Isman ’15: Are we all just rebels without a cause?

Opinions Columnist

About two months ago, when tensions began to rise in the Middle East, my Facebook newsfeed was covered with people voicing their concern for the Palestinian people. Four months before that, when Boko Haram kidnaped more than 200 girls from their school, my friends were hashtagging “bring back our girls.” And now, my newsfeed mostly comprises videos of the ice bucket challenge. While Boko Haram hasn’t returned the girls to their homes, and Hamas and Israel are still firing at each other, we seem to have forgotten them for the sake of following a trend.

Every movement is worthy of attention, but we can’t remember what it really means to care. Social media and the Internet have turned our generation into a group of rebel activists without a cause. We attach ourselves to whatever movement is trendy so that we can post about it on Facebook or tweet about it, but as soon as a new trend begins, we forget what it was we were fighting for in the first place. As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in a 2010 New Yorker essay, “Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.”

Social media has made it possible for everyone to share their opinions and beliefs. Chances are, most of us would have never thought about what amyotrophic lateral sclerosis is or what it does to the body had the ice bucket challenge not started. But how many people who participated in the challenge actually also took the time to learn about ALS instead of simply turning it into another video of themselves? While watching the videos, my biggest question is: How many of these people actually care?

A recent study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that most people seem to join causes for the visibility and “that people who joined a cause publicly were, when asked, less willing to stuff envelopes for the cause than those who joined in private,” Rosalie Tostevin wrote in a Guardian blog post this year. How many of us are actually taking the time to learn about the causes we are fighting for? How many of us would be willing to protest rather than post?

A study in the Sociological Journal of Science has found that “the majority of people who ‘like’ a Facebook page for a cause don’t follow up that gesture with a donation,” Tostevin wrote. While many of us don’t necessarily have the money to spare, many others check out when we’re asked to donate, or we throw a bucket of ice water on our heads.

Maybe I have it wrong. Maybe it’s not that we’re all rebel activists without a cause, but that we are actually testing causes and movements as they crop up in an attempt to find something we genuinely care about. I don’t think the alternative — not even bothering with trying to find a cause — is better. We should all care about ALS and Boko Haram and Palestine, but we need to start paying more attention to the reasons why we are posting about certain things.

We follow and switch through causes as if they were fashion trends. These trends eventually fade as new ones crop up, and more often than not the problems remain. I have a newfound respect for people who have a cause they feel strongly about — I have a handful of friends who are always posting about the same cause instead of jumping on the trendiest one. I have a friend whose grandmother passed away from ALS and whose family started a charity fund in her name. She and others like her have found their passion and are not letting their peers and the media dictate what they should care about.

Gladwell makes a good point in saying that the Internet and social media are “effective at increasing participation — by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.” Except that lack of motivation is what has turned activism into a trend — something you do because your friends are doing it — rather than something worth your time and energy. It seems like our generation is trying to find something to post about rather than something they can make a difference in.

One of my friends recently posted her video of the bucket challenge. In it, she’s sitting in her tub and sipping a beer while someone dumps a bucket of ice water on her and promises to donate a dollar for every like she gets on the video. She ends her post with directing her nominees to film themselves, saying nothing about ALS. Most likely, if I asked her the symptoms of ALS, she wouldn’t be able to answer me — her activism is just a quest for popularity.

Not everyone who posts on Facebook and hashtags his or her activism is in search of approval. Some people truly care and stand behind their causes, like my friend whose family started a charity in her grandmother’s memory. But ultimately, the vast majority of people simply jump on the most recent trend and completely forget about it in a week. Something as simple as writing a letter to the heads of large corporations or teaching someone else about what you’re fighting for can make a difference.

The biggest problem with our generation focusing on the visibility of our activist actions is that unless we find something to care about and do something about it, we are not going to solve or address any real problems. As a recent Vice column written by Arielle Pardes put it: “Because, yes, social problems continue even after you stop hashtagging them.”


Sami Isman ’15 still hasn’t found her cause, but she’s not losing hope.

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