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Social Media and "Awareness"

(The pokemon retrospective is still going, there will just be some stuff in-between updates to that series)

Since its beginnings, social media has been trying to find its place in today's world. At first (at least for me) we had the journal-style xanga, where you actually had to write posts that were paragraphs long, and there was no such thing as a “feed” showing you what your friends were doing. It was simple, and took a ton more work, but the actually connectivity between users was somewhat lacking.

Then there was myspace, and I'll be honest, I never really used it. I had a myspace account for probably a month. It was still a crucial step in the evolution of social media, however. Now your entire posts could be shortened to a single word, your favorite music available as a playlist, and little icons that were supposed to tell people how you were feeling. You could put on entire albums of photos, and we thought it was a big deal when you could actually add video to anything. It was a big step towards what we have today, but it was not quite there yet.
A true visionary
Then, of course, facebook came on to the scene. Not only did you have the myspace style of conveying messages, but now there was a feed, right on your homepage, bringing you what all of your friends were saying right to your face. Gone were the days of having to say “man, I wonder how Zach is doing. Let's visit Zach's page and find out.” Of course, facebook has not stopped changing since, to the point that it's constant format changes are now somewhat of a joke (though in all seriousness, I still hate timeline). This was all simplified with twitter, which cut everything out of the facebook/myspace formula, and just let you post a single short status at a time, and having the statuses of all your friends flowing through your homepage.

But now social media faces a new problem: finding its place in today's world. The journal style of xanga is, for all intents and purposes, completely obsolete. Sure, you can look back on what you've said and done in the past, but to do that you have to deal with timeline. Nothing about social media can have a private function because, and I must emphasize this because so many people I know don't seem to grasp it, whatever you put on facebook or twitter is completely and irrevocably public. Oh you can delete posts, and even go as far as shutting down your account, but all that information is still on on the internet, waiting on some server.

So if social media is no longer a private experience between you and some close friends (assuming you don't legitimately have 400+ “close” friends), then perhaps facebook can perform a public function. We are all about throwing the term “awareness” around when it comes to our social and political issues, because surely if everyone is aware of something, the problem will be solved. Looking back at movements like Kony 2012 and Occupy Wall Street, can't we say that social media is a great tool to spread awareness of today's issues? Perhaps it is, but this leads us to an even bigger question: can social media make a difference? When you repost a picture, or a statement, or an article, aren't you contributing to your cause in a real and meaningful way?
Well, let me say this with as much subtlety as possible:

To be totally honest with you, dear reader, I absolutely hate this obsession we have with “promoting awareness”. Take breast cancer, for instance (I'd use Kony or Occupy, but those were so laughably ineffectual that they don't really make the point). I'm not saying it's not a serious issue, or that its not something that needs and deserves support, but I feel as though we're in breast cancer awareness century. There are breast cancer awareness events all the time, people are buying those pink ribbons, and if you walk outside right now I bet you can find one person dressed in pink supporting “awareness” of the cause.

Whoop dee do.

Do these people honestly think that people aren't “aware” of breast cancer? Do they think that the problem is simply that the masses don't know about the problem, and that if they did they would throw money hand over fist at it? We have a technical term for that sort of thinking: it's called wrong. I should not even be annoyed with the people wearing the t-shirts or displaying the ribbons, because some of the money they bought those with probably went to research funding, even if the buyer him/herself was not aware of it. They've contributed something, at least.

Which brings this back to social media, let's talk about causes on facebook and twitter. Let's talk about all those pictures of starving, third world children, or of great disasters or brutal dictatorships. Let's talk about all the sob stories and political stances that are supported by pictures with clever captions. They all have one thing in common: “like and share to spread the word!” “let's make this the year that (x) happens by spreading this message!” “show your friends, and we can change things!” So all of your facebook friends who “have a heart” share it, because if they share it, then they're contributing by letting people know what is happening. They're changing the world, making it a better place, aren't they?

No. No they are not. At all. And frankly, I think it's insulting that they think they are.

Let's do an experiment here. Go to your local hardware store. You want to buy materials so that you can help fix a low-income home, or build an animal shelter, or whatever you want. Try to pay the cashier in “awareness” and tell me what you walk out of that store with.

“Spreading awareness” has its place, to be sure, but it changes exactly nothing. If you want to change the world, then it takes two things: hard work and money. If you want to help hurricane victims, then you need to pick up a hammer, or some supplies, and GO HELP THE HURRICANE VICTEMS. Understandably, many might not be able to do that, but lucky for you, there are ways you can help without leaving town. It's called donating money. Baring that, volunteer to help handle the donated money in your local area.

So yes, people who think they're contributing meaningfully via facebook are na├»ve, but are they really insulting? Yes. For every hundred or thousand people feeling proud of themselves for sharing a link (or in the case of a few of my friends, 500,000), there is one person getting their hands dirty, spending hours and days and weeks building, cleaning, researching or helping in some actual way. There might be two or three others who donate money towards the cause. The rest of those thousand people clicked a “share” button, and told themselves they were helping. That they were being part of the solution.

These people get every ounce of my hate for this. And to what purpose? If you're a gay marriage supporter, are you really friends with that many anti-gay people that will even see this message? Do you think you're convincing anyone, using someone else's words mind you, to come to your side of the debate? What actual, tangible result are you achieving by this constant bombardment?

Are social media and awareness of the issues useless? Of course not. We've just lost sight of the steps in between awareness and achievement. Somehow, and don't ask me how, we've come to the conclusion that one just leads to the other.

Let me close this ridiculously long rant just by saying this: if you want to change something, then get off the computer and go change it.