I still can’t get over how fast it happened. One day I was being informed that there was a Facebook group called “Stop Dogs and Puppies from being murdered at Dalhousie University” with about 900 signed up. Two days later and I notice that its membership is increasing at an alarming speed. Four days later and its momentum is not letting up. In just one week, the group’s membership increased almost 20-fold, to an absolutely insane total of almost 18,000 people.
If you’re about to go look up the group for yourself, don’t bother. It was removed from Facebook Tuesday night on the grounds that it violated the social network’s Terms of Service that forbids spreading of defamatory and fraudulent information. The truth of the matter is that Dalhousie has not used dogs in laboratory research in years. If you want to learn more about what happened to the group along with the university’s stance on animal research, check out our Dalhousie News story about the situation.
This is not going to be a post about animal research, nor is it a post about Dalhousie’s decision to ask that the group be shut down; McNutt Against the Music is hardly the place for either discussion. Instead, I want to explore some really big ideas about what happens when activism meets social media in the 21st century.
I never owned one of Lance Armstrong’s “Livestrong” bracelets when they became insanely popular two or three years ago. I also never wore a “Make Poverty History” bracelet, or any of the hundreds of other cause bracelets that hoped to capitalize on the emerging trend. At times I felt alone in my unwillingness to walk around with a piece of ugly foam/plastic on my wrist; hell, I knew people who had four of five of the things on at once sometimes. But while the bracelet fad has largely come and gone, its cultural significance lives on.
Livestrong bracelets are an example of what I refer to as “brand-iron activism,” a phenomenon that is hardly unique to our times but which has rarely been embraced with such open disregard for genuine substance. Brand-iron activism’s primary objective is not activism itself but the appearance of activism. It’s defining one’s self to others – branding, if you will – by associating openly with a cause. The activism may be substantial or frivolous or anything in between; what matters is that other people see the activism and associate the person with it.
Let’s take the Livestrong bracelets as an example. I’m all for the idea that small donations can make a big difference, but buying a bracelet for a dollar is hardly a significant financial investment in the fight against cancer. The real reason why the Livestrong bracelet became ridiculously popular is because it allowed people to brand themselves as caring, thoughtful individuals. Buying a bracelet had less to do with contributing to the fight against cancer and everything to do with being seen fighting cancer.
Now, it’s our human nature to want to brand ourselves, to assert our individuality and self-definition in whatever way we can: art, fashion, consumer goods, and yes, activism. After all, the heart of the 1960s counterculture movement was in identifying and branding itself as decidedly non-mainstream through its rejection societal norms. But I can’t help but feel that brand-iron activism is becoming increasingly shallow, with appearances and self-interest trumping actual investment in the cause time and time again. Nothing epitomizes this more than the “support the troops” phenomenon here in North America. Whereas once “supporting the troops” meant sacrificing for the war effort, today it’s all about self-branding, putting a flag on the windowsill and putting a ribbon on one’s car so that your patriotism is affirmed.
What intrigues me about the rise of brand-iron activism is how closely the behaviour of ordinary citizens is starting to mirror that of their governments and corporations. Take the environment as an example: the business and political communities have realized that they have much to gain by being seen as environmentally conscious, but haven’t even come close to taking the steps needed to overcome the challenges our planet faces. Branding takes precedence to genuine action because, by and large, that’s all the engagement that most people need and expect. We’re all becoming so used to interacting with one another superficially that when our culture emphasizes image over reality, branding over action, it just seems natural to us.
Which brings me to the case study at hand: Facebook groups. I’m currently a member of 31 groups on Facebook, of which I maybe – maybe – check one or two on a regular basis. Although these groups offer discussion, photo sharing and other interactive features, I hardly use any of them. Why? Because although Facebook groups allow people to engage with others, the main reason they click the “join” button is to denote membership to their online community, to brand their profile with likes, dislikes, favourites and fetishes. It’s brand-iron activism at its finest…and also, perhaps, its worst.
Facebook makes brand-iron activism so easy that it renders the need for genuine engagement almost entirely pointless. If the people joining the group about Dalhousie and animal research had taken the time to actually read the text on the page, they would have seen that the accusations were almost entirely based on the unproven suggestions of its creator, with very little evidence provided. More disturbing is the fact that the group’s creator had actually removed the discussion wall because there were “too many complaints from people” (Dalhousie students had been questioning the validity of the accusations).
So with just the slightest bit of critical thinking applied, the group turns from a seemingly noble cause into a questionable endeavour. So why do 18,000 people still join the group? I know that the majority of them appeared to be high school students, but I’m not prepared to make an ageist argument about this. Facebook does make brand-iron activism easy, but that can’t be the only reason why people leave their critical thought at the door. So what’s going on here?
The Trust Economy
Human beings are democratic creatures – we generally trust the views and opinions of common individuals more than governments or businesses. The opinions that matter most are those of people we know intimately: our friends, neighbours, coworkers and family. The reason why companies live or die on achieving word-of-mouth marketing is because these close social relations are far more trustworthy spokespeople for products and brands than the companies and organizations themselves. In a simple nutshell, this is how the trust economy is constructed.
A key philosophy that drives new and emerging social media is that this trust is not only moved online, but it’s extended to the collective at large. People will buy from an EBay seller with a high feedback rating even though they don’t personally know any of the people providing feedback. The blogosphere has as much, and sometimes even more credibility than mainstream journalists because its writers are speaking with an unfiltered voice.
And perhaps the best example of people trusting the “wisdom of crowds” is in platforms like YouTube, Wikipedia and Flickr, where instead of a third-party filtering content, the users themselves create, rate, rank, and sort the material. We may not always agree with the decisions of the collective – many of the most popular YouTube videos may seem frivolous and pointless – but we still trust the collective in guiding the experience.
Does Facebook operate under this expanded trust economy model? Not really. In fact, what Facebook does is digitize the traditional trust economy, connecting you with friends, family and coworkers so that you can share content online with one another. When someone on Facebook sends you a link, you’re already more predisposed to checking it out than you would be otherwise, which is one of the reason that information is able to spread so quickly around the service.
But what happens when these small, isolated trust economies are all combined into, say, a Facebook group with thousands of members? All of a sudden these individual connections are starting to look like a collective, one that seems to demand trust in the same way as other collective media. But does it deserve that trust?
The Wisdom of Crowds
I mentioned this term earlier, and it comes from a 2004 book by James Surowiecki. His central argument is that when you combine information in large groups of people, you actually produce decisions that are significantly better than any single member of the group could have come up with. Groups are better at problem solving, encouraging innovation, and even predicting the future.
But this does not necessarily mean that all crowds are wise. Surowiecki lists four criteria needed for a crowd to produce productive results: diversity of opinion, independence, decentralization and aggregation. On almost all counts, the Facebook group about animal research at Dalhousie failed miserably. It was designed explicitly to gather singular opinions, to the point where outside views were repressed. Because Facebook groups are really about branding one’s self with a cause, the opinions within the group were hardly independent. And it did not provide any resources for people to draw on local, decentralized knowledge.
What this whole experience has made me realize is that Facebook is a medium that actually encourages unwise crowds. Because its group system is driven primarily by brand-iron activism, groups quickly gain members with little actual investment in the issue at hand. This inflates membership to the point where people begin to apply the collective trust dynamic – how can 18,000 people be wrong?
But those 18,000 people are not a representative sample. Every single one of them signed up for the group after someone else on their friends list did. Their investment in the group is based on an pre-existing trust, a personal connection with someone that can often override scepticism and mute critical thinking. And thus, a perfect storm is completed: brand-iron activism, the wisdom of crowds and the traditional trust economy are all leveraged together on Facebook in such a way that misinformation not only spreads quickly, but can be supported by thousands of well-meaning people.
Me and the masses
When I was first exposed to Facebook just over a year ago, I instantly saw how brilliant a tool it could be for mobilizing people. Imagine, a utility that connects real-world relationships digitally! That keeps everyone informed about one another! That allows users to create groups or events and then spread the word virally! The possibilities for activism were genuinely exciting.
This potential is all still there, but this whole experience has dramatically changed my perspective. I worry that Facebook groups create a twisted sort of groupthink by leveraging both trust in our friends and trust in the collective, neither of which involves using our own critical thought processes. This lack of critical thought is enabled by the push-button ease of the medium, made all the more palatable by Facebook’s focus on self-branding.
In many ways, this dynamic is not just confined to Facebook. As we increasingly take our lives online and begin to brand, express and engage in the digital sphere, there’s a weird tension forming between the two paradoxical sides of the Internet conundrum. At the same time that we are now more connected with each other than ever before, our ability to isolate ourselves – read only what we want to read, watch only what we want to watch – has increased alongside.
I traditionally saw this as a zero-sum problem – that the Internet would either drive humanity towards a stronger collective or stronger individualism. What Facebook is starting to convince me of is that the two behaviours can actually co-exist together, but the outcomes may actually be more troubling than either option on their own. When collective failure meets individual self-indulgence, where do we go from here?
Edit: In case you get the memo, the original group was relaunched by Facebook over the weekend with the discussion reinstated (although the group’s administrator is still censoring and removing comments that dispute her claims). A number of pro-Dalhousie groups have also organized to challenge the accusations. For an updated version of events, read this Dalhousie News story.