Last year when the fight for Marriage Equality started an activism trend on Facebook which included the changing of a person’s Facebook profile to the symbol for the Human Rights Campaign, many social media “experts” and political activists claimed it was a “wasteful” and “useless.” The issue was brought up again recently when the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge took off on Facebook. To the people who believe media campaigns are “useless,” I’m sorry, but you could not be more wrong.
First of all, studies for business, marketing, and advertising all show that social media advertisement is a huge market for attention that only keeps growing. I don’t need to provide you with sources for that. Any major company will tell you that they have advertising presence in every major social media page from Facebook to Twitter to Youtube. If you want people to know about something, especially up and coming young professionals, you’re online.
This matters, because business studies will also tell you, that part of the reason that advertising works is repetitive messaging. The more times a person hears, reads, or sees something, the more the message fixes itself into your brain, whether you want it to or not. Even if you HATE the product or the idea that it “sells,” you’re more likely to buy it. Sells go up. Period. Even bad publicity in many cases, still means a raise in profits and attention because people remember it (obviously, there are some exceptions such as the Sea World/”Blackfish” situation, but in general, this statement holds true). They may not remember why they remember it, but they do. The more you think about something, the more likely you are to act on it. And most people also understand that when you buy into an advertisement, you’re really “buying an idea,” a lifestyle, it’s not the productive itself that sold you.
It’s not only hard to ignore the fact that around 3 million people changed their Facebook profile pictures for the Equal Marriage campaign simply because you saw the images and messages over and over again, but the fact that peer pressure kicked in also matters. The biggest way to “sell” any idea always has been (and most likely always will be) word of mouth. If your friends talk about it, if your friends endorse it, if your friends INSIST on it, you’re more likely to buy it. It’s a survival instinct because people are social animals that feel the desire to “fit in” with the group. This means, that even if someone didn’t change their profile picture or even doesn’t have a Facebook, they heard about it. They heard about it on the news, the read about it, someone who does have an online presence told them. That’s very hard for a politician to ignore. It may not have an immediate effect on the political sphere, but rest assured that in future campaigns, they will take it into account. The message that their is serious support and backing for gay marriage and for gay rights in general will sink in. Popular opinion matters to politicians, if only for selfish reasons.
If you want proof in the form of numbers that social activism “sells,” how about the fact that the ALS foundation raised over $5.5 million from the Ice Bucket challenge alone? You can’t say that $5.5 million dollars for research and support to a non-profit foundation is “nothing” or “useless.” Unless you can prove to me that the money doesn’t go directly to the Foundation or that the Foundation isn’t putting the majority of that money toward research and treatment of the disease.
Many people claim that the challenge wasn’t taken seriously by many people, who may not have even known what the disease is, because they jumped on the band wagon due to popular attention. That’s true. Many people did not and still do not know what ALS is after having taken the challenge. However, I will just remind you, that $5.5 million dollars was raised. I personally don’t care if the people who donated to the Foundation didn’t know what they were supporting nor really cared. However, I don’t think that most people who really fished out their wallets had zero idea why they were doing it. I can also tell you that I watched many videos where the participant either told you themselves what the disease was, admitted that they looked it up to find out, and/or even included links reminding people of what it was they were supporting. Several people also told me in person that they looked it up because they wanted to know. I also looked it up to expand my knowledge on the matter. The Ice Bucket Challenge did create real awareness for many people, even if there are some or even many people who didn’t “get it.” It does not take away from all the people who truly did have their eyes opened to it.
One of the things I heard echoed the most from people who either had the disease or had family/friends who had the disease was that they hated that no one knew what it was before this challenge (with the campaign for Marriage Equality, this is far less likely because if you changed your picture, you knew what you were doing and you strongly supported it because gay marriage is controversial). Before the Ice Bucket Challenge, they felt invisible, that no money would be raised because no one even knew or cared that they were in trouble. They said that they hated explaining to people over and over again why it was they were sick or had lost their loved ones. Suddenly, the struggle was hypervisual and many of these people have hope and feel supported, acknowledged again. One of my personal friends reached out on Facebook saying that she was so grateful to all her friends for doing the challenge because her mother had died of the disease and it reminded her of her mother’s bravery. I was surprised because the disease is supposed to be rare, I never knew that I knew anyone who was affected by it. Even if the money hadn’t been there, are the feelings and hope raised by people suffering from the disease more than enough of a reason to support the fad? I think so.
I cannot prove it, but I anticipate that their are more people who are having the same experience as I am across America right now. It also tells me, that there are more victims of rare diseases like ALS who are having similar struggles. Similarly, the campaign for Marriage Equality gave people hope. It bonded us together, made us believe that together, we can work miracles. Hope and support are very powerful tools, they are not to be taken lightly. And for a child who is struggling with disease or a gay child struggling with self-esteem, sometimes it makes the difference in whether or not you survive. Many studies show that people who have (for whatever reason), a more positive outlook on life, live longer. LGBT youth are more likely than most Americans to commit suicide. Positive thinking and self-confidence absolutely matter. They are not a “waste” nor are they “useless.” I am a person who knows what that pain feels like and every day that I logged into Facebook and saw that sea of red on my newsfeed, my heart got a little lighter. I was a gay youth in a small, homophobic town and to make matters worse, I suffer from genetic depression. I hated everything. I can tell you right now, if this “fad” had happened to me when I was still a teenager, it would have meant so much to me. Luckily, I survived.
While I suffer from a sickness that is often fatal without hope, depression is not as likely to kill you as ALS, and I can only imagine all the mixed feelings of pain and daring to be brave when you know it could blow up in your face and hope and confusion that may have gone through the mind of an ALS victim when they saw the Ice Bucket Challenge trending on all their social media sites. If it was even close to what it was like for me, I’d imagine that it was both overwhelming, and meant the world to them. It could mean literally everything to them, hope for the preservation or extension of their life. That hope may keep them alive a little longer, and even if it doesn’t, I certainly hope it brings them a couple of wonderful, “better” days. I know what those days feel like too. It always hurts, but some days are just better than others, and if we can give you even just one more of those days, I think any “fad” however silly it looks, is worth it.
While there are now several videos and articles from ALS victims that touch on this subject, including the Ice Bucket Challenge of Pete Frates who helped make the challenge popular, I think this one from Anthony Carbajal was the most touching:
Just remember that next time that someone tells you that social media activism is a waste, that it is not. If nothing else, it gives people hope. The next time that anyone tells you that something that makes you feel loved and connected and charitable to others is a “waste,” know that it does matter somehow. Sometimes it’s not making a difference in the way that you think it is, but it is making a difference. Never doubt the opportunity to help others. These things matter, they keep us all going and connect us to each other, and that is never a waste.