Social media's billion-person game of telephone is good for memes but bad for activism

By Nathaniel Mott , written on March 28, 2013

From The News Desk

My iPhone knew that my fiancée was participating in the Human Rights Campaign's social media efforts before I did. She, like many others, had changed her Facebook profile picture to a variation of the organization's logo -- a red square with a pink equal sign -- in support of the HRC's efforts to topple the Defense of Marriage Act. I didn't know that, and was simply confused at why my partner had suddenly become a geometric figure.

After she explained what the swap was about I started to notice other “friends” changing their profile pictures as well. And then I saw a red square with four vertical lines. I still don’t know what that one’s about. Next I saw a blue square with an inequal sign — pretty clear what that one’s for. Finally I saw a red square with two pink squiggly lines: Bacon. It took just a few hours for me to go from wondering at a campaign supporting same-sex marriage to craving delicious meat.

This isn’t the first, and almost certainly won’t be the last, time a social media campaign was repurposed by onlookers, decriers, and wannabe comedians. From Newsweek’s infamous #MuslimRage campaign to Celeb Boutique’s celebration of the #Aurora hashtag after the mass shooting in Colorado, many attempts to capture the virality of social media have ended poorly.

Consider the much-hyped but ultimately abandoned “Objectify a Male Tech Writer Day,” which was meant to raise awareness about the, well, objectification that women working in the technology industry are subjected to on a consistent basis. The project was ultimately abandoned after its creator, Leigh Alexander, called it off just before it was meant to go live.

“My goal was that humor and empathy could help people open constructive dialog about sexism. And for a while it seemed like it could work!” Alexander wrote in her blog post explaining the cancellation, before continuing “The dialogue's been great, but the end result - a day of circulating a hashtag on Twitter - runs the risk of catching fire with people who miss the point.”

Alexander’s canceled campaign and the #MuslimRage hashtag show just how quickly social media can separate idea from intention. (Note that the conflation of these campaigns is less about their specifics — sexism is not the same as Newsweek’s pig-headedness — and more about what they might teach about social campaigns.) Facebook and Twitter’s swift echo-chambers quickly cut the context from meme-worthy content, leaving salacious bits just waiting to be riffed off of and changed into something new.

Perhaps no one knows this better than Big Bird, the slighted “Sesame Street” star whom Mitt Romney attacked during a presidential debate. Unless you were watching the debates or caught the Tweets sent right after the words left Romney’s lips all you would have seen were thousands of seemingly-nonsensical “Save Big Bird” Tweets.

Communication in meatspace -- the real world, natch -- is different. Context is more readily communicated, whether it’s by news sources including a full story instead of one sound-byte or people holding clear, continuous conversations. (This could well be one reason why human-generated news stories are so important.)

Social media makes it difficult to provide that same level of detail — and, more importantly, context — because of its technical limitations. 140 characters allow for either a well-explained but unclever Big Bird joke or a hilariously pithy remark, not both. Changing a Facebook profile picture to something other than your face requires a few clicks; doing the same thing to your actual face would likely require much more. (And be a lot more painful.)

I experienced this removal of content from context first-hand when my iPhone replaced my fiancée’s bespectacled face with an unfamiliar symbol. Once I understood what the change was about it was easier to figure out other versions, as that one symbol provided a foundation for all of the others. Otherwise I might have seen the inequality sign -bearing blue square and been just as confused.

It’s impossible to control a hashtag, a campaign to change profile pictures, or other crowd-dependent social media campaigns. Much like a real virus, the campaign can mutate until it’s no longer recognizable, and there isn’t much anyone can do to stop that from happening. People are free to change their profile pictures to an equal sign; they are also free to change it to a symbol for bacon.

The only problem is that it’s hard to tell exactly what a social media campaign really is. Even if you know what it was meant to be — as we do with Alexander’s campaign — would we have recognized it as such after the masses got ahold of it? Probably not. Like Big Bird, Mitt Romney’s binders full of women, #MuslimRage, and probably a dozen other social media campaigns, the message changes over time and can quickly become unrecognizable.