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Sunday, 5 December 2010

Slacktivism and Vocaltruism: Children's Cartoons

Slacktivism is 'the desire people have to do good without getting out of their chair'. Slacktivists are those who perceive their mentioning of a certain cause in a certain situation, or the committing of some low-effort act like changing a display picture or joining a Facebook group to be some cog in the revolution machine. Ever fond of a self-made neologism, what I'm calling vocaltruism is the assertion (true or not) that one gives their money, time or thought to a cause, but it is an assertion that is aired publicly, widely and often with a self-aggrandising edge.

It is uncomfortable to 'argue against' people's support for an unquestionably necessary cause - the fight against child abuse, help for war-wounded ex-soldiers, a student protest against encroaching fee increases. I am not suggesting that the mass of slacktivists and vocaltruists should not make efforts to get involved in issues and causes, not at all; my hope is that if people are as sincere in their public delcarations as they proclaim to be, they ought to equip themselves with methods which will enable the changes that they are calling for. My fear is that slacktivists come to see their Facebook display pictures as positive action itself, rather than as an attention grabbing opener to further efforts to combat whatever ills they are rallying against.

I tend towards skepticism with regards a number of campaigns to raise awareness because, often, I feel people are acutely aware of the wrongs which abound in society. It is not awareness but mobilisation that is lacking. People know that alarming numbers of men abuse their partners behind closed doors. People know that a sad number of childhoods are blighted by neglect, abuse and bullying. People know that in the town centre, there are people shooting up in alleyways, drinking themselves into a stupor and there are people shivering on the floor without a home to go to. Campaigns, and viral issue trends on social media such as Facebook and Twitter, that hold their sole aim to be 'spreading the word' are missing an opportunity since this 'word' that they spread is often reduced to a hollow sequence of syllables: the meaning - the rich narratives, the cold statistics and the brutish realities - are often left aside when tidal zeitgeists begin to gather froth.

The current zeitgeist on Facebook is to change your display picture to an image of a children's cartoon character as part of an awareness raising campaign against child abuse by the NSPCC. As viral campaigns go, it is cleverly conceived as the current young generation of 15-25 year olds, whose existence is firmly established on Facebook, has an unprecedented nostalgia for its own recent past. It strikes me as strange that 18 year olds in University attend 90's themed fancy dress parties. In a mediated visual culture, TV unites us - we might be from different towns and we might have had different school backgrounds but when we were both aged 8, we probably watched Live and Kicking and we all know the significance of the phrase 'I dropped the screw in the tuna'. Right?

But how does this help children? The effect seems to be that people have thought long and hard about cartoons, not about children in the real world being abused. The feeling of gratification that comes from changing your display picture to Angelica from the Rugrats or Dennis the Menace will not be the prelude to the setting up of a direct debit and it is unlikely to compel individuals to take up voluntary work or charity work.

The problem may well be the medium, not the message. As I have written previously, Facebok is a site of self presentation which can have long term effects. As such, any collective action on it will be tempered by the necessary egotism that is attached to a website which has, as its aim, the connection and presentation of oneself to the selves of others. Glossing down my Newsfeed, I notice not only the wide range of cartoon displays but also a number of conversations about the trend and about individual choices. Less important than the NSPCC cause (which, in fact, I cannot find evidence of - is it actually an NSPCC thing?) is the presentation of self that takes place through it. In only four instances could I find mention of child abuse and three of them treated it as an opportunity for an oh-so-subversive joke about the trend being so annoying it made them want to hit children. Also raising the 'Like' count were people whose choices of cartoon alluded to child abuse - Pedobear, Homer strangling Bart and Herbert from Family Guy.

I suppose the most annoying part of these campaigns is the disjuncture between the serious cause and the trivial trend; the result of this is a hypocritical self-righteousness that, importantly, holds the preservation of self-image over a commitment to the cause.

The incoherence between cause, actor and motive is what is wrong. Viral campaigns can work fantastically well when genuinely raising awareness of issues that may not be so well-known. The recent Movember campaign of men growing moustaches through November carries the interesting significance of raising awareness about prostate cancer ("Why are you sporting a handlebar moustache, son?" "Dad, it is about raising awareness of Prostate cancer") by subverting a fashion trend and making a small mockery of masculuine posturing. What is especially relevant is that the campaign, although mocking it with facial hair, does acually challenge the masculine normative silence around health, the body and vulnerability.

The difference between these two campaigns is that the man on the street can do little to combat prostate cancer, other than to donate towards scientific cancer research and to know what to look for in his self. Child abuse, as a cause, is different. In every town there are volunteering groups, youth centre and mentoring projects through which individuals of any age can actively make a difference to the lives of disadvantaged children and young adults. People see child abuse in the streets, but cross over. People hear the shouts from the house next door but turn up the TV to counter it. People can maybe think back to the neglected children they shared classes with at school and remember how they were bullied for it. Visibility breeds opportunity and more can be done; people know this.

If the people who change their display picture to show publicly that 'I, the owner of all the information on this profile, am opposed to child abuse', if all of those people actually acted on this opposition, a great deal more could be done to help the children. I may not be in a position to make inferences about any one individual's motives, but taken en masse, the imbalance between proclaimed care and practiced care is vulgarly apparent.


  1. What exactly have you done to help the child abuse situation I dare ask? Maybe it will amount to nothing but if the moments it takes to change your profile causes you to think and contemplate the issue at hand is that not doing something positive for society in general? Better to do a little something than a lot of nothing.

  2. At risk of becoming a 'vocaltruist', I do quite a lot. Some of my earlier blogposts mention it but I am involved in running and volunteering on two projects that work with children whose details are passed onto us by Social Services and Children's Services in the cities we work in. Not that it lends my views any particular credence, but I am in a position to comment without being a hypocrite.

    I can see where you are coming from but is contemplating the issue for a few seconds going to help anybody? Is it really going to harness anything practicable which could enact a change?

    Better to do a little something than a little nothing; I think a tokenistic image change falls into the latter category.


    My favourite bit: "Nice one Jane, nice one Vikram."