Think of any viral video, meme, or trend on social media. Where does it come from? As your friends tweet, comment, and post, you are expected to join in – and why wouldn’t you? It’s viral. Every day it seems like a new trend arises on social media, causing everyone to share, retweet, like, and favorite, and then forget as time goes on. The trends garner attention on shows like “Good Morning America” and then disappear, leaving everyone to wonder what happened to them. This seems to be a pattern.
#activism employs the same techniques as any Internet meme. Social media is used to raise awareness for a cause or issue in the same way that Grumpy Cat videos are shared. Awareness is good. It helps people think outside of their mundane rut of self-pity and their own #firstworldproblems. However, am I really helping someone with cancer if I simply tweet #cancersucks and then go on with my life?
This was the major criticism of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, the viral movement to raise money for ALS, a degenerative nerve disease that often ends in death. Although people filmed themselves dumping ice on their heads and awareness was raised, what good does posting a video do?
The Ice Bucket Challenge raised more than $110 million for ALS research, but getting showered with ice water and posting the video did not raise the money. Donating did. The videos helped to teach people about ALS. This is what prompted donations and got many celebrities on board with the cause.
There comes a point when spreading awareness is not enough. As well as tweeting about a problem, we should do our part to solve it. During the Arab Spring of 2011, for example, social media was used to organize protests. In the week of President Hosni Mubarak’s resignation, the number of tweets in Egypt increased from 2,000 a day to more than 200,000. Protesters posted videos featuring political commentary to YouTube, and the top 23 videos received more than 5 million views. Protests were not confined to social media but led to an entire regional movement.
Whether it is through donating money or time, we must create solutions to the issues we feel passionate about. Spreading awareness is the first step, but it can’t be the only one. Social media and #activism make it easy to become aware and make others aware of problems in the world. Now we must take this awareness and use it to make a real difference.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.