The Lie of Heartwarming Social Media Memes
I confess that I love a good heartwarming meme about folks helping strangers. I saw one yesterday about strangers sending letters to a dying man with Down’s Syndrome who loves to get letters (I can’t find the link again and don’t know if it’s true.) And who didn’t enjoy watching a hundred people come to the cardboard arcade made by a bored kid over his summer break in LA? The subtext of these stories is that people are nice. Look what they’ll do for a total stranger!
Clifford Geertz wrote that culture is a story we tell ourselves about ourselves. And each time I’m touched by a new tale of kindness, a cranky little voice in my head says: It’s a lie! We’re telling ourselves stories about how much we care when honestly we don’t. Yup, folks did help that one clever, cute kid. For one day. But what about the rest of his days? And what about the other cute kids of working parents who have no affordable summer programs to attend? What about the ones who can’t hang out at a parent’s workplace? What about the ones who aren’t especially clever or cute? I guess they’ll get nothing unless an underemployed film maker takes an interest in them.
Social media is pretty good at mobilizing large numbers of people for heartwarming gestures. But helping one person with a compelling story is just a gesture, and a trivial one. I wonder how we can use the same medium to push for more meaningful change–like voting for investment in social programs. Large scale programs that can attempt to help everyone in need–whether or not a film maker happens by.