Is facebook robbing us of our political power?

On March 25th the Human Rights Campaign launched a social campaign to raise awareness for the marriage equality debate currently being deliberated by SCOTUS. You probably saw the campaign, which asked users to change their profile picture to that of a red square with a bold equal sign. When I checked Facebook Wednesday morning, my entire feed was covered with these logos, as a good portion of my Facebook friends had decided to participate. As I thought about it over my morning coffee, I was struck with the thought that all this activity, while potentially raising awareness inside the walled garden of Facebook, might not actually result in anything of substance. And in fact, it might just be completely meaningless. After all, changing one’s profile picture is a transactional gesture, regardless of the scale. It costs nothing, takes no time, and involves very little risk on the part of the participant.

To which, I posted this: “Changing my profile picture was what really tipped the scales on that political issue” – said nobody ever.”

And then a few minutes later, I pushed the idea even further: “If only Abraham Lincoln had the ability to change his profile picture, perhaps the civil war could have been avoided.”

And finally, teasing out the thought to its most ludicrous conclusion, I wrote: “Can everyone on Facebook please change their profile picture to a non-perishable food item? This way we can ensure that the starving children of the world never go hungry again.” (The Huffington Post did a spoof of this 2 years ago which lampooned the issue far better than I could have.)

A good deal of my Facebook peeps were not amused. All in all, those 3 comments generated almost 30 responses. Most of these were enraged for even daring to suggest that this act had no meaning or effect. “It raises awareness!” said one person. “It’s a show of solidarity!” said another. And, in the mother of all ironies, some wrote (on my wall) that I shouldn’t express my opinions (on my wall) about the things they choose to support (on their wall).

Wikipedia defines slacktivism as “… a portmanteau of the words slacker and activism. The word is usually considered a pejorative term that describes “feel-good” measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it feel some amount of satisfaction. The acts tend to require minimal personal effort from the slacktivist. The underlying assumption being promoted by the term is that these low cost efforts substitute for more substantive actions rather than supplementing them, although this assumption has not been borne out by research.

Slacktivist activities include signing Internet petitions, joining a community organization without contributing to the organization’s efforts, copying and pasting of Social Network statuses or messages or altering one’s personal data or avatar on social network services. Research is beginning to explore the connection between the concept and modern activism/advocacy, as groups are increasingly using social media to facilitate civic engagement and collective action.”

I don’t know about you, but this reads exactly like what was going on inside Facebook.

Putting it mildly, I was surprised by the onerous outcry my comments generated. I expected a fair amount of banter, but people seemed genuinely upset at the suggestion that simply changing your profile picture might produce no material outcome. To be fair, campaigns like this can raise awareness. Social media can be harnessed to activate any number of actions. But this campaign seemed to have none of that potential. The fact that this seemed to touch a nerve in so many people makes it all the more curious. I expected some level of, “yeah, it’s probably just a small thing, but I feel like it’s better than nothing.” Instead I got full-on rage.

CNN soon picked up on all the activity. While pointing out that the campaign generated more than 64,000 shares (the real number likely being much higher as people saved the picture locally), the real content of the story painted a different picture. “Although an image in favor of same-sex marriage dominated outside the courthouse, justices inside seemed reluctant to extend a sweeping constitutional right for gays and lesbian to wed in all 50 states.” The commenter’s on my page used this and other articles as proof that the activity had meaning and power. But there in lies the rub. Despite all the activity, the outcome will depend largely on the legal arguments, not public opinion. And, despite the buzz the campaign is generating, the impact is not likely to last. (Editors note: I’m surprised it took CNN as long as it did to start covering the event as it gave them yet another reason to not actually cover, you know, the news.) Facebook even did an in-depth post-game analysis.

Remember the campaign to raise awareness about child abuse? Or the campaign to end violence against women? Or the campaign to turn Facebook purple? Or the campaign against human trafficking? No? Me either. And that’s the point. These transactional events provide no real push for change and are gone as soon as they came. That’s why no one remembers and why these types of campaigns feel like weak tea to me.

At the height of the HIV crisis, there were thousands of people active in protesting, lobbying, and generally organizing to affect policy change in Washington. During those times, gay and lesbian protesters often faced serious consequences for joining or being involved with such activities. If you revisit the stories of those times, people were fired from jobs, faced public humiliation, and faced definite harassment, all for standing up for what they believed in. They were willing to risk something for the cause. They were willing to face the consequences of whatever came next because the issues at hand were far greater than they. Go back even further. Civil rights. Women’s equality. Slavery. The inalienable right to freedom. People fought and bled and died for those causes. Profile picture campaigns feel hollow against that backdrop.

Which underscores a larger issue for me. An entire generation of people is being lulled into thinking that campaigns like these have any real effect. And in doing so they trade away what power they may have through organization and demonstration for the appearance of effect. The Tea Party didn’t rise to prominence by changing their profiles or donating their status updates, they met, donated money, rallied, organized, protested and voted in blocks. Whether you agree or not with their politics, the effect they’ve had on the national stage is inarguable. So where does that leave us? If so many are willing to do so little to drive any kind of change about the issues they care about, how will the status quo be disrupted? Given how angered people were to suggest there was no impact or power to their actions, what does that say about how powerless we really are? And how little we fail to recognize the apathy of our actions?

What does this have to do with pharma? Probably not much, expect for this. Somewhere you can bet your bottom dollar there’s an agency reading @Nalt’s book, Beyond Viral, and giggling wildly thinking about how pitching a profile campaign will be the next big thing. Sadly, I’m surprised it hasn’t happened already. Oh…Right.

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