Online merchants and social platforms are set up to define you by the things you like, the things you buy, the things you want. In their world, there's a lot of talk about driving traffic, driving sales, driving engagement. You know what else you drive? Cattle.
But we are about much more than the things — tangible or intangible — that we consume, aren't we? What about the ways we give, the causes we care about? These are a huge part of what defines us. What if we want to display this info online, front and center, loud and proud? Are the pre-fab profiles we're given to express ourselves adequate for this purpose? Not by a long shot.
Once they know what you like, the wizards behind these platforms use fancy algorithms to feed you more of the same. Those who aren't directly selling you something sell the info about what you like to their clients (companies, advertisers) who then tailor whatever it is they do or make to the tastes of the masses in order to make yet more money. (Can you say "homogenization?")
These online companies also desperately want you to tell absolutely everybody about your liked/purchased/desired things, because they all know people trust the recommendations of their friends and they hope your buddies will like/buy/want them too:
Kids in a candy store
Back in 2007, French journalist and digital activist Claire Ulrich, writing for Le Monde 2, described Facebook as "our sandbox." She begged employers (who were already in a panic over productivity losses) to be patient because, "after all," she said, "most of us are barely three years old in this new world." (French and English versions of her excellent article.)
In the five years since then, while we've played, our sandboxes and our toys have become more sophisticated, more compelling, more addictive. But they haven't become more meaningful. That's because there's not a whole lot of money in meaning. And companies want you buying their stuff, not giving your money away to save the endangered orangutans.
(Facebook did recently enable an organ donor option for profiles, but it's not like you can buy anything with your kidneys after you're dead, so this gesture posed no revenue risk and made Facebook look like it cares. If you're naïve enough to believe that. And don't try to talk to me about the suicide thing. That was pure PR and legal CYA.)
Not only have the platforms not grown up, but neither have the users. If we were clamoring for meaning, maybe we'd get some. But apparently we're clamoring for... Coke. Some of this is on us, folks:
(This is surely a reflection of the demographics of Facebook users. But it does make me think a chat with the kids may be in order.)
Eventually you grow up
We were at war in Vietnam for more than half of my (California) childhood, so protest was part of the fabric of my existence. For as long as I can remember, I've understood that a person can have a cause. I think the first time I grasped the power of standing up for what you believe in was during the 1973 Oscars (I turned 12 that month), when Marlon Brando refused his award and sent Sacheen Cruz Littlefeather to the podium in his place to raise awareness about the demeaning portrayals of Native Americans in Hollywood. There were boos and cheers from the audience. I sensed my parents' surprise. They talked about it with me and each other. I heard about it on TV. It created quite a shockwave.
Celebrities have always had the platform of their fame to spread the word about their causes. I saw Sean Penn on French TV the other day being interviewed at Cannes, and the guy with the mic kept trying to get him to talk about cinéma, but all Sean Penn wanted to talk about was Haiti. Good for him, I say. He's being honored by the Nobel Peace Prize laureates for what he's done on the ground in Haiti since the earthquake and to raise awareness about the country's ongoing struggle.
Today, though, it's not just celebrities who have a platform. If you exist online, you do too. Though it might take a little more effort to squeeze your favorite charity into your pages and profiles than it does to slap a "Save the Whales" bumper sticker on your car, there are ways to make what you stand for an important part of your online "self." If you live on the upper floors of Maslow's Pyramid, which I assume most readers of this blog do, there's really no excuse not to dedicate some of your energy to a good cause.
What needs to happen now
Many causes and charities need to catch up. They simply have to learn the tricks used with such success by the profit seekers (but they should be more transparent about it). They need to upsell and gamify. They need to sex it up and tech it up. I don't want WWF to send me a plush wolf toy when I donate. It's absurd and environmentally incorrect. I'd be happier with a little chunk of code that would let me add an image to my blog or whatever. You know, like a virtual "I voted" sticker. Plus, I get lots of e-mail newsletters from various orgs. I sometimes want to share the info with my network, but most of the time I don't see a "Tweet this" button or any sharing options. Sometimes there's not even a way to see it on the Web, which would at least mean I could copy the link and share it. Here's another idea. What if you were to click a "Donate" button and, besides being able to share your good deed on every social platform you use (hello, mandatory!), you were given this upselling option: "Thank you for your $5 donation! If you double it right now, we'll send this beautiful postcard to your mother!"
Would you do it? I might. Depending on the postcard...
And what about us, the users? What can we do? Is there a whole column of your blog devoted to all the "awards" you've won, the books you've bought, your pictures (me me me)? Grab the logo of your pet cause and put it at the top (with a link). Add a line to your "About Me" page about the cause you support. Use some of those precious 160 characters to add the Twitter handle of your pet cause to your bio. You get the idea. (But don't you dare put a link or anything "promotional" on that giant profile "cover image" on Facebook. It's against the RULES...)
I'm still in the process of doing all this myself. I had an epiphany recently. I realized that, with social media and all the information I'm bombarded with every day, I was getting overwhelmed. I was losing hope and had a bad case of compassion fatigue. Petition fatigue. War and disaster and hunger and racism and hate and corruption and cruelty and injustice fatigue. I constantly felt pulled in a million directions to do something. Maybe you know what I mean.
So I decided to focus my do-good energies on my most beloved cause. I do feel lighter and as if I may be able to make more of a difference now that I'm less fragmented. Try it and let me know if it works for you.