While I maintain a public Facebook—follow it here, I say in a shameless social media plug—I didn’t delve into the personal side of the site until relatively recently, when I was dragged on kicking and screaming because it was the only way to stay in contact with old friends. That alone is evidence of the clout that Facebook holds, as it has become such a determining and connecting factor that sometimes it’s the only way to maintain relationships and communicate across a broad friend group. The site also has tremendous influence on the rest of the internet, as I’m reminded when I look at referral logs and see the huge percentage of traffic that comes directly from Facebook. Just under 40 percent of referrals come from Facebook, which is more than search, and substantially more than RSS, aggregators, and other sources.
In other words: Facebook=important for the web, and also an incredibly powerful cultural force. The things I actually love most on my feed are the things about my friends’ lives. I want to see their food and their cute pets and read their stories about what happened to them that day. It’s why I’m following them: Because I’m friends with them. (And it’s why I’m extremely selective about who I friend, narrowing it to close friends only, so don’t be offended if you track down my personal Facebook account and I reject your friendship request—it’s not you, it’s me.) I also enjoy being alerted to interesting stories and commentary I might not have otherwise caught, whether it’s reblogs of other posts or links to outside content (see what I mean about Facebook being a major traffic driver?).
What I am less interested in is Facebook memes. ‘Share if…’ ‘do this for awareness.’
Fortunately, most of my friends are saavy about Facebook hoaxes, so I don’t see much of this sort of thing, but it’s still a persistent problem, and it speaks to a lot of issues in society, not least of which is the sort of minimal effort clicktivism that drives so much of the way people interact with social issues. Rather than investigating a situation or delving deeper into a social issue, it’s much easier to repeat a meme without interrogating it, and the problem rises to especially baroque levels when one gets into the fact that sometimes these memes are actively harming the very causes they purport to be helping.
I’m sure we’ve all heard of the bra colour meme—post your bra colour for breast cancer awareness!—but there are hosts of similar memes encouraging people to post cryptic comments or photos as though this somehow advances a cause or highlights a social issue. Then we have posts that encourage people to share a message like ‘put a dot on your hand so first responders know you’re a domestic violence victim who needs help!’ Aside from the fact that first responders aren’t actually trained to recognise any such signal, and that domestic violence victims are watched closely when they use the internet and typically have trouble finding resources online for this very reason, surely sharing such a meme also ensures that abusers would know about it too—it’s sort of like planning a surprise party right in front of the honouree, only with much higher stakes.
The commercialisation and capitalism of the awareness industry is a larger documented issue, of course, but Facebook is ideally suited to the viral spread of nonsensical things that don’t really create social change. Even when a meme is effective at actually identifying what it’s about, it’s usually about something people are already aware of, and it doesn’t provide meaningful information about what to do next. So breast cancer exists: Now what? Maybe you should be linking to resources on self-exams and evaluating risk factors? Providing information on groups doing breast cancer research and supporting patients? Listing companies and organisations known to produce cancerous products, or identifying those that capitalise on the breast cancer industry without helping patients?
What would happen if a meme encouraged people to, say, issue a challenge to donate to their local cancer resource center instead of posting about their bra colour? It would certainly raise awareness—of cancers and community-based organisations supporting patients—but it would also break through the classic memetic structure, in which people thoughtlessly do something meaningless without critical engagement or additional action. Sharing information that’s actually useful makes a difference. Building community by challenging people to get to know the resources in their community is valuable.
Clicktivism gets derided because it’s a problem. And it’s not just a problem in the sense of being something laughable and kind of frustrating, but something that’s sometimes actively harmful. When people share content without examining it, they may be doing things like supporting organisations that don’t do what the sharer thinks they do—for example, a crisis pregnancy centre masquerading as an abortion resource organisation. Maybe critical engagement means reading 15, or 30, or whatever percent fewer stories because we only have so much time budgeted, but that’s an acceptable tradeoff if it means that the quality of our engagement deepens.
I’m glad that I see very few memes crossing my feed, but the question isn’t what I see: It’s what everyone else sees, and what Facebook feeds. As a profound cultural influencer, the site’s communities have the ability to make a huge difference in the world, or to persist in inhabiting a closed-off world where they don’t really need to engage with social issues. I don’t give a fig for your bra colour or whether your hand has a dot on it or not, but I’d encourage you to donate to, volunteer with, or provide information about a local group that provides concrete support to people who need it.
Image: bra fence, Dave, Flickr