-based initiatives are not uncommon in the least. Most infomercial-based charities are built on images of exploitation meant to activate our guilt as motivation for monetary action. Thanks for attempting to make me feel terrible for having food in my pantry, Sally Struthers. I will now donate to your charity because I feel guilty. But guilt cannot be the motivating factor if we are going to make positive changes in society. It must be true desire and understanding. Otherwise the result is people attempting to buy their guilt away through charities as intermediary between and activism.
As much admirable as the work of Save the Children may be, their recent Lottery of Life campaign is borderline guilt-based. The thing that saves it is the way it genuinely can increase understanding of individual issues within varying world regions. It presents information rather than simply exploitation as its call to donation. It also starts quickly and clearly explaining what an individual can do to help.
Armchair activism is designed to create a feeling of accomplishment in return for the least amount of effort possible. I dislike that greatly. But this desire to receive the most recompense for the least work is ubiquitous, and if we expect anything to happen we need to actually work for it to happen. Child abuse cannot be fought and defeated with a picture change.
Bikers Against Child Abuse
Rant me back on the message boards!
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