Activism: Goofy Games and Guilt Trips?

I’m really bothered by social media based activism.  When did we as a culture decide we needed fads to inspire us to give?

I’ve had this topic sitting in my mind for a while.  I wanted to pick a good time to post it – not in the middle of any frenzy where it could be taken as a knee-jerk reaction to any one trend, but still close enough for those examples to be fresh in our minds.  As we come off the hype of the ice bucket challenge, I think now is a good time.

I’ll begin by saying that while I did not participate in the challenge myself (no one nominated me, thank goodness), my husband did.  He did it for a lot of the same reasons other people did – someone nominated him, and he figured it wasn’t a bad thing to do.  It became the topic of a lot of real-life conversations in the days that followed, though – how he was going to handle the financial aspect of the challenge, who he’d give the money to, and the involuntary aspect of being “nominated to give”.

But that’s just one example of a bigger issue.  Helping people has become a fad. Or rather, a series of passing fancies. The ice bucket challenge. The pay-it-forward Starbucks line. Writing borderline-offensive Facebook statuses to (supposedly) support breast cancer research (examples discussed here and here). People jump on board because it’s fun, they say. Or for narcissistic reasons. Or maybe they do actually feel like they’re doing something good. For the most part, though, fad-based giving really bothers me.

Before I go any further, I want to make clear that I fully recognize how personal these issues can be. I am going to say some things that people may not like about ALS research and the breast cancer research fundraising methods because those are the most public issues in our cultural awareness these days. If you or someone you know have been impacted by either of these diseases, please do not think I think less of these issues because of the fads. It’s the fads I don’t like, not the causes. I understand the need for research in these and many other fields. I want people to give. I want causes that need funding to get it. I just don’t like the current methods used to get that funding.

That said, let’s dive into the issues I have with so-called “Hashtag Activism” and its related trends.

Issue 1: Narcissism and the Awareness Gimmicks.

I can give to a cause without posting a video online and counting how many “likes” it collects. If you want to support ALS research, by all means, send them money! Dumping water on your head doesn’t aid them at all, though.  Posting a video like that is to get attention, not to help a cause.

This is where things get sticky, because people immediately throw the “awareness” argument back at me. Posting those videos raises awareness and encourages others to give! And clearly, $109 million the ALSA received from the challenge speaks volumes. I’ll address the financial aspect of this kind of “awareness” in a bit.

Despite the money, however, I question the motivations behind many participants. I question their actual new-found awareness, even if they gave to the cause. Did they give because they’d suddenly learned about a painful, debilitating disease that needed funding and they genuinely wanted to help? Or did they give because they wanted to join the game and post their own video? My guess is that once the game is over, people will jump on the next gimmick and the next popular cause to get their warm-fuzzies and Facebook likes, and they’ll forget all about why they dumped water on their heads.  I know this isn’t true for everyone who participated, but overall I doubt a ton of additional awareness about ALS has worked its way into our minds and giving patterns.

The “awareness” argument has bothered me for years, probably because I mostly associate it with breast cancer research. They have cornered the market in keeping people’s attention on them – to the point that it becomes difficult for other causes to make their voices heard. I see the need for the gimmicks like the ice bucket challenge when I think about how much attention other causes get compared to breast cancer. Every October we’re flooded with pink merchandising, all in the name of raising money and awareness. But we are aware. I promise you, Susan G. Comen, we’re aware. We do our self-exams and get our mammograms and deal with teenage boys wearing “I Heart Boobies” bracelets and t-shirts in class. Well done.

However, it has reached a point where I think that level of advertising has smothered out our awareness of other important, life-impacting, life threatening issues. To any other cause that claims October as its National Awareness Month (including Down Syndrome, Spina Bifida, Lupus, domestic violence, and infertility), good luck competing with the pink.

Issue 2: Financial Responsibility.

I’m convinced that lots of people dumped cold water on their heads and even sent in money without ever really knowing more than “ALS is a bad disease and a good cause to support”. So does it really matter if they knew the details?  They sent the money – who cares if they knew why!

I care. You should know where your money goes.  Aside from the fact that gimmicky-giving isn’t sustainable (how will the ALSA get their next wave of funding?), financial responsibility is a big deal. The ice bucket challenge had been going on for weeks before I finally saw social network pages address the fact that most ALS research involves embryonic stem cell research – a hot-button issue among many people. I’m not here to debate the morality of the research. My point is that a lot of individuals may have unwittingly sent their money to a cause that goes against their personal beliefs, just because the reigning fad told them it was a good thing to do.

Do your research. Find out how your money will be used before you send it. Find out why the cause needs funding in the first place. Get specific. And then when you do give your financial support, you’ll understand your investment in their needs better.

Issue 3: Guilt-trip Giving.

Did you see the initial backlash that guy got for breaking the Starbucks pay-it-forward line? When the story first broke, he was essentially vilified as a horrible person because he chose not to pay for someone else’s coffee! Giving should be voluntary. The giver sees a need and wants to help alleviate it. As soon as it becomes a matter of social requirement, it’s no longer about helping others and becomes about society’s desire to feel the warm-fuzzies at the expense of others. I go to Starbucks and I’ve never once paid for a stranger’s coffee. That’s not how I choose to designate my money. Does that make me a bad person? No? Then why should that other guy be bashed for making the same decision?

In a widely-accepted version of the ice bucket challenge rules, if someone was nominated, they either “had to” donate $100, or if they dumped the water, they only “had to” donate $10. So either way, they HAD TO give something, just because someone nominated them in a Facebook video. I don’t like the idea of someone else volunteering me to give. It’s my choice and responsibility to designate where my money goes. Don’t force me into a choice that isn’t really a choice. By all means, bring an issue to my attention, but let me make the decision to give. Don’t corner me into it. It makes me resent your cause more than it helps.  And don’t assume I’m a stingy miser who never gives anything simply because I’m choosing not to give in that specific way and that specific time.  Which leads me to my final point…

Issue 4: The Deeper Problem

Whenever my husband and I are faced with a situation where we feel like we’re being guilt-tripped into giving, it’s easy to get frustrated. We already regularly give a certain percentage of our income to organizations that are important to us.  We don’t post internet videos or advertise our giving.  I hesitated to even say that much here, but my point is that hearing the guilt trip of “you really, really, really should give to this currently popular cause” can actually be a bit insulting to those who already make a habit of giving.  When that happens, we often remind ourselves that we are not the intended recipient of the guilt trip.  The truth is that there are so many people in our current culture who don’t give regularly without the gimmicks to get their attention.  If we as a whole society truly made giving a priority, then the fad-based giving wouldn’t be necessary. If people really placed a primary focus on researching causes that need their help, cut back on their own expenses, and then sent money and donated time to the issues that mattered, then funding wouldn’t be such a problem. Yes, we’d still need education and awareness to know where to send our money, but the causes wouldn’t need social media games or guilt-trips to reach their funding goals.


So that’s my two-cents on that topic.  Give because it’s the right thing to do, without someone telling you to and without joining a social media game.  Give because you want to give, because diseases need research to find cures, third world cultures need help, and people need support.

And while we’re on the topic, what are the causes that matter to you?

6 thoughts on “Activism: Goofy Games and Guilt Trips?

  1. This article is really well done. Very thought out and well argued. I think whether or not these fads are a good thing or a bad thing is subjective. For those needing the money, the end result will justify the methodology.

    There is also an argument to be made that these fads inspire a more charitable world. Your family, with it’s generous ways, is probably in the minority (unfortunately); society at large might actually benefit from a movement that makes giving seem “cool”, celebrity-endorsed and common. For these reasons, I feel conflicted about the #activism movement.

    I agree with you completely on the “made to give”/”nominated to give” point, however. It’s presumptuous and unfair to do this.


  2. Your post caught my eye- I wrote on this subject a couple of weeks ago ( I more or less agree with you. It’s a tough balance between short term and long term gain for a charity; they raised a lot of money but probably didn’t gain any monthly or long term donors. A fad that focused more on the cause and less on the donor would be amazing!


  3. I like your last point a lot! I don’t like the idea of someone else volunteering me to give (and where to give) either. I also like that you waited until after the Ice Bucket fad had fizzled out to post this. There were too many opinions flying around and nobody really took the time to THINK about it like you did. Causes that matter to me that I give $$ to on occasion: Childhood Cancer research & Animal rescues I also care about things like Net neutrality that gets NO attention because people find it “too confusing”.


  4. Oh, I am so glad you wrote this, it is exactly how I (we) feel. I assume the ice-bucket challenge was started to bring awareness to the disease and became a media spectacle. Like you had to do it, to be “in”. I think there are lots of issues and lots of diseases that deserve donations and awareness. Good things happen quiet often in the dark and aren’t made public.


  5. Pingback: Mass Judgements and Media Hype | Avoiding Neverland

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