Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Fake care is so easy, cool, and replaces the real thing (with none of the benefit)

It’s not impossible to find wisdom on Twitter. But it’s probably easier to find the opposite of wisdom…which can still provide insight. Thereby making it wisdom, in a way. Funny, that.

It is with this in mind that I hearken back to The Tweet I’ll Never Forget. It was on about June 2009, when a slightly artsy-fartsy guy I know chose to share the following with the world on a Sunday morning:

“It’s a beautiful morning in San Francisco. But my thoughts go out to the brave people of Iran.”

And yeah, his little Twitter avatar pic was tinted green. In fact, a lot of people’s Twitter avatars were tinted green.

So…what was behind all this? Well, at the time, Iran was in the midst of a rather contentions electoral process. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and his ruling Abadgaran party were facing a stiff challenge from an upstart party. Amid accusations of election fraud, there were riots in the streets of Tehran. As the Iranian army repelled said riots, a woman was famously shot and bled to death in the street, becoming a YouTube sensation.

And just like we kinda-sorta have blue for Democrats and red for Republicans in the USA, the color of the Iranian opposition party was green. It became cool to Twitter-ify yourself green; a little show of support for the brave upstarts half a world away.

And the feeling I got off it was so damn faux, it made me wanna puke.

It smelled like a fashion thing, something the cool, avant-garde kids do to look like they care, and/or have read a newspaper (see also: Toyota Prius). Now I can’t prove that. Maybe it came from a genuine feeling. But if so, so what? What can a green avatar do?

Some would argue that it does do something. I’d like to hear that argument. Please, convince me. My mind is open, and I’d love to be turned around on this one. I’d really like to see some empirical evidence backing it up, too.

But I fear that my gut instinct is true. I fear it means nothing. And here’s the danger of the green avatar, or any of its other pseudo- cousins:

I believe we live now in a time and place where we’ve created too many goddamn easy outs where people can do things of NO tangible benefit to anyone…and that’s largely replaced REAL action. We fulfill our very legitimate human need to help others with empty motions. It’s methadone for the soul. You feel like you’ve done something for someone in need, but find that someone in need and ask them: What have you done? Did your green avatar bring about Iranian democracy? Did the fact that you “like” the United Way on Facebook put a warm spot in someone’s belly on skid row? Ask that Iranian. Ask that homeless man. I’d wager their answer is “no.”

Now these things—your green avatars and Facebook likes--may be well-intentioned. I certainly believe that’s the case. They likely do no harm. But they also likely do no real good. Not to turn this into a simple screed against that system of vacuum tubes Al Gore invented for us called the “Interwebs,” but back in ye olden days, if somebody had a let’s-call-it-charitable-inkling to fill, they filled it by doing something. They volunteered, or they cracked open the checkbook and scratched one out. And in doing that, something was, indeed, accomplished. It might have been small. It might have seemed infinitesimal. But that volunteer work—please take note of the dirty word “work”— or that check going into the coffers…it was real.

Now we have no idea, no cultural context, no track record, for the effect of a green Tweet or a Facebook “like.” Maybe future historians will see the effect of these things, and point to it as the blooming of a thousand flowers and the dawn of a golden age. Maybe.

But in the here-and-now, take a look, Tweeters: The green avatars are gone. Ahmadinejad is still in power—legitimately or not, I cannot say. The woman is still dead. What did your green avatar do? And WHY did you get rid of it? Did the fashion thing wear off? Did you suddenly just not care, even though, well, the status quo is still the status quo?

Ask yourself those questions. And next time you feel like turning your Twitter avatar green, do me a favor: Don’t. Do something else instead. Volunteer one damn hour at the Salvation Army soup kitchen. Give one damn dollar to the United Way. Your green avatar is gone. But if you actually did something instead, congrats! You did something. You created. You had impact. In that one hour at the Salvation Army, a homeless man ate. That $1 helped some poor family put a tarp over their heads come next tornado. You changed the world. Again, perhaps in a small way, perhaps infinitesimally. But, I would wager, more than a green avatar ever did.

You are one person. You can make one small change. Will the world do it? I doubt it. Because fake care is so easy, cool, and replaces the real thing (with none of the benefit).

Jim McLauchlin

Next: I lighten the mood. Promise.


  1. There's a fantastic article in the October 4th issue of THE NEW YORKER by Malcolm Gladwell called SMALL CHANGE: WHY THE REVOLUTION WILL NOT BE TWEETED. It contrasts the organizational properties of the Civil Rights movement against the non-organizational principles of Social Network movements and ends up being a pretty damning indictment of Social Networks ability to neuter action while stoking passion. I highly, highly recommend reading it. It's a brilliantly observed, deeply researched and smartly written exploration on the subject. You'll really dig it.

    You can read teh whole thing here...

    - Joshua Dysart

  2. First things first: HI JOSH! Long time no talk, stranger.

    Second thing: Jim, this is an amazing piece of reading goodness. You put into fine, eloquent verbiage what I've been trying to drive into the skulls of all my kin, friends, colleagues and the like for years. While social networks do their part to raise awareness, they unfortunately are not effective enough to stir the fires in people's hearts for true change. And it does smack of false altruism, if that even exists.

    I type this as I read a book for the class I'm currently in (on the long and tortuous path to earning my Master's) called "The White Man's Burden: Why the West's Efforts to Aid the Rest Have Done So Much Ill and So Little Good." You should check it out as well--it's very enlightening.

    Oh, and btw, I'm linking this blog on my Wall. :)

  3. it makes me wonder how valuable charity ends up being in the long run.