TJ Dimacali of GMANews.TV wrote an interesting article last Wednesday (that gives you how much free time I have these days, LOL) on whether or not last week’s cartoon-characters-against-child-abuse Facebook meme actually worked. It’s interesting because it somehow reflects on the state of social media, and puts a good frame of reference in its position in society.
While we can disagree about the robustness of the methodology used in the article (the set of keywords, the tools used, the interpretation of results), the result propounded by Mr. Dimacali is fairly conclusive: the virality of the meme did not translate to action, much less a commensurate increase in interest for child abuse. Be that as it may, we do not know how many people actually did the meme, or if the meme was indeed executed by users to support the cause against child abuse. For purposes of this entry, let’s leave it at that.
In a previous column for The Philippine STAR, I wrote that while social media amplifies conversations, it often does so at the expense of other issues that deserve amplification. Conversations have the tendency to spiral into silence: in a multi-faceted meme like the cartoon characters on Facebook profile pictures, the fun factor is amplified at the expense of the issue.
Did the meme fail? I don’t think so.
The philosopher Jacques Derrida (drum roll) refers to two things: trace and delay. Signs, whether they’re letters or road signs or the meaningful Facebook profile picture, always carry with them a history that changes them through delay. The translation is never faithful to the original, and the original is never faithful to the translation. The meme did not fail: rather, it changed. It started out as some purportedly sick joke, appropriated into a cause to raise awareness and drive action against child abuse, and then eventually became appropriated as a popular Facebook trend.
I’m not knocking off the meme: I believe that the meme raised the awareness of people about child abuse to a higher level than when the meme didn’t exist at all. I believe that some people did do more than just change their profile pictures and supported shelters, NGOs, cause-oriented groups, and so on and so forth. Yet for the greater fraction of people who didn’t do that – and most certainly shouldn’t be chastised or reprimanded – they only did what was asked. Perhaps the only bit of information that cascaded to them was this was a fun, uso thing to do on Facebook. Maybe they logged on a bit late. The changes and re-appropriations of meaning made it different.
For most of us, this is what we can do, and that we are limited by so many needs and wants that keep us from dedicating our lives for a cause we believe in. Yet that doesn’t mean we don’t do anything: that should translate to change in the world, at least through time and delay, that we’re more informed than we were five minutes before we started spreading the news. Yet even that should be tempered with the reality that social action should be commensurate with the action in social media.
We’ve seen the results of what happens when the real world jives with the virtual world: Project Chanology, Anonymous, the arrest of Julian Assange, the high sales numbers for the iPad, the high demand for the KFC Double Down. It’s when offline and online doesn’t sync that the spiral of silence turns into a whirlpool of obscurity.
The spirit of the article, for me, illustrates why the meme is what it is: it requires little commitment. The growth of the people using the meme may be exponential, but the amount and effort put into it remains the same. The expectation would be that the awareness for child abuse would grow exponentially that people would actually act on it and reflect in search, but remember: that exponential commitment is spread out over an exponentially grown base that cannot act on anything outside of the commitments put into it.
In short, you can only get what you put in. Then again, a step in a good direction is better than none at all, especially if without the meme, people would not have been aware of the importance of fighting against child abuse.