Share, but don’t stop there; take Facebook activism one step further

Every day on Facebook, Twitter and the like there are hundreds, even thousands, of videos slowly crawling from newsfeed to newsfeed. Some are funny, some heartwarming, some inspiring, and some are intended to draw attention to the political or human rights issue d’jour. Of the latter, each video is made by a creative and motivated person or group of persons whose intention is to capture us long enough to motivate us to some kind of action.

Unfortunately, in many cases, that action stops with clicking that “Share” button and passing it on to the rest of our peers. While spreading awareness of an issue is important, awareness alone is not enough to truly make change. After all, the intention of creating awareness is to inspire people to action.

I want to talk about Awareness Vs. Action, and I want to talk about a study done by Dr. Peter M. Gollwitzer which found that folks who speak out loud about their goals are often less likely to achieve them. I want to apply this theory to community activism rather than our personal goals because I feel there are overlaps.

Gollwitzer’s study shows that when someone sets a goal in their head, that goal comes with an urgency as it’s, of course, incomplete. However, once spoken aloud to peers, the goal-setter is likely to receive encouragement or validation of their goal or idea. Once that encouragement/validation has been received, their brain is tricked into feeling one step closer to completion, even if no true action has been taken. This decreases motivation to continue because the urgency is quelled and, in many cases is enough to stop the forward motion. (I would argue that this is not true across-the-board because polling and feedback are often helpful in creating more decisive and focused action, but of course nothing is ever wholly true of everyone or everything.)

Macolm Gladwell, in this watch-worthy lecture provided by the University of Ontario, raises another interesting point about how spreading awareness can actually be counterproductive — a distracting device which actually removes the focus from the core issue and shifts the burden of responsibility from those with the power to make change to those who would benefit from having done so. His example was breast cancer awareness. He purports that the true issue at the core of breast cancer morbidity is lack of health care for those with the highest risk of death. By spreading “awareness” about the need for regular breast exams after the age of 40, the burden of prevention shifts to the populace rather than the health care system, which should be available to those so they can use that awareness to take action.

It is my fear that the type of armchair activism that’s arisen in these days of social networking is dampening the level of true action being taken by those who might otherwise motivate to make real change. Sharing a viral video on Facebook can give one a false sense of completion, of having done something about the issue at hand.

Signing an online petition is not the same as making a donation, as manning a phone bank, as volunteering with a local organization that directly benefits those in need. In some ways, it can be a passing-of-the-buck — an assumption that someone out there watching the video or reading the article will do something about it. Preaching to the choir of friends and peers is not true action. I am not saying that it is a useless form of activism — far from it. Awareness is one key element of creating social change. However it is not enough.

I encourage those of you still with me at the end of this post to challenge yourself to choose one issue or cause this month and contribute something tangible. Mentor a queer youth, write a check to a worthy organization, volunteer at a food bank, organize a fundraising house party, write a letter to your senator, tell a random stranger they are beautiful. Take all the beautiful awareness that this vast social network of the Internet has given you and turn it into an actionable item. Learn. Act. Repeat.

  1. agreed! i really try to put action where my mouth is. if everyone who forwarded a message about their latest outrage, spent one hour volunteering somewhere or wrote a check – wow! we would see some real change in this country, heck the world! :)

  2. You are *way* action-oriented, Liv. And yeahhhh — wouldn’t that be amazing?

  3. This post is 100% right on and I hope lots and lots of people read it and get the message.

    One issue I have is doing too much and getting burnt on it. There are so many worthy causes and so much work to be done to make this world a better place. Not everyone can take real action on every issue, but finding the action that fits with your life is possible.

    I do and have done lots of volunteer work, mostly focused on issues of urban farming, environmental restoration, late in life lesbian support, encouraging entrepreneurship, food access, and overcoming domestic violence. I’ve gotten overwhelmed and had to cut back significantly.

    However, this morning I woke up thinking about how the most rewarding thing I have done over the past three years, and the furthest-reaching, has been to be a Camp Fire USA Club leader.

    As a leader, you get to know a group of kids and stick with them over the years. You perform community service with them, opening their eyes to issues as wide ranging as local environmental concerns, factors that keep girls out of school in some countries (such as lack of menstrual pads), what it’s like to be a homeless teen in our own city, hunger, and where food comes from.

    As a leader you also teach and learn with them about nature, outdoor skills, science, culture, and all aspects of the world around us. You help them discover and explore their own interests and goals, and you help shape their value system into one that is focused on doing good in the world and giving service to others. In the process, you become a trusted adult in their lives, and they become trusted friends in their community – paying it forward.

    Kids who are abused or bullied typically have to talk to 5 adults before someone believes them. You can be the trusted adult who finally hears what they are saying and makes a difference.

    Camp Fire USA is an inclusive organization (gender, race, sexuality, religion or lack therof, etc). Check out to see more about the kinds of things my club does and to learn more about the organization. Kids are waiting for clubs, but we don’t have enough caring adults with the time and resources to commit to being leaders. If you or someone you know is interested in becoming a club leader, let me know and I’ll help you get started.

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