The Internet is rapidly changing the way people communicate and connect with each other, and the “Internet meme”, has fast become an efficient tool for quickly spreading small doses of cultural information between users. Obviously the implications for charitable campaigners are huge – there’s never been a better way to spread their messages amongst so many people – but they tread a fine line and there’s also plenty of potential for their meaning to be subverted and for messages to be lost. Take the recent Facebook “campaign” for breast cancer awareness month. If you weren’t already aware, this is why some of your female friends might be adding status updates that say things like “I like it on the couch” and “I like it on the kitchen table”. They’re not talking about sex – actually they’re talking about where they put their handbags, and the idea behind it is to intrigue other friends (particularly men) and get them to ask what it’s all about. But is this really good advocacy for breast cancer awareness, or just an unfortunate case of “badvocacy”?
The campaign has been criticised from many angles – the insensitivity of sexual innuendo as a means of getting people to think about breast cancer, the unrelatedness of places where people prefer to put their handbags (or have sex) to anything to do with breast cancer, the belief that people are already aware of breast cancer and don’t need reminding through annoying status updates and the fact that the whole meme is gender discriminatory (boys get cancer too you know). All of these allegations seem to have some ground, although at the same time, the “haters” have also been criticised for having no sense of humour, and trying to stop women from having a little bit of cheeky fun in the name of a good cause.
Now, I’m all for women having a bit of cheeky fun, and I do think that by using innuendo the creators of this “campaign” have pretty much ensured it’s viral status – very clever. However, I’m also all for breast cancer awareness – in fact, I’m all for cancer awareness in general – and unfortunately I don’t think that the “I like it” campaign capitalises enough on the opportunity to promote what it’s supposed to promote. So the girls have got the boys guessing, and everybody’s very pleased with themselves, but how likely are any of the targeted participants to think beyond “LOL, now I want to confuse my male friends by making dodgy inneundos” to the point of “LOL, now I want to confuse my my male friends by making dodgy innuendos right after I’ve examined my breasts for lumps”? The trouble with the “I like it” campaign is exactly that – there is no relevance to breast cancer, and no information about breast cancer attached. It’s one thing to make a viral meme happen, but quite another to make it have some meaningful impact, and it’s not enough to rely on people going away afterwards and doing their own research – memes are about short, sharp bursts of information and if a meme is to be meaningful in that way it has to do the work for the people. It doesn’t have to be much – just a link would do – but without that the meme goes little beyond being a vacuous double entendre about handbags.
So play the game if you want – memes go viral because they’re fun and people like to participate. But if you do, please think about why it is the game started, and don’t just leave it as an empty statement. Post a link to the Breast Cancer Awareness Month site, or the Cancer Research UK site, or somewhere else that’ll guide people to some real information. And give your own breasts a check (or your testicles if you’re a boy – no need to feel left out) and make sure you do it regularly. Because awareness shouldn’t just be for the duration of a silly Facebook campaign boys and girls, it should be for life.