So you want to be a student activist? Try and do more than a selfie


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The Independent Online

I nominate you to take a selfie – perhaps you're desperate to save the whales, or you’re sure we're but a few texted donations away from ending bronchitis completely?

Either way, take one now. It’ll guarantee you a place in Heaven, I promise.

The phenomenon known as the #selfie has preened, angled and filtered its way across our Facebook and Twitter feeds. But the new breed aren’t just any old selfie; they are selfies with a cause. 

Selfies for a purpose, especially when it comes to students, are nothing new. Last year, it was the turn of feminism to adopt the selfie as their means of war for the “I need Feminism because…” campaign. From York to Cambridge, girls and boys practiced their best suffragette poses, and refused to make Stanley Kowalski’s sandwiches; all whilst trying to maintain a straight face.

Despite the undeniable success in raising awareness that it’s not, under any circumstances, okay to tell a woman to “calm down”, especially with the added salt-in-the-wound addendum of "dear", one has to wonder just how much this was about feminism as it was about narcissism. Don’t tell me that your campus BNOC didn’t hoot with glee at the thought that he’d thrown people off the scent of his past escapades.

Richard Dawkins, though not the world authority on selfies, has a point that I’d like to shoehorn. And it is this: as human beings, he suggests, we are biologically predestined, by virtue of our selfish gene, to be incapable of committing a truly altruistic gesture. However seemingly generous or kind an action may seem, there is an element of self-interest bound up in it.

This is the basis of my cynicism of the true philanthropic power of the selfie. Surely if selfies really were a galvanising force for change, do we not think that great activists like Mahatma Ghandi would have started taking them years ago? It certainly would have saved him the hunger strike. If there is research showing the historical origins of the selfie activist movement, then I might reconsider my argument. Though only if you take a selfie first. Convince me.

Activism through the selfie seems at best, a show of vanity thinly masquerading as philanthropy. At least some selfies do exactly what they say on the tin: Chaz Rorick (@ohheyitschaz) a student from the US, has no qualms in talking selfies sporting wigs and monocles in a bid to impersonate each of the nation’s 43 presidents past and present. He doesn’t take these selfies to raise money for a shelter for pygmy hedgehogs. He does it for fun, and continues to do it for the adoring (often female) fans he seems to accrue.

I do not wish to undermine the millions of pounds that have been raised for Cancer Research quite recently using the selfie, mainly taken by female students, as a springboard. Because of the donated funds, several thousand people and counting will be able to gain access to life-saving treatments and other forms of support.

But surely the information relating to the sluggish diagnosis rates, the need for greater medical reinforcement and the tangible good that come from donating is the important thing? Equating, as the perspicacious Amy Willerton has, the apparent vulnerability felt by wearing no make-up, with the vulnerability felt by a cancer patient, is not only insulting, but it is dangerously distorting. You may as well say that the debris of the MH370 plane was actually the Loch Ness Monster.

Students are known for being passionately indignant about all kinds of injustice, from sky-high tuition fees to the maltreatment of the minister’s cat. The selfie can be a vehicle by which a message is proliferated, but it cannot be allowed to eclipse the reason why we campaign in the first place.

Let’s be realistic: It is not "viva la revolución!" - it’s a photo of your face.