Mine was beige, with flowers. Which, as the evening wore on, proved to be one of the more boring updates. (I especially loved the person who asked, “Why is everyone posting synonyms for tan in their status?”) But what occurred on Facebook last night and this morning was, in my opinion, pretty amazing. A meme took hold in a matter of minutes and, perhaps most impressive, had no explanation directly attached to it. You had to Google it or scan comments in your friends’ posts to find out what the hell was going on. But the number of people participating was overwhelming, nonetheless.
What also took mere minutes was the indignant faction who were either annoyed, offended, or downright angry. While watching the BCS game (which is an entirely separate argument we won’t discuss), I found myself in a heated debate with a friend as to the effectiveness/harm of posting your bra color for breast cancer awareness. Her key point was that “hollow gestures threaten to undermine substantive action” and she circled back to her favorite rant topic: the aligning of twitterers with the Iranian democracy revolt last summer. I disagree strongly; people turning their avatars green has no effect – negative or positive – on Iranians’ fight for democracy, just as typing the word “beige” next to my name on Facebook isn’t going to set breast cancer research back 10 years.
What it does do however is a couple of other important things. It serves a very real sociological need for affiliation. Humans define themselves, at least partially, by their causes. “I’m against Prop 8; therefore I am liberal and open-minded.” “I’m a member of the NRA; therefore I am conservative and like to kill things.” (Sorry. I’m only human.) So when you glom onto to one of these silly online memes – and yes, they are mostly silly – people feel they’re defining themselves a little bit.
The second point is one that’s much more salient. Last night’s bra-color game was a hint of what is possible when you combine social causes with social networks. Even those who were offended as hell have to admit: we’re talking about breast cancer now. Yes, of course, we were talking about it before. On occasion. In October when every household object on the market is tinted pink. But it did in fact, achieve precisely what it set out to do – raise awareness. The Huffington Post wasn’t focusing on the anger and raw emotion of a breast cancer survivor last week. The rage that cancer engenders was not getting ink in the Washington Post. And the Komen fan page on Facebook, for whatever good it does, had far less fans yesterday morning. Now the efficacy of ‘awareness’ is most definitely up for debate. But if one little meme involving a color can take hold that quickly, and make that much of a splash in less than 12 hours, what’s going to happen when someone – and I’m betting it will be a political candidate – figures out how to really utilize our personal networks?
Because I’ve argued enough this week, I’ll let my friend have the last word. Kind of.
If tech and social media wants to be taken seriously as a potential cure for that ill, action has to make a leap from status updates to the real world.
I couldn’t agree more. She goes on to posit, though, that online actions make people feel they’ve done their part and therefore won’t contribute more substantive action in the real world. Perhaps, with some people, yes. But I can pretty much guarantee those folks weren’t going to contribute much to begin with.
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in emerging technology, it’s that you can’t start at the top. You lay the groundwork at the very bottom and hope that subsequent companies and technologies will build on it in your wake. No, we didn’t cure breast cancer last night. But I’m certainly willing to keep playing these little games until we do.