“Everyone’s bad. There’s nothing we can do. Let’s just stay at home and have tea.” That was the sentiment expressed in Adam Curtis’ 2009 short film The Rise of Oh-Dearism. In it, he chronicled how he believed the Western public had become overwhelmed with images of poverty and despair across their borders since the Biafran crisis, culminating in a sense of dread and apathy in which every new NGO campaign or news report about far-away tragedy triggered a reaction of "Oh Dear… well let’s just stay at home and have tea".
"Never fear!" we cried with the advent of the internet. Knowledge is power, is it not? With a universe of information now at our fingertips, we would escape such apathy, open the doors to online activism and embrace an Era of New Possibilities! Unfortunately, the rift between the possibilities and the reality of online activism is enormous. Rather than open the portals of cross-global communication and ignite the fires of outrage at rising inequality and persistent preventable poverty and death, it has given this generation an easy cop-out. With one simple click of a mouse, you can now 'like' or 'share' information from advocacy groups and NGOs and wipe our conscience clean. What had the possibility of becoming a means, has grounded to a halt, becoming an end.
Case and point was the now infamous viral video Kony2012 by the organization Invisible Children. On one day alone, forty-two of my Facebook friends had posted the video to their walls. It would go on to exceed 1 million views on YouTube. Now this piece is not going to be an analysis of the neo-colonial undertones of the video (advocating for a white American saviour to embark on an epic journey to the dark heart of Africa returning with warlord Joseph Kony’s head on a stake) because that horse has been bludgeoned to death. What it is, however, is a reflection on what the internet has done for this generation’s sense of activism. Let's ask the question why when seeing disaster unfold before our eyes, all we can do is 'like' and 'share', and then we're content.
When Michael Pollan coined the concept of the glass abattoir, he could hardly have expected what glass screens have done to Western society. He imagined that if we took those areas in which the horrors of the world were being perpetrated, and cased them in glass, things would change. We would look in, be appalled at what was unfolding before our eyes and subsequently be compelled to act against them. Pollan thought making us eye-witness to disaster would prompt shock, outrage, and most importantly, action. These hopes were identical to the possibilities that the internet offered. People on one side of the globe would now be directly confronted with the suffering of those at the other end, with a simple click.
The reality has been the opposite. All the world is a glass cage, and we can watch the less fortunate from the comfort of our cushy homes. We marvel at the spectacle and rejoice in our privilege, rather than taking actual action. Now, this generation is not lazy. It is not apathetic. It is not the 'Me Generation' that others make it out to be. It simply would not recognise genuine activism if it pepper-sprayed us in the eyes. It is not that we do not want to act, it is that we think we already are. Online activism has slipped into clicktivism, allowing us to feel that sharing a video equals taking to the streets.
Show us how much you care
Information is meant to empower. Yet, the internet has brought on such a smorgasbord of information, that it seems to have sedated us, lulled us into a false sense of accepting the status quo. Although it offers the amazing possibility of connecting to those a hemisphere away, we have failed to use it for that. Instead we seem to be reblogging gifs of babies licking lemons and photoshopping a dancing Beyoncé into the she-Hulk.
So where did it all go wrong? And why is the reality of our internet-usage so disheartening? Zuckerman’s ’cute cat theory of internet activism‘ would have us believing that platforms such as Tumblr, Twitter, Facebook and Instagram could easily be converted to active spaces of meaningful activism as well as being used to share images of cute cats. It would seem, however, that these platforms have made internet activism too easy. We have become convinced that buying a (RED) iPod or sharing the image of an African child-soldier is equal to directly improving the lives of others. This story has become all about the 'self' and not about the distant 'other'. Our humanitarianism is no longer about a shared humanity, but about a constructed public persona.
The danger of the highly public 'glass' society that we live in is that not only can we witness the lives of others, they can also look right back. This has set in motion an individualising trend. Our online lives are open for all to see, and that brings pressure along with it. Because you would not want to be the one friend that did not share that video of beautiful spoken word poetry against xenophobia, would you?
The combination of social networking with sites like UpWorthy have welded a double-edged sword of awareness and self-importance. By calling upon viewers to share their videos, which are by turns heartbreaking, hilarious and inspiring, it has mastered the art of the 'cute cat theory'. Show me a video of a young African American boy speaking up against racism or a rapper standing up for same-sex marriage equality and you have piqued my interests and possibly broadened my mind on certain topics. What you’ve also done is preach to the choir. Liking and sharing certain causes fosters a self-congratulatory online community, rather than one that is open to debate.
On the other hand, the internet also allows for immediate, and sometimes anonymous, response. Rather than feeding peaceful, civil and informed discourse, this frequently descends into mud-flinging, name-calling and trolling. Thus, clicktivism takes on two forms – preaching to the choir or anchoring down. Either you share the video that all your friends have shared for fear of being the odd one out, or you prepare to battle it out in the comments section, preferably by pouring cement into your own boots. Ideas need communities to flourish, and these constant battles have caused our sense of community to crumble.
Shattering the Pane
Now, opening that window has not been disastrous on all fronts. Sites like Kiva, Avaaz and Kickstarter (criticism of their susceptibility to abuse aside) have made it possible for projects to reach an audience and receive funding quickly and efficiently. When used properly, the internet allows you to be parted with your money far easier than when someone rings your doorbell or stops you in the street. Thus now we are fools easily parted from our money: to good causes, but fools nonetheless.
Such sites may be circumventing the usual potholes of bureaucracy, corruption and issues of transparency, but they are perpetuated rather than changing how the West views the Global South. Knowing that your $5 will contribute to setting up a social entrepreneurship for marginalised women in Djibouti may soothe your conscience and improve their standard of living, but it is a drop in the ocean. As long as the internet is not used to stimulate thought about why exactly those women in Djibouti have a sub-par standard of living in the first place, the problem remains, the discourse unchanged and the global inequality unwavering.
If anything, online activism has become the end, rather than the means, for those growing up with the internet. Future revolutions will not be televised by the West. They will be tweeted, and that’s all they will be. As long as our experience of unfairness is mediated by screens, our society may be constructed by panes of glass, but that glass also provides us with safety. Knowing that you will never have to actually experience what is happening to others is the biggest obstacle to online activism.
The current reality of online activism does not have to be permanent. The realm of possibilities that the internet has to offer remains vast; all it has to do is call for offline action. We have to come to terms with the context of the videos we see and the processes that lead to the suffering we “share” before change will be brought about. The time has come for us to put our lofty words into practice and translate our online actions into offline change . We must bury the armchairs of our smug, shallow humanitarianism and cease using the internet as a self-obsessed pat on our own backs. Away from the screens and into the light is where the real change will take place.