[11 March 2009]
During a recent Facebook-checking session, which was riddled with all the conflicted feelings of embarrassment, guilt and utter fascination that tend to accompany that particular activity, I noticed that I’d been recruited to join a “cause”. Aha! Finally, something that could perhaps elevate Facebook from what I’d heretofore experienced it to be: an imaginary-drink-dispensing time-waster, a playground for voyeurism and exhibitionism, a never ending high school reunion.
A worthy cause! This could be the perfect assuagement of my I-could-be-doing-something-meaningful-right-now-rather-than-engaging-in-a-pretend-snowball-fight guilt. Hmm, then I checked the name of the cause..it was Alcohol: Cheaper than Therapy?. Oh.
I should note that I’m a reluctant Facebooker, part of the near-geriatric crop of luddites who were unfashionably late to the party. I joined with great ambivalence and more than a little bit of snobbery, not realizing that, as part of that last “elitist” cohort to finally succumb, I was actually helping to usher in a hideously uncool era of Facebook ubiquity. Basically, I suspect, the formation of my account might have given Facebook that last bit of momentum it needed to officially jump the shark.
Late or not, I found myself quickly ensnared by the fascinating possibilities offered by social networking, and chastened by the backlash of sheepishness that followed. I caught on to this new trick with the acumen and dignity of an extremely old, arthritic dog, but with puppyish zeal. I tracked down every last grade school friend, exchanged a flurry of “remember whens” and “tagged” photos of people I’d never even liked. I wrote on walls, composed pithy status updates, and devoured lists of “25 Things about Me” with voyeuristic fascination.
Naturally, the whole endeavor sparked feelings of great foolishness; I was stunned by how quickly I’d acclimated myself to this phenomenon I’d once viewed with scorn. My shame was surpassed only by my utter addiction.
So when I was invited to join a Facebook Cause, I thought perhaps here was a glimmer of redemption. Here was something that could give this ridiculousness a greater meaning, make it somehow more respectable. But Alcohol: Cheaper than Therapy? It seemed dubious. I did some searching then, browsing the various Facebook causes. In general, the “Causes” application appeared to be a legitimate and positive endeavor, featuring such valid causes as the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the American Cancer Society, and the World Wildlife Fund.
I was impressed by the degree of activism and fundraising some of these causes had generated.
And yet, I suppose it couldn’t be Facebook if it weren’t also a little bit ridiculous. Several of the other “causes” struck me as significantly less worthy, such as Partying is Life!, Who Gives a Shit about Paris Hilton?, Save Kenny! (the perennially killed South Park character), and Appreciation of Victoria’s Secret Models.
I couldn’t help but wonder: is joining a cause that expresses indifference toward Paris Hilton really a cause? Why would anyone even bother to join a cause devoted to non-interest? On a more proactive level, is the goal of the Victoria’s Secret Models cause to feed these undernourished specimens? And really, wouldn’t “causes” such as this undermine the validity and gravity of the real causes represented on Facebook? I sensed that perhaps I was just being an old curmudgeon, as is my tendency. So I decided to read the “about” section on Facebook causes, to better understand its mission.
What I read was somewhat vague call to action, and a slightly whiny suggestion that, indeed, I was being an old curmudgeon. “Facebook Platform presents an unprecedented opportunity to engage our generation, most of whom are on Facebook, in seizing the future and making a difference in the world around us,” the statement read. “Our generation cares deeply, but the current system has alienated us.” I wasn’t sure what “generation” was being cited here, since the Facebook demographic has ostensibly been evolving into a population fit for a virtual nursing home. However, all the earnest talk about “seizing the future” and an “alienated generation” smacked quite clearly of disaffected youth.
Yet I fail to understand how the existence of a cause called Yeah, yeah. Against all the Bad Things, Now Gimme One More Beer and Heavy Metal and I’m Just Fine could bridge the disconnect between “the system” and the “alienated” generation represented on Facebook. This particular cause, created by some Finnish metal enthusiasts, boasts more than 8,000 members. The cause also is represented by five recruiters, whose “progress” in enlisting others to this fine and worthy cause is tracked on the site. Thankfully, there appeared to be no donations made toward the procurement of beer and heavy metal.
I noticed that some of the other, more whimsical causes did seem to be raising some funds, although not much. Take Who Gives a Shit about Paris Hilton? , which apparently aroused enough apathy regarding the heiress to attract 28,648 supporters. This cause, whose mission seems to be “shut her up!” managed to secure a single donation of $10, for which both the donor and the fundraising individual were credited on the site. Despite the infinitesimal nature of this donation, it seems disturbing that even one person spent their time soliciting funds for this cause, and one person spent their money on it. Some of the sillier, less cause-related causes appear to divert any generated funds toward more legitimate causes. Donations to Save Kenny!, for example, actually benefit the American Printing House for the Blind. Alcohol: Cheaper than Therapy benefits a branch of the American Cancer Society.
So it appears that in some cases, there is a humorous “front” cause, ostensibly to attract Facebookers to the genuine cause. Is this what it takes to entice the marginalized Facebook generation to become involved in charitable causes? We have to lure them out of their inaction with South Park jokes? I can’t help but liken this escapist brand of “charity in fun shapes and colors!” to the sugaring up or colorful transmutation of drab, “good for you” cereals or vitamins to suit the whimsy of children.
But ah, Facebook seems to be all about jokes. Whether it’s the cleverly worded status update, the show-stealing comment made about someone’s photo, or the side-splitting list of 25 personal facts, comedy seems to be prized above all else. In the virtual world, where we have indefinite time to think of our one-liners, everyone gets to be a comedian. Perhaps as a result, the aforementioned “Facebook generation” has come to expect a fairly steady stream of humor to make their days more bearable. Irony and so-called “snark” seems to be the machinery that makes Facebook run.
Why, then, should charitable causes be any different? Why think about cancer when we can joke about beer? (In an interesting twist, a recent study has reported that Facebook and other social networking sites may increase the risk of cancer.) Of course, there is some serious fundraising that is taking place out in the open, minus the guise of partying, beer or cartoons. The Leukemia and Lympoma Society has raised more than $10,000; Susan G. Komen for the Cure has generated in excess of $12,000.
But what about those who do nothing for a cause but click ‘join’? I can’t help but question whether Facebook causes, just like Facebook everything else, will make it all seem too easy for the emerging generation. On Facebook, you can “send someone a drink” without spending a dime; you can forge a friendship in seconds with a click of a mouse. You can engage in “gangster battles” or “kidnap” someone without any consequences or messes. Similarly, you can become a “supporter” of a charitable organization in a single nanosecond. On Facebook, you can proudly think of yourself as “supporting a charity” but for the motion of a single tap. As a casual joiner, you can smugly list yourself as a “supporter” of these charities simply because your single mouse-click implies that you agree with the cause. You can display your kindheartedness on your profile, which notifies all of your “friends” that you have availed some nebulous part of yourself (which cannot be quantified by money, time, or any definable standard) to this noble effort. Isn’t the virtual, utterly passive nature of this bound to foster philanthropic inertia?
Apparently, there’s even a mind-numbingly ironic cause on Facebook called Stop Spreading Stupid Causes. However, as valid as this sentiment might be, it hardly seems sufficient to justify the creation of yet another superfluous cause. Especially since the only “activity” on this page is one member chiming in with “Hell, yeah!”
It seems that in order for Facebook causes to be taken even remotely seriously, there is a need to weed out the extraneous, ridiculous causes that detract from the ostensible good intentions of this feature. In other words, sorry, Kenny – I think it’s time to kill you, again.