I have a confession to make. The Iranian people are living under a theocratic dictatorship – and it’s all my fault.
You see, in 2009, when the Iranian people rose up against their leaders after rigged elections, the twittersphere showed its collective support for the protestors by putting a green wash across their avatars.
Call me apathetic, lazy or perversely contrarian, but I just couldn’t find it in myself to change my Twitter avatar. No doubt Iran would have a parliament of the people by now if only I’d had a bit more heart.
But my past recalcitrance is catching up with me. I’ve been castigated for being ‘vain’ because I failed to change the picture on my Facebook profile to an image with the words ‘Hands off Julian Assange! WikiLeaks Protects Democracy’.
I’ve also seen people change their Facebook avatar to a cartoon character to help raise awareness of child abuse.
In spite of these worthy causes, I draw the line at changing my profile picture – and it has nothing to do with vanity. The reason is that, as sympathetic as I am to the WikiLeaks cause and attempts to end child abuse, I can’t see how changing my profile picture achieves anything.
Unlike a letter to the editor, a politician, or a petition (which are themselves pretty limited forms of political action – but worthwhile nonetheless), telling your friends or followers that you support Joe Blogs or that they should be aware of child abuse is like starting a campaign about security in a gated community: the audience are likely to be on side anyway, thereby negating the reason for the campaign.
Both are varieties of the BPPA’s: Big Pointless Political Acts.
While social media tools like Facebook and Twitter certainly didn’t invent the BPPA, they have lowered the threshold, making it easier than ever to jump on a bandwagon to nowhere.
Clicking ‘Like’ or changing your avatar in support of some cause or campaign is the political equivalent of masturbating: it feels nice, but it produces nothing.
While such campaigns look like the actions of the politically engaged, too often they’re the exact opposite: symptoms of political surrender. Unable to affect material change, or take the time to argue for an alternative worldview, such campaigns are empty political posturing.
Christian Lander neatly skewers the emptiness of this kind of non-political action in his discussion of awareness campaigns on the Stuff White People Like blog.
‘An interesting fact about white people’ writes Lander, ‘is that they firmly believe that all of the world’s problems can be solved through “awareness”‘.
Lander continues: ‘This belief allows them to feel that sweet self-satisfaction without actually having to solve anything or face any difficult challenges. Because, the only challenge of raising awareness is people not being aware. In a worst-case scenario, if you fail someone doesn’t know about the problem. End of story.’
To add to the pointlessness of such campaigns, too often they raise awareness about things which people are already keenly aware. Is there anyone who really isn’t aware of the seriousness of child abuse?
More sinisterly, such campaigns sometimes come laced with emotional blackmail. A recent awareness campaign for cancer I saw, for example, required friends to change their status to a particular message.
It came with the sting that if you failed to change your Facebook update to the required message, then you weren’t a true friend.
This is sleaze dressed up as well-intentioned concern.
In a strange way, changing avatars and status messages has become the acceptable modern secular substitute for prayer. People who wouldn’t hesitate to scoff at religious people for trying to affect change by praying, think nothing of clicking links or altering images under the delusion that they’re doing their bit to change the world by appeasing the gods of social media.
The next time a friend or follower asks you to join in a Big Pointless Political Act, tell them to go and write a letter, sign a petition, send money to their cause or, actually get involved with a group working for change.
Originally published on The Drum.