Do us injustice and we’ll ‘Think up a Meme’

Do not dismiss online campaigns as soft revolts. We have the power to shake the universe with our Mighty Memes

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I have been associated with the Digital Natives with a Cause project for close to two years now. It’s a research-inquiry program initiated by India’s Centre for Internet & Society and the Dutch organization HIVOS, with the aim of understanding youth engagement with ICT in the Global South. You know this perception that a digital native is a “predominantly white, male, young person from the Global North” is not all there is to the idea of a digital native – and this project explores the changing notions of what it means to navigate with digital technologies across different contexts and peoples in Africa, Middle East and Asia.

(Read more about the project here: http://cis-india.org/digital-natives).

The title of the program caught me unawares when I first came across it while applying to participate in the first workshop hosted by CIS and HIVOS called Talking Back (Report: Taipei, Taiwan 2010). I intuitively identified with the term ‘digital native’ even though I had never encountered it either academically or in praxis or even as a pop culture term. But the two words together opened up a space which was instinctively what I had been waiting for all my life: a daily life made up of frequent browsing, reading online and chatting and to me these were enough prerequisites to be called a digital native.

However, associating digital natives with the social framework of ’cause’ didn’t sit well with me. how can people using the Internet have anything to do with social change? Googling threw up some interesting reports and social campaigns. Firstly, NGOs and grassroots activists who are at the forefront of social change were changing gears. Holding placards, sit-ins, shouting slogans and marching to the doors of the government, or writing letters to the editor, signature campaigns and court petitions were still the staple diet of a successful social campaign, however, these were aided by Web strategies.

Secondly, social causes came to be embraced by people other than the activists; the conscientious citizen was now joined by her daughter, neighbor, family, and professional networks in asking for change and highlighting injustices. What gave them the idea that they could speak up or could even be heard? a) Changing modes of communication b) globalization c) new media d) Internet

Thirdly, the tools and dissemination techniques also kept pace with the changing dynamics of social campaigns. Remember how an angry activist would scream at the top of their lungs, “Down with the Dictator”? Well, the Angry Young Man could now holler his lungs out online – silently – and still reach a lot of people via email, text messaging, discussion forums, private groups, websites and now, Web 2.0 interfaces of The Wall.

Great, so three easy steps to becoming a do-gooder. You see something you don’t like, you decide how you want to raise awareness and then, hit them where it hurts! Seems like we couldn’t have asked for better times to change the world!

And here is the point where all hell breaks loose. If you read enough about digital culture, social media and digital natives (sometimes in the same sentence), you would have come across the cynical rhetoric of media practitioners who dismiss the digital do-gooder as farce, as phony, as nothing but a bunch of lazy kids who indulge in ‘slack’ – slacktivism, clicktivism, viral marketing.

Why are digital natives different then? Why do we perceive them to be incapable of a social conscience? Why does the media paint them as pariahs of indifference? Why are certain awareness campaigns raising our collective hackles? Why do intentions matter when the larger picture is about bringing a culprit to book? Why do we focus on the right way of eliciting response, when the whole point was about getting somebody to at least respond! Why is playing fair so important in a war when foul play is the default mode of operation?

I have simplified this process of campaign, cut out the intricacies and intrigues of censorship, surveillance, the politics of governance, the limits on freedom of speech and expression, how the law embargoes feelings and the civil code of conduct barricades anything in extremes. But the essence remains the same, if we see a bully, we use whatever weapons at our disposal and hit out at them, right? Perhaps, depends upon the kind of person you are, the level of oppression and injustice you are facing, and the resources available to you easily.

The keyword is “easy” and this is the trigger that cynicists use to take potshots at digital campaigns and social media-enabled protests. They perceive such exercises to be ill-informed and half-baked, steeped in lazyness, apathy, boredom, or worse, a fun experiment that youngsters indulge in for their novelty value. When it comes to social change campaigns initiated by the White, American, Male Digital Native (WAMDN) this cynicism and criticism is stretched to the point of overt blackouts.

The do-gooder WAMDN doesn’t have to contend with the media and cultural detractors, but also his cross-cultural and hemispheric peers from the Global South, who view his campaigns as politically incorrect, lacking research or the right intentions, riding roughshod over the sentiments of the community he is speaking on behalf of. WAMDN’s social media campaigns are often perceived to be more of a marketing blitzkrieg directed at grabbing young eyeballs than a sincere effort in effecting policy changes, perceptive shifts, or mobilizing aid and support.

And I still consider myself as partly one among those purists who disown the WAMDNs and the general digital media trailblazers. Partly. What got me off my high-horse is the pathological refrain about intentions and the inherent slacktivist nature of the digital natives. Do you have some telepathic powers to probe into a WAMDN’s mind to find out why he supports a cause? Significantly, who decides that an issue is a cause to be highlighted? Numbers – enough people suffering because of it? Awareness – enough news reports and investigations into an issue? Nature – the gravity of the issue?

Today most of the causes that grip us have to do with our engagement with Web 2.0 services and products. We have problems with governments censoring our words and images, we have issues with social media companies telling us what is legitimate content and we are pissed off when we can’t access a frequently-used service with no other reason than ‘violation of company terms and conditions’. How do you protest against online surveillance? Where do we raise awareness about Freedom of Speech online? What tools and strategies do we employ to tell other people about what’s at stake with an increasingly cloistered and fenced Web? Online of course! And for campaigning about the Internet we would of course resort to Web-based tools.

In the universe of online campaigns, a Facebook protest page or a Webinar makes perfect sense! We don’t question the reputation of the platform but rather look at the viability and effectiveness of the campaign to fulfill its goals, whatever they may be: getting ten people to join us, getting the media to write about us, getting people to stop using the word ‘retard’, or getting your office colleagues to stop wasting paper through unnecessary print-outs.

Which brings me to the next puritanical protest against the WAMDN and his poorer peers, that online campaigns are easy to set up and execute and don’t take much investment in terms of energy, effort, money or influence. From personal experience, I can emphatically vouch for the rather tough and tricky techniques that I have had to employ to get people interested in the cause I promote. I work for an organization that focuses on digital accessibility for persons with disabilities. We do this via policy advocacy and lobbying with the governments of the world to take the dispositions listed in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities seriously.

But we are realizing that ground advocacy isn’t enough, not in 2012 at least. Sizable members and departments of the governments, NGOs, advocacy and aid groups, academics and researchers, and the community itself (people with disabilities) have a strong, vocal and influential online presence. It is no longer enough to have a stakeholder meeting with boring – yes, certainly – Powerpoint presentations that talk much about statistics, mobilization and resources, but don’t get the billion-strong public involved in caring for the cause.

Web-based platforms force us to outsell ourselves in order to reach our constituencies; we have to put the best face forward and get people interested in committing to a cause long term. It’s sometimes time-consuming, sometimes easy, just like any ground campaign. Sometimes campaigns click, sometimes people just ignore our outreach messages. It also allows us to choose specific interfaces for promoting specific campaigns. So, Twitter is effective for a type of mobilization and instant outreach, Facebook is more about fostering a close-knit, sustained and concerned community. But we don’t take the liberty of treating online campaigns as a piece of cake, just post a link on Twitter and wait for the website numbers to hit the roof!

When you organize a protest rally with thousands of supporters, do you think about the visibility of your business and the increase in sponsorship if the event is a success, or are you focused on the cause you are championing? Why this double standards in attribution for an online campaign or advocacy then?

As for the community itself on whose behalf we stage an intervention, Web 2.0 and the internet-ecosystem has done much to allow them to tell their story and ask for support the way they want to. Making blanket statements such as ‘the net will set us free’ or the extreme of ‘the net is a corporate-hijacked market’ doesn’t cover the vast sections of the public who don’t subscribe to either of these views nor do they engage with the internet in an extremist fashion, seeking World Peace from a few clicks! We don’t expect ground campaigns to bring about world peace or eradicate poverty forever or grant women equality in all spheres of life, then why expect Web-based, social-media campaigns or messages to bring about the same results?

How do we measure the effectiveness of – not the end result – but the process itself? When we wrote 100 letters to The Editor of the local community newspaper complaining about the pothole-ridden roads, did we expect a response from the Department of Public Works or Transport immediately – or was the point to raise awareness and let others reading the paper know that they too can voice their complains and hope to get a response. Hope comes with no guarantees.

What surprises me about the Kony12 video campaign created by the U.S. NGO Invisible Children is not the video itself (glitzy, PR-inspired take on systemic issues of war, conflict, abuse of children in Uganda several years ago), but rather that the endemic split of the Global North Digital Native and the Digital Native from the Global South just got more pronounced and justified. Digital natives themselves turned on their digital native peers. But instead of engaging with the Director of Invisible Children and offering an honest critique of how the video campaign could have shifted gears or portrayed information in a different format, we went on a rampage, not really interested in the video’s cause, intention or justification but crucifying it because it doesn’t fit in with our world view of how Africa should be portrayed.

Do you claim ownership of this issue? Do you claim rights over how an issue is to be presented in the public domain? Do you have proof of the damaging effects that this video is supposed to generate? Do you have a better plan for helping the victims of Kony’s brutal regime? Do you have some sort of oracular powers that foretell the failure of such videos (and the Bracelet that they are selling!)? How can you predict the inanity of such campaigns without having seen any precedents for it? If you disown this campaign, what’s stopping the social media cynics who label you slacktivists from disparaging your blogs, your tweets and your video campaigns?

I understand the sentiments behind the outrage over the Kony video; I would hate it if my problems were ‘marketed as a product’. But the campaign has got 100 million people to think about what they can do, where as previously they would just watch a campaign video or read a heartfelt letter and move on with their day.

The outrage leaves me with several questions:

1) Did the video backfire because it was made by a WAMDN?

2) Is there a perception that only a WAMDN could have ideated such a “jazzy” video?

3) Do we have an inherent prejudice / bias against the perceived power of the WAMDN and what they do with that perceived power?

4) Would it be okay if a youth from Uganda has thought of this novel way of highlighting an issue?

5) Do we take potshots at ideas that are ahead of their times?

6) Are we still too young or naive to not understand the commerce of a cause – that causes need to be packaged and promoted in order for people to pick them up?

7) Why do we sit in judgement of another person’s efforts to solve a problem in their own weird / bizarre / unique ways – and perhaps they fail – perhaps they succeed – why not let them try?

8) Are we secretly envious that we – the Digital Native from the Global South – did not think of such an ‘in-your-face’ campaign that has received millions of hits, got the attention of leaders and powerful folks, and we couldn’t think of doing something similar?

9) What next? Most of you have disowned the video and the Kony12 campaign as fraud and a commercially-directed venture (they are selling bracelets you see!), but has the world not sat up and taken notice and will in their own, tiny ways DO SOMETHING?

10) What do we hope for when we tell a friend about an injustice? Do we want the friend to sympathize and help us feel better? Or do we hope that she will take our hand and say, “let’s do something about this” and support you in any possible ways – without reservations or judgement?

Coming back to the question, Digital Natives with a Cause?, do I still hold the cynical view that digital natives and cause don’t go together? While it would be a blatant untruth to declare all digital natives as concerned with social change and causes, we cannot rule out that so many of us online are taking an interest in doing ‘something’. We are angry enough to ‘Think up a Meme’ when our small universe is threatened and the Web sends ripples of disturbance to the other tiny universes connected to ours. Perhaps it’s not enough to get a headline grabbing, “Memes Achieve World Peace!”, but we never believed that was possible anyways, right? It’s about getting the least common denominator to pay attention. One person signing-up, one person helping with aid, one person tweeting and one more writing a blog. We never had any precedent for peace before, right? Apart from moving from zero to positive, we have nothing to lose.

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2 thoughts on “Do us injustice and we’ll ‘Think up a Meme’

  1. I don’t think I’m really the target audience for this post – I spend most of my time online, sharing links and ideas, and make occasional contributions to causes through pieces of writing and donations. Nothing major, but I keep myself as aware as I can and try to be open to making a space in my head for any injustice I came across. Still, you linked me here because I was making fun of Jason Russell on Twitter – fair enough, I probably came across to you in that moment as dismissive of the KONY2012 campaign and Russell as a white American male digital native, as you term them.

    To be honest, I was making fun of him because the fact that he has been detained for such an embarrassing public disturbance, barely a week after his outreach video went viral, is completely absurd and hilarious to me. It’s like a story from The Onion made real. I do feel for the guy on some levels – drunk and masturbating in public at 11:30 in the morning is hardly a sign of sound mental health, and I can appreciate that he will have been under a lot of stress lately – but at the same time, this utterly detracts from both his own credibility and that of Invisible Children.

    It seems that your main point with this post is to say that generating any response is better than doing nothing at all. You have explained it very well here – probably the most considered effort I’ve seen to make this point. And I mostly agree with this sentiment. Better that people are thinking about something than remaining passive. The web is absolutely a genuine path to generating awareness and, ultimately, effective action.

    However, I think it is possible to do the wrong thing for the right reasons. Having worked in advocacy and aid, you’ll know that some individuals and groups do quite damaging things with the very best of intentions. I read a lot about Invisible Children’s work after the video launched and found varying evaluations, which is probably typical of most aid organisations – some love you, some hate you, many are indifferent towards you.

    The main reason why I didn’t support the KONY2012 campaign, though, was because I saw more pressing causes to devote my attention to. Rapes and sexual harassment in Delhi (and indeed all over India), for example, or the impending closure of a public service television in New Zealand. KONY2012 seemed suspect for a lot of reasons, and I felt like my attention was better used elsewhere. That’s about all there is to it, really.

    But now, now Russell has gone and humiliated himself in public, and I am taking pot shots at him. I think if I were in his shoes, having been the public face of an extremely emotive awareness campaign about seriously abused children, THEN gone and done *this*, I’d expect to be ridiculed too.

    1. Barns, thanksiee for such a specific and generous response. I don’t know how to react: you mean to say that he was really caught with his visible family jewels hanging out! Oh. my. God. I am responding to your “I saw more pressing causes to devote my attention to” justification by quoting Sheldon Pollock, “We are by no means unaware of the material problems facing India—poverty, disease, resource depletion…the list is long. But philanthropy is not a zero-sum game; a rupee for culture is a new rupee, not a rupee taken from water resource management schemes.”

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