Recently, Facebook chain statuses have taken on a moral tone. Often, while trying to creep on people’s pictures I see posts supporting those suffering from cancer, AIDS and other serious illnesses. These posts remind me of how fortunate I am and how superficial my desires are compared to those of people with life-threatening diseases. They ask that I don’t think of myself as “too cool” to repost, and that I instead choose to “honor” those who have died by copying and pasting a post to display my own support. “I know that not everyone will post this, but maybe 3 percent of my friendswill.”
It isn’t difficult to discern that online efforts don’t really do anything. Not once have I found a link to the American Cancer Society’s website hidden among these posts. No one gains any more knowledge about these terrible diseases. But having no effect isn’t necessarily bad, just inconsequential, right? Unfortunately, I feel that this trend may cause more damage than we realize.
This use of social networks to pay tribute is not surprising. In some ways, it seems symptomatic of our use of social media to validate experience. For many, that party on Saturday night only happened if there are pictures to prove it. Spring break in Mexico is primarily remembered by that photo album “PV Spring Break ’10.”
I’m assuming this is also why girls take pictures in their dorm room before going out. They strike that “weird-skinny-arm-bent-over-cocked-head pose” to capture them at their best (or most contorted). They show off the outfit they’re wearing and make that Friday night permanent. Guys are just as guilty. We take pictures of our friends passed out, throwing up or planking on John Carroll. Once our iPhones and cameras fill up, we dump our uploads on Facebook and anticipate the oncoming flood of likes and comments.
This is why people have always taken pictures. Memories are fallible, and tangible images remind us. But due to the instant transmission offered by social networks, pictures can no longer only be used for personal use or sharing with friends and family. Rather, pictures — along with statuses, videos and the other material we post online — are used to define and present our online selves. We are less capable of enjoying an experience’s inherent significance and are more inclined to value the experience by showing it to other people.
But more importantly, I believe that this need to exhibit our experiences and thoughts has lead to the creation of these “feel good” chain notes. With a simple copy, paste and click, people can champion the purge of incurable disease.
“We all want a new car, a new phone. A person who has cancer only wants one thing … to survive,” we type. Content with ourselves, we are convinced that showing our support via Facebook has made a slight difference in the world. We take pride in our courage to stand up against cancer and our campaign for others to do the same.
By posting this seemingly supportive statement, we trick ourselves into thinking we’ve done some good. We weren’t “too cool” to not repost, because we don’t care if others think we’re losers because we condemn cancer. We satisfy our karmic need to feel just and moral with a simple click of a mouse. But in doing so, we take the path of least resistance and avoid actively pursuing change. Choosing to announce to our friends how good we are is enough. What we are saying isn’t “cancer sucks,” but rather “I want everyone to know that I think cancer sucks.” At best, by writing these posts we’re doing nothing but unintentionally boasting to our friends about how good we are, but at worst we are creating the illusion that what we are doing is actually helping.
I don’t want to suggest that those who post these sentiments are bad people. I have many friends that make these posts, and they happen to be very good people. But if we habituate and encourage a show of support that doesn’t actually do anything, we run the risk of fueling a culture of inaction.
I know that not all of you who read this article will act. But maybe 3 percent of you will run a 5K for Alzheimer’s research or volunteer at the D.C. Central Soup Kitchen. Some of us might even put our lucrative degrees to use and excel in our field of study, changing the world for the better as we go.
Chris Mlynarski is a senior in the College.