My facebook timeline was flooded with selfies this morning. Bare-faced, no-filter (ahem) selfies, posted by friends in the name of cancer awareness and asking others to do the same. In my usual bleary-eyed, early morning confusion I couldn't understand why, on a social networking site where most of us scroll mindlessly through the interminable selfies of the people on our friends list every single day, another selfie would help cure cancer. By mid-morning (OK, by midday) I was more awake but still none the wiser.
A few years ago there was an unofficial facebook campaign intended to raise awareness about breast cancer - women were encouraging each other to post the colour of their bra in a veiled status update along the lines of 'Red' or 'My favourite colour is black' or whatever. The idea was that people would see this happening all over their timeline, would ask what it was all about and then the person who had posted the status would let them know that it was about promoting breast cancer awareness.
Quick and simple. Awareness spread. Warm feelings all round. Marvellous.
I received four of these covert inbox messages from women on my friends list, with an instruction about what to put in my status in order to pique people's interest. However, only one of these private messages referenced raising awareness of breast cancer. The other three said that this was a fun joke intended to confuse men and generally 'get some LOLs'. Similar campaigns happened over the next couple years - where do you keep your handbag? 'I like it on the floor', nudge nudge, wink wink. Again, the emphasis was on confusion and primarily the confusion of men. Yes, men get breast cancer too but how would a nonsensical status update about the colour of my bra help a guy find the information he needed about this, should he be concerned? Wouldn't women reading the status updates be better served by a link to details of how to check their breasts for cancer? The intention was good but somewhere along the line the message had been lost.
That's not to say that I think these campaigns were ultimately pointless - anything that gets people talking about cancer awareness is, of course, a good thing - but the lack of a direct link to a cause WILL lead to the dilution of the message. And cancer isn't a saucy, suggestive, Carry On-style joke. In 2011 (the most recent official statistics available), 331,000 people were diagnosed with cancer in the UK alone and 159,000 people died from cancer in the UK in the same year. Making a bewildering statement about the colour of my underwear just didn't seem action enough to me.
Facebook has, perhaps inevitably, become a haven for pious armchair activism. The idea that if you 'like/share if you agree' then you are actually contributing to a cure for cancer or to the eradication of the fur farming industry or similar is as absurd as it is self-indulgent. The message is that just one click of your mouse (So easy! You don't even have to move!) can save a life.
It can't. It doesn't.
Working in publishing, I am very aware of how important social networking is when disseminating information but what saves lives is directly engaging with the causes that you feel strongly about - fundraising, protest, sustained comprehensive awareness campaigns and the support of intensive medical research where appropriate, alongside support of local hospices who work closely with terminally ill patients to help manage their physical and emotional needs in the last years of their lives. Your picture of a skinned dog, prefaced with a sad-face emoticon, is more likely to get people to hide your updates in their timeline than jump up and do something about it, nor does your willingness to post such an image make you a stronger advocate for the cause than someone who chooses not to. Similarly, just because a trend says that it is about raising cancer awareness doesn't mean that you have to blindly follow suit. It is important to question if what a campaign is encouraging you to do is actually helping the cause to which it has aligned itself. HOW does your selfie with no makeup on raise cancer awareness or contribute to a cure? The bare-faced female selfie movement has been gathering speed for a while now, as a backlash against the endless tweaked, filtered, camera-over-the-head selfies that flood the internet, themselves the spawn of the photoshopped, fantasy images of women with which we are relentlessly bombarded by the media. This is a good thing - a reminder of what women's faces actually look like without a half-inch of makeup and the Amaro filter on - but, when it comes to finding a cure for cancer your face is not your most powerful (or your most sustainable) resource.
By all means, post your selfies. Just make sure that you also tell people why you are doing it, link them to some useful information and put your money where your lipstick-free mouth is.
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This post was previously published on my blog.