There was a great article on technology by Malcolm Gladwell in 2010 that I think is even more meaningful today. The argument basically goes like this: large social change doesn’t happen online – the revolution will not be tweeted.
Why? Because social change requires activism, which needs “strong-ties” amongst people. Social media, however, promotes “weak-ties”. As Gladwell says, “Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.”
Read that again. That sums up online outrage to me. People get riled up and pissed off enough to complain – but not enough to actually do anything about it. The classic example is the “someone should” post, which strikes me as a blend of comical and lazy.
Some dickhead dentist shot a lovable lion? “Someone should shoot him in the face and pose with his corpse. This POS doesn’t deserve to live…” I might read, over and over. And while I agree that game hunting is seriously f-d up, I don’t think the online outrage will drive change. Expressing the anger we feel when we see a sea turtle with a plastic straw in her nose is a cathartic experience, not a revolutionary one.
Now, there’s nothing wrong with this. Raising awareness of climate change, of how nobody helps cripples, and how protestors stand up to autocrats is a better thing to share then, say, posting a selfie at the gym to show off boob sweat. I’d prefer for our a society that our clickbait were social and environmental issues instead of Donald Trump telling a kid that he’s Batman.
I also wish that as a society we were more charitable, but in the same way I wish I had defined abs: it’s important to me, it’d be great to have, but after a few days I’ll forget about it, crack open a beer, and watch Mr. Robot. Improving the world (and your abs) happens not through outrage but from action.
From my anecdotal experience, the loudest online complainers are not the most socially active – they’re just the most annoying. Think of how great it would be to see more posts supporting women’s rights along with the dollar donation or volunteer hours you’ve made to a charity supporting the cause.
Complaining does further a cause. It just doesn’t further it much. We’re inundated with media every day lamenting the hardships in the world – an online version of walking through the ghetto or visiting a Cambodian orphanage. Awareness is not enough and awareness is not an end. Awareness is a means to one.
I thought the ALS ice bucket challenge was brilliant. A simple idea that anybody can do that came with a viral element, a monetary donation, and the chance to brag on social media. When it comes down to it, I think that most people like to help, and just as much like other people to think that they like to help. That’s ok. We’re social creatures and we want our goodness to be recognised. And that’s the trick to being both selfish and altruistic simultaneously.
There’s a guy in my company who got throat cancer and almost died. It was unclear if he’d make it and after a marathon surgery he awoke to find himself (thankfully) alive but very, very weak. Over a year he slowly improved and to celebrate his recovery ran a half-marathon for charity.
I donated a relatively large sum to his cause but mistakenly pushed the “make my donation anonymous” button. I spent the next 20 minutes annoyed – nobody would see how much I gave to support this guy, nobody would marvel at my magnanimity. And then I felt bad for not being happy that I donated to cancer research. Maybe you’d feel the same. I think it’s human (or at least some humans’) nature.
It’s ok to be outraged and express it online. It’s ok to broadcast how noble you are. And it’s more than ok to help good causes. But let’s go for the trifecta: express outrage on a social issue, act and work to solve the social issue (raising awareness doesn’t count as acting), and then tell everyone how great you are because you are – you actually tried and did make a difference.
Yalun Tu is a writer based in Hong Kong. He wrote The Straight Man column for HK Magazine, and TV scripts for HBO Asia, Channel V, and Fox Movies Premium. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or @yaluntu on Twitter.