Column, Arts, Off Campus

Can You ‘Facebook’ For A Cause?

Unless it inspires real action, Facebook activism is little more than a proxy for complacency.

Retweet, share, favorite, like—four simple actions that take place in a matter of seconds. Initially, these social media features were the tools to having fun—back when Facebook was just used for sharing the mundane details of our lives, uploading vacation pictures, and playing Farmville. At one point, social media was really just all about fun and games.

Fast forward to 2014, when social media has grown into a platform for change and social activism. The fun and games are not entirely gone, but there’s a whole new level to Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram—one that functions as a way to share important messages with the world. Some of these messages can be empowering and eye-opening, while others can be pretty scary in the truths that they reveal.

The benefits of using social media to raise awareness are obvious—it works fast, it reaches a large audience, and it makes it easy for the general population to get involved. The Ice Bucket Challenge is the most recent example, but the concept has been around for quite some time. Facebook campaigns tend to be short-lived, unfortunately, leaving many people wondering if they are really helping the causes at all. Think back to KONY 2012, the most viral video in history. But where are the Invisible Children now? What has happened in the following two years? Or, remember when your female friends were posting statuses such as “I like it on the table” or “I like it in my closet”? The obscure statement was part of a larger breast cancer awareness campaign, which asked women to post a status answering the question of where they like to put their handbags. Thanks to National Breast Cancer Awareness Month in October, the cause has not been forgotten—but the brief Facebook campaign has disappeared from recent memory.

Using social media platforms such as Facebook presents a strange paradox: the content itself never disappears, but the movements lack permanence. A Facebook newsfeed is physically never-ending, but we assign ending points—mindlessly scrolling downward until we reach an already-viewed post, which becomes the end of our activity for that day. Even the site itself asks its users “what’s new?” in the status bar, and draws users to “recent activity.” People are looking for what’s new rather than revisiting what has already been done, and in this way, social activism becomes a search for the next best thing.

In addition, there are some campaigns that have much more impact and participation than others. After Robin Williams’ death, there was an attempt to raise awareness for suicide prevention with the “Doubtfire Face” challenge—in which people tried to reenact his famous scene by covering their faces in cream and saying “Hellooo!” The page has about 7,000 likes, and has struggled to become a bigger movement. The #feelingnuts campaign has been going around the celebrity world—stars such as Hugh Jackman have been taking pictures while holding their crotches to raise awareness for testicular cancer. It’s a little too early to tell if this trend will catch on, but there’s also potential for #feelingnuts to lose prominence.

So, what makes a social media campaign have staying power? It has to be more than just posting and sharing—there must be a story behind it, and a real person that participants can connect to. Pete Frates served as the source behind the Ice Bucket Challenge’s immense growth among the Boston community, for example. Even when I was home in New York, I still knew who he was and his own personal struggle with ALS, which made me more inclined to get involved and stay involved. Most recently, we can look at the What I Be at BC campaign as an example of how to translate social media posts to real-life activism. The photographs of various students may not be in our newsfeed in a few weeks, but the project will stick with me for a while because, after Monday night’s unveiling event, I have faces and stories to connect to those photographs. Long before the Internet was created, people spread awareness for their causes by talking—giving speeches, asking for donations in person, and mailing information. Now, I’m not saying we should abandon Facebook and start door-to-door campaigning, but there has to be real-life discussion and personal stories to accompany the social media movements, if we really want to remain invested.

Retweeting and sharing is simple, but it doesn’t always get us talking.

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October 9, 2014