Stamatakis: I like it in The Pitt News Office

By Nick Stamatakis

This Facebook thing has been really annoying recently.

For me, it started getting particularly… This Facebook thing has been really annoying recently.

For me, it started getting particularly bad during the recent “I like it on the floor” craze, where users — primarily women — posted where their purses were located, preceded by the phrase “I like it on the …” The whole campaign was started to promote Breast Cancer Awareness Month, because apparently talking about purses helps to promote discussion of and education about breast cancer. Funny, I wanted to talk about colon health.

The irritating part wasn’t the repetition or the idea of breast cancer prevention — and for the record, I want to say I am definitely anti-cancer. The annoying part was that thousands of people felt better for doing their part to prevent breast cancer by doing nothing more than typing a few words into a text box.

Campaigns like this normally have only questionable success. They might raise a modicum of awareness in the vague general sense, but only in a way that says “I thought about breast cancer today.” The pink fountains, pink shoes and the overall sexification and marketing of the disease do little to increase people’s fundamental understanding of it.

Evidence? The Center for Disease Control says that screening rates have plateaued at 80 percent since 2000. A 2009 study in the Journal of the National Cancer Institute showed that in Europe, where marketing methods are similar to the United States, there is confusion over the risk of the disease and the effectiveness of mammograms. Plus, think to yourself: after you take part in this campaign, do you feel like you have a grasp of breast-cancer risk factors?

And it’s not like they earned very much money for cancer research with this strategy, either. Most social networking-based charity spurs very few actual donations. As noted by Jim Tobin, president of Ignite Social Media, in a recent Associated Press article, “You often see where 20,000 people have joined a cause and it’s raised $200.” The money very rarely reaches the levels Internet enthusiasm would suggest.

So although the intentions were good, nothing was ultimately done to improve the breast cancer-awareness situation.  This instance of Internet activism instead probably raised very little money, raised very little useful awareness and instead  mainly served the primary purpose of Internet activism — self-satisfaction on the part of the user.

Yet this kind of advocacy for special causes continues on the Internet. Breast cancer awareness is not the only culprit. October saw Fat Talk Free Week, which discouraged derisive comments about weight and which I guarantee did nothing to actually change anything in a meaningful way. Add to this the huge list of general advocacy groups available on social-media networks, ranging in topic from Tibetan independence to eliminating childhood poverty, and it’s clear that promoting personal charitable work is very popular.

Now, not all of these are useless. Joining a group for an obscure cause that really just needs to get its name out there is legitimate. Perhaps, when people search through your page, they will see you are in a group for a local family who lost their home in a fire or a Sherpa awareness fund and they too will feel passion for your cause.

But in the case of a big cause, you might be acting more like a man consoling his lady friend after a bad breakup. You probably do care about her, and you do want to see her happy, but your support might just be to promote an ulterior motive. Wink.

For a consoling friend, the motive might be to turn your lady friend into something more. For Facebook charity, the motive is often self-satisfaction and good standing. The payoff isn’t necessarily making a difference, but just having the knowledge that one is kind of doing his part to make the world a better place. Which again, isn’t a bad thing — in the very least, it does make people happy. But if it becomes Internet charity’s primary purpose, is it worth it?

Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Krista Ramsey, whose sister has breast cancer, doesn’t think so: “‘Awareness’ about breast cancer — being able to say the words aloud and stick pink ribbons on everything from dog collars to skyscrapers — is a far cry from cure.” The frivolity of the whole process doesn’t make her happy. And if we continue to content ourselves with Facebook charity, with fad philanthropy, perhaps our generation — which is supposedly very proactive and compassionate — isn’t as useful as we would like to believe.

E-mail Nick at [email protected].