I’ve been thinking about how we use social media lately. I’ve written on here a number of times about different aspects of it, but I think one of the bigger ones I have thus far missed is how we tend to think social media has collective power. We want people to see or read what we think about everything, and we want feedback or at least some sort of moral support for our situation/opinion. In fact, as soon as I’m done writing this and hit ‘publish’, it will automatically be shared to my Facebook page, so I’m not denouncing that desire. However, I think we’ve taken the idea that we have “connection” with people numerically to meaning that social media has some sort of actual power in the world to effect change. In some sense this is true, but on the whole it seems to fall very far from the intended mark.
Off the top of my head, I can remember where followers of Rhett and Link on Twitter once chased some day-time news station off using the hashtag #GMM, and half a dozen times where fans of certain YouTube personalities managed to motivate their followers into giving incredible amounts of money to charity or some kickstarter campaign. Aren’t these things proof positive that there is power in social media, if enough of us ban together? Sort of. I think this sort of power is a lot like what happens when you have one person in charge and they give orders to those underneath them, and they follow them. Obviously the social media examples I listed don’t have that sort of negative connotation to them, but you get my point. That sort of power is just being popular enough to tell a large group of people what to do, and have a reasonable certainty that the group will do what you tell them to do. So yes, that is power, but it’s the power of celebrity through the medium of social media. It’s the cult of personality, if you will. But what about power to effect regional, national, or even global power? People talk about it, and news stations show politicians talking about the mystical power of social media, but I don’t think it exists.
If you were on the internet several years ago, you’ll remember that there were a couple bills going through the rounds of government (US) that had to do with Big Business and Big Government seeking to control the internet, and monitoring it such that it would be restricted. Now I certainly am against those notions, but there was great elation when the bills were shot down, and people were saying things like “WE DID IT!” and “WE WON!” , referring to the fact that many across social media platforms did a “blackout” which meant they changed their profile pictures to just a black square. This was to show solidarity and was an easy-to-do unifying symbol of the voice of the people against these bills. Thankfully, the bills didn’t pass that go-round, and terms like “net neutrality” and “open internet” passed into political posturing because of it. However, are we really naive enough to think that it was a bunch of black profile pictures that made congress (I forget which house) not pass the bills? Really? There were some people who wrote letters to their representatives, which was a more proactive move apart from social media. However,even those things were merely sideshows to the fact that corporate giants like Google and Wikipedia did blackouts on their sites to show how they didn’t support the bills. If I remember correctly, the social media campaign followed the leads of companies like those, and not the other way around. Make no mistake, having thousands (even millions) of black profile pictures doesn’t effect anything, and would have no weight to whether or not a bill is passed. However, having giant corporations that are used every day threatening to shut down unless the bills were stopped is enough to actually get people to notice. They effected the change. We just became cheerleaders. Sort of like how sports fans claim they are part of the team, when in reality the team knows nothing about them. Actually, it’s even less effective than that, because at least sports fans contribute money to their team in one way or another.
Truthfully, I don’t think people are quite to the point of believing that social media campaigns actually do much to effect real change. Some do, surely, but I don’t think the vast majority of people believe that. So why do so many people do it? I’m probably not far enough removed from both the social media culture and the era of social media popularity to give any certain reasons, but I can take a few guesses. I think one of the bigger reasons is that we want to be a part of something larger than ourselves. Social media allows us to stay connected with people in ways that are easier (see: superficially) than others, but it also gives us the illusion of having an audience. I say illusion because functionally, we all know it to be a gamble of long odds that many people at all will listen to what we have to say. We’re not celebrities or professionals, but we do have several close friends, and those friends have close friends and so on. Ideally, if we write something or share something, then our friends can share it and so on and maybe it will even go “viral”. The word viral means almost nothing, except for a bunch of people have watched it or shared it. If solid objects could exist in digital space, then the sun would be the most viral thing in existence. The difference being that the sun effects us on its own, not because we see or share it. The sun has an effect on blind people, even though they’ve never seen it.
To give a concrete example of how we really can’t change anything via social media, one only needs to look at Facebook. Every few months, the site changes something, and there’s massive outrage about how it’s a bad change and how nobody likes it. However, not one of these changes has been reversed, even though quite populous digital backlash was expressed. In fact, the failure of the people is so largely felt that people no longer seem to get nearly as upset as they used to. We’ve accepted that we can’t change it, and so we just chose to gripe privately and adapt publicly. But what about believing in something larger than ourselves?
We are told all the time about different organizations existing solely for the purpose of fulfilling that need, and for the purposes of this discussion, let’s suppose it to be true. I think we tend to view social media through a two-way system of meaning. The old adage of “you’ll only get out of it as much as you put into it” comes to mind. We start by believing that we have something important (or at least useful) to say, so we post it to as many social media sites as possible, so as to multiply our chances of digital reach, and hopefully we get enough feedback from people to justify our thinking that what we had to say was important. That, I think, is the actual heart of the issue. We hope that we can somehow gain the meaning from the hive-mind of social media that we already assume we have. If enough people validate us, then we are correct in how we already view ourselves. But that wouldn’t sell very well, so we have to dress it up. We need some sort of cover that will allow us to seem like we’re not actually trying to do that. Thankfully, 24-hour news and sensationalism (click-bait) has provided us with a myriad of things to do just that. “It’s not self-validating pride that I’m after, it’s that I want you to care as much about ___ as I do, so you should read what I have to say about it, and share it.” That’s not a great disguise, so perhaps if we kick it up a level, and get more vague. The most popular thing to do currently is to support the raising of awareness or to stand in solidarity with something/one.
To attack something that I myself took part in not too long ago, let’s look at the persecuted Christians in the middle east. Do you suppose it would be much comfort to them to say “Hey, I know you’re suffering, but don’t worry! Millions of people on Facebook changed their profile pictures to a letter in your language!”? Perhaps it would, but unless that’s accompanied by prayer or some sort of other support, I can’t imagine that it would encourage them much. Now there is a silver lining to that particular issue. Due to the popularity of using that picture, there was a ministry that sprung up that started selling shirts with the letter on it, who donated the money received directly to the effected people. In this case, there were tangible steps beyond a social media campaign that effected real change. This is the ultimate hope of raising awareness, that eventually someone will do something about the problem. However, we have to be soberly honest about that fact. Raising awareness rarely costs us anything, monetarily or otherwise, and the only hope we have of it effecting change is that someone notices the issue and does something to try and fix the problem. I think we’ve become sort of blind to that crucial aspect of it, and moved on to the idea that our raising awareness is the thing that’s actually doing the changing/solving. It isn’t. To give a very clear example, think of the greatest social-awareness campaign of all time, that of breast cancer. Who in the US doesn’t know about breast cancer awareness month? Who doesn’t associate the color pink with that disease? To its credit, the campaign hasn’t died off or lost any of its potency or meaning; though I think that is in-spite of our short attention spans, and more because of the fact that people still die because of the cancer. So everybody is aware of the issue, and most everyone knows where to give money to fight the cause. It’s a success in that regard, but a failure in the ultimate end. The cancer persists. For the vast majority of us (myself included), we don’t know how to process that. Perhaps we should be looking into what research needs to be done to cure the cancer, and start donating money to technical groups instead of to the giant collection groups. Awareness has been raised, solidarity has been achieved, and nothing has been solved. Those things cannot be ends in themselves. We see the problem, and we want to fix it, but we don’t know what to do or even worse, we don’t want to be even so much as inconvenienced in our solving of the problem.
What about the campaigns flown under the banner of the cross? I started college in 2006, and back then you needed a college email address in order to join Facebook, and so that’s largely when my social media presence (what an odd phrase) began. We don’t talk about that previous social network. Since then there have been several things done to raise awareness for different things. You take an entire day and don’t wear shoes to raise awareness for kids who are too poor to have them (did anyone not know about that?). You write love on your arms to raise awareness about suicide (I think) or was that to remember the girl at columbine who was a Christian and didn’t renounce her faith? Both of those died away within a few years, and nobody seems to care about it. That would seem to indicate that either a) nothing was done after the raising of awareness, or b) the problem(s) was solved. I’ll let you decide on which, and I’m open to hearing another option(s) if that’s a false dichotomy. Most recently, we have the #ENDIT or #INITTOENDIT campaign. The idea is to write a red X on your hand to raise awareness for human trafficking. To be clear, I’ve seen good things come out of this movement. Back in my small hometown, I’ve seen an organization spring up dealing specifically with human trafficking happening in the black hills. I’ve seen arrests made and people saved in the Midwest area that I hadn’t seen before. Praise God for that, sincerely! However, along with the good, I have seen the stale as well. I see the picture changed once a year on social media, and I never see it brought again up for the other 364 days. I’ve had conversations with people who were deeply convicted that they changed the picture and put on the marker and then not a single person came up and asked them about it. Perhaps those are exceptions to the rule, and the vast majority of the people are bombarded all day with questions about why they would have such a hand-marking. Unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case. I remember the first time people started doing that, I saw the X on a person’s hand before I knew what it meant, and I had two thoughts: 1) Huh. That’s weird. Don’t care enough to ask. People draw on themselves all the time. 2)That’s kinda funny, because it reminds me of when people put Xs on their hands back in my moshing days.
Why is there a disconnect? Why didn’t I care? Why didn’t I ask the young lady I saw with the X? Why were the people I mentioned never approached about it? One possibility is that neither I, nor others care(d) about the issue of human trafficking. However, the only way to prove that would be to show that there was an easily recognizable connection between a red X on someone’s hand to the reality of human trafficking. Without going to look up the movement (I’m sure they have an answer), I cannot think of even a tenuous link. This simply could be a failure of intelligence on my part, but I think it more likely that it is an ineffective symbol. If you want a symbol for a movement, you need to either have a strong link already in the minds of people, a symbol with a link that is easily understandable, or a vocal people to explain the symbol. A social media campaign with a silent army of adherents in the real world is not nearly as effective as it needs to be. The symbol is not odd enough or provocative enough to get people to ask questions, other than those who are super extroverted and inquisitive.
I sincerely hope this movement doesn’t die off in a few years like the others. It seems to be gaining more traction, and I rejoice for that. This is meant to encourage you to press on, and do more, not to simply beat you down. I’m convinced that if someone cares about something, they will talk about it frequently, and that is both in person and online. I see those of you who do that, and I hope more and more people model you. I know people who change their picture, mark their hand, and then start up conversations in public about what the movement is and how to actually help. Those people then share links about where you can send money or donate your time to actually make a difference. These people are doing this all year round, and they are the ones who we should be trying to be like.
To those who are of the “one day a year and done” crowd: Nobody believes you, and you’re not helping.
Ultimately, social media as a whole is not something from which we can derive meaning or purpose. It is in the same category as a telephone, but nobody makes the mistake of thinking meaning can be derived from talking into a phone. Adding the option of putting pictures and videos doesn’t inject it with mystical powers. Man cannot derive meaning from himself, if he starts there. He can’t derive meaning from himself as an individual, and he can’t derive meaning from people in groups, whether that’s a few people in his family, a few more in his club, a few more in his city, all the way up to thousands on social media or millions on the planet. Meaning doesn’t work that way. We can’t start with ourselves, and the lure of digital influence (strong though it may be, I know personally) is nothing short of a cheap substitute for actual meaning and purpose. True meaning must come from a transcendent source. That is, something that is outside of and greater than us, even collectively. Transcendence is a quality that outlasts us in time, and is greater than us in power and scope. God is the only sure ground of meaning and purpose that lasts, and therefore He is the only One from whom we should seek to derive our meaning.
P.S. There is something to be said about Matthew 6:1-4. There is another blog to be written about just that, and this is already far longer than people like to read. However, I think this passage doesn’t go against public movements, but rather, encourages us to check our motives. If you’re not ok with nobody knowing about your charity, then this is an area of pride that you need to take before the Lord.
Also, this is not meant to be a “YOU SHOULD DO THINGS LIKE ME INSTEAD!” rant. This is me challenging you to do it your way to the maximum possible efficiency/effectiveness.