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'Liking isn't helping': How Facebook is killing student activism

Status updates - when they're not baby pics or relationship updates - may "raise awareness", but is that even worth anything?

1.39AM. Can’t sleep. Scroll down Newsfeed. Album of holiday photos. All participants disgustingly attractive. Yet another school pal is now “In a relationship with…”. Friend’s profile picture. Unreasonable number of likes. Picture of the ugliest baby in the world. Buzzfeed link. Club promo. Refresh. Group shot of girls with disease (physical or psychological) which prevents them from removing their right hands from their hips. Wonder if there’s a charitable foundation for them. Instagram pic. Blurry. Picture of schoolfriend performing a tonsillectomy on a girl in a club. Status Update: "I am gay lol". Refresh. Cat.

As everyone who’s been on it for more than about six-and-a-half minutes knows, Facebook is almost unbearably dull. It’s little wonder then that younger teens are eschewing the site for Snapchat, the picture sharing app for would-be amnesiacs. However, Facebook use remains prolific amongst students because we’ve learnt to play the Facebook game. There are ways and means of maximising on your online presence and, by osmosis or experience, we’ve become masters of manipulation.  

The Facebook game works by slightly different rules for students because our audience is not people we’ve sort of fallen out of contact with and haven’t seen in years, or our family on the other side of the world (and oh my goodness hasn’t he got fat?), it’s the people we see every day in halls and the canteen and in lectures. The line between what happens online and in real life is much thinner because there is so much overlap between the two audiences.

Like everything that has ever happened in the history of mankind, much of what happens on Facebook happens because someone is trying to show off. Because when you fart out a Facebook post, what you essentially do is say “look how interesting and attractive I am (as demonstrated by my off-piste taste in music, quirky cat video, social conscience, work with impoverished children, article in The Independent…)” We expect some sort of real-life payout from our Facebook presence because we’re performing to people that we see every day. Might that funny cat video result in real life flirting in a real life bar?

Herein lies the danger of Facebook political activism. Our society has long depended on students to perform more than their fair share of its political outrage for it. We depend on social campaigning to find its loudest and most tenacious voices in our student unions. But writing a tetchy status update is a very different kind of political engagement to going on a march or even the old Amnesty approach of letter-writing. Because when you get angry on Facebook, nothing actually happens.

Liking, posting and commenting makes you feel like you’re doing something without actually making any difference whatsoever. The opiate of shouting something into the abyss, which is essentially what Facebook activism is, purges your outrage but prevents it actually turning into anything useful. Liking someone’s status complaining about the Bedroom Tax is not the same as actually doing something about it. If a Facebook status is the equivalent of someone ranting at a bar, then “liking” it is the same as shouting “yeaaahh!!!!!!” when they’re finished speaking. You get the high of getting it off your chest and “raising awareness”, but being aware of something is only useful if that awareness turns into more than pity.

Crisis Relief Singapore put paid to the idea that Facebook activism actually achieves anything in this sobering ad campaign. Unless all the online bile turns itself into actual action in the real world, like the funny cat videos turn into real life flirting, there’s no point. There are loads of good online campaigns, like the Everyday Sexism Project and No More Page 3 but they are effective because they move past saying “oh isn’t this terrible, I’m so angry” and onto actual campaigning and action. Facebook likes don’t magically turn into money, blankets, food or social change. Anger and outrage at injustice and suffering is good and right, but don’t kid yourself into thinking that a Facebook rant makes anyone feel better but you.