23 October 2015
(originally published in the Queenwood newsletter)
THE SHALLOWNESS OF FACEBOOK ACTIVISM
I have a confession to make: I, too, am on Facebook. I still feel rather modern about this although most people have by now probably moved on to other social media – I am usually a few steps behind. I don’t post terribly frequently – the functionality I use most is private messaging. If I do post, it is usually something light-hearted or humorous: sharing a witticism or a beautiful picture of the moon over Balmoral Beach or the sunset over the Harbour Bridge. Obviously, the main purpose is to make my friends jealous.
I think it is a well-known fact that our Facebook identity is an edited truth. We don’t necessarily lie, but we don’t give the full truth either. We don’t post ugly pictures of ourselves; we post the ones that show us in our best light. We don’t post our failures; we post our successes. One of my Facebook friends (or rather a friend-of-a-friend, therefore not really a friend) posted something I really enjoyed: two pictures of her son’s first day at school. One represented the edited truth: her son smiling proudly into the camera, in his shiny new school uniform and polished shoes. The other one showed him ten minutes before the official shot was taken: kicking and screaming on the staircase of his house and refusing to go to school. His mother decided to post both pictures: the one that we want our friends to see, and the other one we usually try to hide.
Another aspect is the rather fatal “like” culture in which we live. I know girls who are very depressed when they change their profile picture and only 89 people click “like” – a shocking number when you have 1267 friends and your best friend just got 293 likes for her new profile picture. Personally, I fare far worse: I only have a measly 138 friends, and on average five of them like my posts. If I am very lucky, I might get 12 likes, and my biggest success was the post that I published in August 2014 when I finally got my visa for Australia that enabled me to accept my job at Queenwood: “It is official now: I am moving to Sydney.” I think I got around 45 likes – and somehow felt that was a mixed blessing. Most of my friends live in the UK, and my message told them that I was moving away from them. Why did they like this so much?
The latest feed on my Facebook page has been about Bob. This has been shared – I believe – about 58,000 times and liked by even more people. Bob is an old dog, and he looks rather sad in his profile picture. The caption says something like this: “I am sure nobody will like me and nobody will share my picture because I am old. If you want to prove me wrong please like and share.” Judging from the number of likes and shares, numerous people fell into this sentimental trap and obediently “liked” and “shared”. They probably genuinely feel that they have made this dog’s life (and therefore the world) a better place. Really? I have seen similarly sad pictures of human beings: old people affected by dementia, or Syrian refugees, or starving children. Always with sentimental, false, manipulative tag lines such as “I am sure nobody will like me.” And of course (because people are easy to manipulate) such pictures get hundreds, or thousands, or even millions of “likes” and “shares”.
But who of us who clicks these buttons is making the world a better place? How do we compare to those who may not even own a computer, or an iPad, or an iPhone, but who go to an animal shelter and actually take an abandoned dog out for a walk? Or to those who visit a residential home and hold the hand of a confused elderly person who has no family left? Or to those who have a family waiting for them at home but choose to take a friend out for dinner who doesn’t, and who may be feeling a little lonely, thus making them feel special and valued? Or to those who see a sick person sitting at the side of the road and simply offer to take them home, rather than taking a picture and posting it on Facebook with a comment such as “If you feel that we should look after the most vulnerable people in society, please like and share”?
Standing up to be counted, actively helping – these are the things that make a difference and help to make the world a better place. Sitting at a computer and obsessively liking and sharing – well, let me tell you: it is meaningless. Bob, the old dog, will not care about his 58,000 likes. Neither will 89-year old John who is suffering from Alzheimer’s. This pseudo-activity on Facebook and other media has little to do with social justice, contribution, international outlook or commitment. It is an easy way out of responsibility.
Facebook, if used in the right spirit and as a light-hearted way of staying in touch with people, can be a great tool. I have Facebook friends in Germany, Switzerland, Italy, all over the UK and in the Far East, and I hope that one day, when I leave Sydney, I will also add a few Australian friends to the list. As long as we all know that the communication on this particular medium is, by its very nature, superficial and not all that meaningful, we should embrace it. I certainly relish it now more than ever before, being far away from family and friends and unable to hop on a train to catch up with those I can talk to in an unfiltered way.
But even as responsible and sensible users we should not be desensitized to the origins of Facebook. Anybody who has watched “The Social Network” will know about its unsavoury and misogynist beginnings, and anybody who has any sense of emotional intelligence and sensitivity should remain aware of and attuned to its inhumane language. Being “unfriended” had not been part of my normal vocabulary until I came across it in the virtual world – and it can cause hurt even to those who don’t place that much value on social networks.
People are often asked to choose the historical era they would have loved to live in. I find that a very easy choice. Germany in the 18th century – when Johann Wolfgang von Goethe was alive and the culture of liberal education and intellectual conversation was at its height. Or maybe Vienna at the Fin de Siècle, around 1900 – when writers, artists, composers, intellectuals, satirists met in Vienna’s coffee houses to discuss big issues and put the world to rights. These were two of the big eras when people talked to each other, engaged with each other, wrote beautiful letters to each other, and when friendship was judged by quality rather than quantity.
Let us remember: Facebook, if used properly, can be a fun addition to human face-to-face interaction. But it should not become its replacement.