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Former rock ‘n roll roadie and manic professional speaker Rich Mulholland has a term for anyone who engages in this kind of online behaviour: Avatard.
Tinting your Twitter avatar green has about as much impact as walking around with a piece of green plastic in solidarity with the people of Iran, said Mulholland in his presentation at Net Prophet 2012.
He has a point. You showed your support. Big whoop. You get to feel to good for a while, but what did you do afterwards? You’re not an activist unless you act.
That’s not to say that online and social media can’t be used for social good. But it’s only effective when people choose a cause and stick with it.
That’s why the anti-SOPA protests worked. People put pressure on the likes of Wikipedia, Google and Reddit. All of these massive internet properties could see that their users didn’t want highly restrictive anti-piracy legislation. So they blacked out. We were forced to imagine what a web without the content we use every day would look like.
“People will only listen if we don’t keep chopping and changing causes,” says Mulholland.
The example he uses is of Che Guevara. The face of a million T-shirts arrived in Cuba with one cause in mind — freeing the Cuban people.
He fought for that cause for the next three years. As a young doctor, Guevara treated any injured soldiers who he and his band of guerillas fought against. Eventually, they ousted Cuban dictator Fulgencio Batista. When they marched on Havana, they were completely unopposed.
Mulholland reckons we’re missing that kind of singular focus in online activism.
He also points out that we tend to get angry on social media without thinking. A variety of social media storms including those surrounding soft drink company Frankies and retail giant Woolworths, Durex South Africa’s social media cock up, and most recently the one surrounding disgraced model Jessica Leandra.
People threatened to boycott the retailers and publicly vilified Leandra, but few, if any, managed to do anything positive.
Mulholland reserves a special kind of venom however, for the people who kicked up a fuss around hot cross bun packets with stickers indicating that they were safe for halaal consumption.
“It’s a bun! You put butter and shit on it… the shit’s optional,” he says.
We have one of the most powerful tools in the world at our disposal and we’re using it to become like the accusers at the Salem Witch Trials says Mulholland.
The SOPA protests and others like it are actually powerful. It used social media and the web effectively. Go ahead, engage in online activism but make your tinted avatar a statement of intent. It should be the start of something not the only thing you do.