06 December 2010

Your Facebook Profile Has No Magic Powers. Sorry.

Despite what you may think, your Facebook profile has no magic powers. It cannot cure breast cancer nor can it either prevent or cause child abuse. Sorry about that.

It's always been a popular trend to take a public stand on a moral issue, praising something widely regarded as virtuous. The idea is that you're then encouraging that virtuous behavior, but it also has the nifty side effect of informing others about your own piety. When Hammurabi wrote his code of laws in c.1700 B.C.E., he mentioned how he "daily pays his devotions in Saggil" and "provided large sacrificial offerings for the temple of Ningirsu," among many other similar things. He wanted to let his subjects know not only that it was a good thing to pray to Marduk regularly, but also wanted to publicize his own efforts at devotion.

So being publicly pious has long been a popular activity. And it's often been pretty annoying. It's probably for this reason that Jesus of Nazareth would later instruct the Jews to avoid showing their devotion in public; in Matthew 6:5 he is quoted as commanding "And when thou prayest, thou shalt not be as the hypocrites are: for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and in the corners of the streets, that they may be seen of men. Verily I say unto you, They have their reward."

This tendency has a long history, then. And the ability of each of us to chisel out our own private Codes of Hammurabi has only made the matter more prevalent. Ever since the dawn of the Internet, there have been banners advertising "Breast Cancer Awareness" slapped on personal websites along with GIFs of the dancing baby. And there's really nothing wrong with this per se. It's a little silly, but the banners often link to charities and they may bring in a trickle of new money, so whatever. No real losers from that deal.

But Facebook profiles have become so prevalent that we're on a whole new level.

Last year near December and early January, there was a prominent trend where women would change their Facebook status to just a color, such as "Red." Secret messages would go out to other women, explaining that it was a Facebook campaign to promote awareness of breast cancer: the color was the color of the bra the woman was wearing. It remained a secret for all of a day or so, until major media spied a chance to write a story that could be accompanied by women in lingerie: then they jumped on it. It was kind of cute, but what's the purpose here?

We're all aware of breast cancer. When was the last time someone had to be told breasts could get cancer? It's by a wide margin the best-known cancer.

I understand that part of "raising awareness" isn't just informing people of the bare existence of something, but also helping maintaining its presence in people's minds and encouraging them to do something. But a Facebook status message doesn't even allow people to donate or do something. It is - literally - just raising people's awareness. Of how much you personally care about sick people.

I don't want to be too hard on the trend, because I understand that (a) a lot of people didn't give it much thought and (b) it's both an understandable human impulse nor particularly villainous. But it has to be said: it's a silly trend that does nothing.

The success of the campaign, though, spawned a copycat a few months later. "I like it on the floor" became the template for women to have a new secret Facebook status trend, where they would post "I like it on a chair" or similar. The joke was, of course, that it appeared to be alluding to something sexual (or at least mysterious) but actually only referred to where they kept their purse.

That one was just puzzling. I get how bras are related to breast cancer; bras are clearly breast-related. But what does a purse have to do with breast cancer or breasts? Is it just that only women have purses? Because that's not true.

These sorts of trends have continued on Facebook regularly. And now the latest:

Whew! Well, I oppose child abuse - I better change my picture!

Richard Dawkins coined the term "meme" to refer to an idea or habit that has the ability to perpetuate itself, in the style of a biological entity. And just like living creatures, some are more successful than others. Something like flagpole-sitting is extremely prominent - ensuring publicity and helping perpetuate itself - but also very arduous - diminishing the number willing to invest their time and effort into it. So it lived for only a brief span in late 1920s America, and now remains only as an amusing anecdote.

A meme like the profile picture one can be particularly successful, because it is so public and can spread so easily ("viral," as the descriptor goes). It requires very little effort, is often enjoyable (omg remember He-man!), and it's very easy for other people to see it and imitate it. So it can spread a great deal in a very short time. Unfortunately, it also has a very short lifespan, since people tend to change their picture once they get bored with it. Like an outbreak of disease, it flashes out quickly and dies off in a short time.

Where do these memes start? Frequently, no one knows. An early version of this particular trend alleged that the British charity NSPCC (National Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children) made this request, but they have since denied it. It seems likely the original genitor will remain unknown (KnowYourMeme suggests it began somewhere in Greece). What seems certain is that one such message is likely patterned on a predecessor. To be successful, a meme will often mimic a successful one (like the purse meme followed the bra color meme) - it's not that this is so much a conscious ploy by some dark manipulator, but simply that an unsuccessful meme will just quickly die out - and so you never hear about it.

Interestingly, this trend sparked an almost immediate counter-trend. Within a couple of days, an opposing meme arose suggesting that the motives behind the picture meme were less than virtuous:

Shocking! Effective! Quick, change your profile pic! You've been fooled, but I knew better, don't worry!

I guess I don't have to explain the factors that helped spread this one.

But seriously, how would this even work? Do people think that child molesters have a hard time figuring out who is a child? It's not hard, honest. Most people have pictures of themselves. It's called Facebook for a reason, after all.

So I'm sorry, but your Facebook profile has no magic powers. It will not stop child cruelty nor will it cause it. The only time a Facebook profile has any power is if it's Sarah Palin's and she's posted an asinine note accusing Obama of wanting to murder your dear old Granny, or when a mega-celebrity (or wannabe) absents themselves from Facebook until a certain amount of actual money is raised.

Your Facebook profile can get you robbed, though, if that's what you're interested in. Most people have publicly available status messages, and so if you use a website like Openbook (that lets you search all public statuses) you can easily figure out who's not home. Just search for "airport" and find out who just left on a trip, then find their house through the phone book.

In case you're not paying attention, that's a hint, by the way: make your status message private to your friends. Unless you want to be robbed or want to come up in a seriously compromising search.

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