Paved with Good Intentions

Posted by at 5:05PM

You may have noticed some odd and pervasive behavior on the part of some of your Facebook friends this year.  January brought forth a sudden winter flurry of color statuses.  October launched a startlingly sexual series of “So-and-So likes it on the ________” statuses that made it look like many a good girl had gone bad.  Finally, this month the trend seems to be profile pictures consisting of favorite childhood cartoon characters.

The rationale for these trends is that they raise awareness for issues of health and social concern through Facebook’s powerful social media.  The first two ostensibly supported breast cancer awareness, while the latter supposedly promotes awareness for and support of child abuse survivors.  At first glance, these fads seem well-intentioned and, at worst, harmless.  However, it was upon waking up to the following status in my Facebook newsfeed that I took a closer look at these Facebook crazes:

[name omitted] does not understand how putting cartoon photos up has ANYTHING to do with violent abuse against children.  As a child abuse survivor, I don’t think that I ‘only see [happy] memories’ from these images; instead, they’re part and parcel of the pleasure and pain that was growing up with an abusive parent.”  Later on in the involved comment stream, another poignant phrase from this child abuse victim stuck out to me: “the point of the current meme is ostensibly ‘against’ child abuse, and as an abuse survivor, I find it isolating.”

Facebook users: you’re actually hurting the people you’re trying to support.

This isn’t to say that I have anything personally against the participants in these memes.  I’m sure that you all mean well.  But please reconsider your purported “activism” for the following reasons.

1.  Anonymity is confusing and counterproductive.

More often than not, Facebook “awareness” fads do little but to obfuscate the actual issues at hand.  I’m sure it’s very easy for the uninterested observer to dismiss these awareness efforts as merely another Facebook trend akin to the Doppelgänger phenomenon last year without recognizing their meaning.  Sure, the bra color thing tangentially related to breast cancer.  As an astute male friend of mine remarked, “at least with the bra color thing the average guy only took about 10^-13 seconds to get from bras to breasts.”  But remember, first guys had to sift through and interpret the dozens of random colors to even realize what the colors referred to.

Not-so-obvious awareness tactic

The purse thing directly counters common sense.  If anything, this particular fad intended to conceal the issues.  The Huffington Post cited the trend as a direct effort “to leave men in the dark,” and the Washington Post said “men are not supposed to know what it means.”  So we’re raising awareness by intentionally excluding half of the global population?  Great idea!  One commenter captured the awareness divide perfectly: “Yeah, that’s a great way to get men on board with breast cancer awareness month…alienate them.”  It additionally dilutes the importance of the awareness message: while breast cancer among men is significantly less frequent, men have much poorer survival rates and outcomes due to misdiagnosis.  All the more reason for men to be aware.

The childhood abuse meme is more directly related to what it seeks to accomplish, but don’t worry, I’m not done yet….

2.  Memes often make matters worse.

Whose bright idea was it to remind childhood abuse survivors of their abusive childhoods??  Indeed, as one child abuse survivor stated on the comment thread, “this imagery trivializes the experiences of and causes pain to survivors of abuse.  Symbols do matter, and this one has some particularly nasty implications for the problem that it is supposed to represent.”

There is nothing sexy about breast cancer, and there is nothing cute about childhood abuse.  My grandmother almost died from breast cancer, so to see a deluge of sexed-up, exhibitionist Facebook statuses in the name of “awareness” made my blood boil.  Portray your sexuality as you wish, but please don’t derail the real issues to do so.

3.  What are you actually accomplishing?

The scary statistics of child abuse

The 21st century has brought about a new term for “status awareness” and trends of the sort: slacktivism. According to Wikipedia, “[t]he word is 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 satisfaction.”  Think about the consequences of your status / profile picture / “like” – how are the victims helped by your efforts?

Breast cancer and child abuse are real issues.  In 2004, breast cancer caused 519,000 deaths worldwide, constituting 7% of cancer deaths and almost 1% of all deaths (WHO).  Child abuse is tragically on the rise, with 5 children dying from abuse every day and a report of child abuse being made every 10 seconds (Childhelp).  Internet memes are cute and easy, but there are much more effective ways to make an actual difference in the lives of cancer and abuse victims.

Here are just a few:

4.  We should always be aware.

Facebook fads are just that… fads.  And as such they’re forgotten as soon as you upload a new pic or change your status.  But the issues don’t go away.  Why are we only “aware” of these issues for a week or a month, when they’re affecting hundreds of thousands of people every day?

5.  Facebook fads trivialize the issues.

How serious is Facebook?

Facebook is not a serious place.  Facebook is the land of “pokes.”  Of “Farmville” and Mafia Wars.  “Liking” a cause doesn’t really mean that much when you can also “like” Not Being On Fire, Taylor Lautner’s abs, Don’t you hate it when Ke$ha holds up your party because she hasn’t walked in yet, etc.  These actions aren’t meant to be taken seriously.  And that’s fine.  But it’s important to remember that putting serious causes in the same category can have the same effect.

Sum total, please think carefully before the next time you follow the lemmings in another Facebook craze.  The issues are real; the victims doubly so.  Just because your awareness is “Facebook-official” doesn’t make it meaningful. What will you do to fight breast cancer and child abuse?

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One Response to “Paved with Good Intentions”

  1. Brendan says:

    Great post Kristi. I’ve never participated in one of the facebook fads. There was this sneaking sense of discomfort with the idea that I could not explain. And I think you just explained it. BAM!

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