Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Slacktivism

A few days ago I noticed that many of my Facebook friends were changing their profile pictures to cartoon characters. The explanation given for this behavior was generally two-fold:
  1. It diminished the possibility of seeing a “human face” on Facebook.
  2. It brought awareness to, and helped combat, child abuse.
Leaving aside the glaring irony in voluntarily removing our human faces from a website whose entire basis is to facilitate unique self-expression through profiles, I began to wonder just how the second objective would be accomplished. In our modern age are there really a significant number of people with Facebook profiles who are unaware that child abuse exists? What are the odds that someone is currently staring at a photo of Scooby Doo on someone’s homepage saying to themselves, “So that is what it is called when I beat little Timmy with a tight-rolled area-wide phonebook…”

Therefore, logically, the next assumption we come to is that widespread awareness of child abuse already exists and the cartoon profile is a way to combat its proliferation. I find this even more preposterous that the ignorance argument. Exactly how would this scenario play out?

Scenario A - Stepdaddy comes home drunk, decides to update his profile to include Nightranger among his favorite bands, and just before signing out to go show the kids “what’s gonna happen when young’uns get to sassin’” he sees that a picture of Donald Duck has replaced his friend Terry’s profile pic and is overcome with emotion. His inebriated body is racked by guilt as the childhood image sparks memories of his own adolescence when he too found himself at the violent mercy of an alcoholic step-father. Slowly, he becomes acutely aware of the cyclical nature of his own rudderless aggression and vows to never lay a hand on the children again. Over the next several weeks, a marked change appears in his demeanor as he realizes the physical and psychological damage he has caused to the young lives entrusted to him. Years later, he looks back on the poignant self-reflection initiated by Terry’s simple act of nostalgia and wonders what could have happened had Terry chosen not to participate.

Scenario B –Intoxicate stepdaddy notices Terry’s profile pic of Donald Duck, makes a mental note to de-friend him, and follows through with his original proposal of beating his stepchildren with a partially-thawed rotisserie chicken.

Do not misunderstand me. Child abuse is an abhorrent trend that must be stopped, but it almost cheapens the issue to tell people that they can help eradicate it by replacing their frat party photo with a .jpeg of Space Ghost. If you want to change your profile photo to a cartoon, don’t pretend you did so out of solidarity with the victims of such a heinous crime. If you want to actively help combat child abuse, find a reputable charity in your area and volunteer your time and/or bank account.

Take that, morally abhorrent social deviants!


This phenomenon is not limited to child abuse. Earlier this year, women were encouraged to utilize their Facebook status to cryptically divulge where they prefer to store their purse. This resulted in statuses that read like sexual euphemisms:

  • Sarah likes it “on the kitchen table.”
  • Julie likes it “hung from the bar stool.”
  • Cindy likes it “in the trunk of her 2002 Dodge Intrepid at the Bon Jovi concert.”
In this case, participants were assured that their compliance supported “breast cancer awareness.” How? Does my status change set in motion a chain of events that will ultimately result in a Facebook friend realizing that women have breasts and that those same breasts are susceptible to cancer? Are people with constant access to high-speed Internet connections really so far out of the loop that they have to discover medical advances through a Facebook status update?

Even before Facebook, this same “slacktivism” infiltrated cyberspace through e-mail forwarded chain letters. Our inboxes became saturated with messages imploring us to continue circulating pointless information to assist a cause.
  • If you disagree with cancer, please forward this to 10 people…..
  • Help stop gang-related puppy violence by sending this to twenty people that you care about……
  • Every time you forward this message, the National Institute of Organizational Charity will donate one dollar to prevent pre-childhood obesity in illiterate Asian women……
Why do these resonate with us? Deep down, most of us must realize that whatever self-satisfaction we get from these symbolic gestures borders on emotional perjury. In some cases, especially on Facebook, we do it because large amounts of people witness how “chartable” we are. It is unlikely that anyone you know will see you volunteering at a soup kitchen or battered women’s shelter, but on Facebook you are assured that hundreds of people will know that you think they should be aware that there are battered women and starving people.

I have no problem with cartoon characters profile pictures, divulging the location of your purse or the color of your undergarments; but let’s drop the pretense of crusading for charity. Can’t I just change my profile picture to Snoopy because I like Snoopy? Must I fabricate an altruistic motive to justify my decision? There are countless ways to utilize your time, money, and talents to have a positive impact on the world around you and if you are fortunate enough to have regular access to the Internet, then I am sure you can locate a more effective medium than Facebook in which to utilize them.

*On a side note, I have it on good authority that if you change your profile picture to your favorite Kardashian during the first week of January, Viacom will donate two pouches of Capri-Sun to the cousin of an albino homicide victim. For realsies!     

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