Silence Is Not Golden

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This post is the first in an open blog debate about slacktivism between myself and Bad Pitch Bloggers Richard Laermer and Kevin Dugan.

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Last weekend a cartoon avatar campaign swept across Facebook, an effort to raise awareness about child abuse. It became a pretty substantial event in Facebook, which triggered debates about slacktivism and the value of awareness versus real bonafide outcomes. The effort was brought about by a Phillipine volunteer named Jay who was horrified by child abuse in his own country and wanted to raise awareness.

After receiving significant push back on the social web for a meaningless effort with no calls to action, no formal 501c3 backing him and accusations of being a pedophile (ah, the social web, ain’t it grand?), Jay added several URLs to causes combatting child abuse across the globe. In essence, the campaign page became a referral source for organizations who could do more, in the end amending criticisms about a lack of call to action. But should Jay have received the schlacking he did for successfully creating a viral campaign that highlighted this important issue?

There is a camp that says that awareness doesn’t mean anything. Consider Nedra Weinreich‘s Awareness Schmawareness video below, which does a great job of discussing this debate.

Outcomes need to happen and should be part of the game plan. As mentioned last week, professionals need to pay the piper, and in cause work that means delivering actionable outcomes such as donations, lowered child abuse rates, or increased reporting of incidents.

But given a choice of something over nothing, I would rather raise awareness, and hopefully mindfulness, so the opportunity for action exists. Awareness is needed before people act. If someone is unaware, how can they act? In essence, energy — even misapplied or as Tom Watson said Goofy — still can create better outcomes than no energy at all. The Ladder of Engagement begins.

When it comes to horrible issues like this, domestic violence, or drug and alcohol abuse, not talking about the issue is the worst possible outcome. Silence is not golden. In fact, it creates more damage and hides abusers, creating a cloak of silence to enforce their behavior. There is so much shame around these issues.

Consider how many people thought about child abuse for the first time this weekend. Maybe they even had a conversation about it, something that is rare given the taboo nature of the topic. Now a vocal minority wants to punish people who begin discussing it by calling them slackers.

While professionals may find good reason to pick apart a campaign like this, these kinds of affairs are not going to simply get better, nor will they stop. According to the National Conference on Citizenship, in the United States alone 29% of Americans (62 million) take civic actions on their own without the help of a formal 501c3. Either they don’t think to do it with an organization, are not happy with the existing 501c3 offering, or feel empowered to go and Do Something. It’s not safe to assume that the remaining 71% of civic acts under the auspices of nonprofits are well executed either.

In the age of social media, every citizen can become a voice. They also choose to blindly consume information or question it. Until we as a society start educating people on how to consume information, content and efforts will remain that of amateurs.

That being said, when an amateur does something right, even if it is raw and flawed, he/she shouldn’t be shamed into silence with misplaced anger. This is the great promise of the Fifth Estate, the ability to discuss matters when the conventional press and establishment — in this case the nonprofit community — isn’t doing it well. That promise of free digital conversation cannot be taken away now (even for Julien Assange).

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  • http://blog.social-marketing.com Nedra Weinreich

    Thanks for sharing my video, Geoff. I just want to make sure it’s clear that I’m not saying we should *never* focus on raising awareness, but that raising awareness as a goal in and of itself doesn’t get us anywhere. An awareness campaign that is strategically designed to be the beginning of taking people through the stages of change to eventually take action may be exactly what’s needed for particular issues. Awareness may be very necessary for change to happen, but it’s usually not enough by itself.

    But, I don’t think people are not aware that child abuse exists (at least in the US – I don’t know about in the Philippines)…or breast cancer, or AIDS, or any of many other issues that are often the focus of awareness campaigns. This cartoon character approach might make sense for a campaign that is designed to show solidarity with and give moral support to victims of child abuse. But we’re at a point where we can go a little further than “child abuse exists” toward helping people know what to do if they suspect a child is being abused, or offering tips for what to do instead of hitting your children when you’re upset with them.

    None of this should be misconstrued as an attack on Jay, who came up with the cartoon character idea. Enthusiastic evangelists for a cause should be supported as much as possible. I’m talking about organizations whose jobs it is to make a difference and who should know better. I even participated in changing my Facebook icon because it was a fun thing to do. But I had no expectation that it would make a dent in the incidence of child abuse. (Loved your Snagglepuss, by the way!)

    • http://geofflivingston.com Geoff Livingston

      Thanks, Nedra. I think we’re both in agreement this was not a professional outreach effort, and that pros need to do better work towards an answer. I will say that the conversations Jay has sparked have probably created some positive equity on the issue, and as a result, some actions were taken. Even this blog post and comments discussing best ways to act on child abuse can be construed that way. It’s a damn shame that there was no formal call to action because he hit the human heart strings with the cartoon, and as a result could have created a tidal wave of action. We’ll never know.

  • http://3dblogger.typepad.com/wired_state Catherine Fitzpatrick

    The cynicism and indifference you incited with this silly “slacktivism” campaign did more damage than anything.

    http://3dblogger.typepad.com/wired_state/2010/12/changing-your-avatar-to-a-cartoon-is-stupid-and-doesnt-help-stop-child-abuse.html

    • http://geofflivingston.com Geoff Livingston

      Thanks for blogging about this issue. By doing so you’ve made people think about what is the right (or wrong way) to address child abuse issues. It’s clear that Jay’s campaign made you think about the matter.

  • http://3dblogger.typepad.com/wired_state Catherine Fitzpatrick

    That promise of free digital conversation cannot be taken away now (even for Julien Assange).
    Share

    Oh, please. His “promise of free digital conversation” hasn’t been taken away from. He and his pals blog, tweet and give interviews to MSM to their little hearts’ content.

    What they can’t do is expect to store stolen classified government documents on their leased servers and accept payments for continuing to steal documents and divulge them with harm to nations and individuals. That’s not censorship; that’s crime control. And that’s ok.

    Your confusing of these two things makes you complicit.

  • Marie Rotter

    Geoff,

    As someone who’s worked on campaigns for child abuse, domestic violence and sexual assault, I agree that awareness is an important part of engagement. However, you need awareness of the solution, not the problem.

    If you were to poll 1,000 random Americans, I’m willing to bet that upwards of 90% of them have heard of child abuse and believe it to be a problem in America. If you then asked that same group of people if they believe child abuse was a problem for their family or community, the number of people answering yes would plummet.

    The problem with child abuse is not lack of awareness, it’s lack of relevance. Simple awareness of the issue is not enough. We’re all aware. It’s on the news every day. Without telling them how it applies to them, their schools, their community, then you’re really not helping bring the issue to light, as you argued this type of campaign can do. It’s the difference between public service announcements that say, “Car accidents kill people” or “Buckle up.”

    • http://geofflivingston.com Geoff Livingston

      Marie: Thanks for your comment and your hard work on the issue. And I think everyone agrees that a professional campaign needs a call to action towards the solution, and certainly I think this post acknowledges that in clear terms. To his credit, once the volunteer — not professional — Facebook organizer realized his error, he provided conduits to find answers.

      Relevancy is indeed the issue. I can tell you I had not thought about child abuse in months until this campaign. In that sense I would say that this guy trumped many nonprofits’ solution oriented and uncomfortable prevention campaigns. I have had more conversations about child abuse this week than I have had in years, and am much more likely to act on behalf of a child abuse cause now, as well as read up on the topic. I am sure I am not alone in that regard. So, while the effort was deeply flawed, the general direction towards progress was certainly not negative, and more than likely created some positive results with at bare minimum people saying, “that was messed up, what’s a better action?”

  • http://3dblogger.typepad.com/wired_state Catherine Fitzpatrick

    As for your comment on my blog, that’s quite a troll, implying that someone protesting this method and exposing its duplicity then is also inevitably dragged into the marketing conspiracy with a claim that this action has “made us think about it”.

    Ugh.

    I’ve thought about the issue far more than you can imagine, and I spoke up in protest against it not to “raise awareness” about child abuse but to “raise awareness” about s/m marketers like yourself and your manipulative methods AND to raise the alarm about the cynicism it causes in teens.

    • http://geofflivingston.com Geoff Livingston

      Well if you’re going to drop the link promoting your post on my blog, I see no harm leaving the same comment that I gave here, there.

      As to accusations laden with you, I question the level of discourse they lead towards. They are much more attacking and troll-like in nature, thus the blog’s comment policy at the bottom of the About section. You are free to disagree with the ideas as much as you’d like, but I’ll ask you to mind dropping labels and accusations here. I do appreciate your differing view. We can’t always agree.

  • http://www.steigmancommunications.com Daria Steigman

    Hi Geoff,

    I’m going to agree with you on this one: raising awareness of a serious problem should never be criticized. And if it gets people looking for solutions or ways to help, well, isn’t that a move to action?

    But I really wanted to talk about the underlying premise in many of the comments: that everyone is aware of child abuse. Sure, everyone knows that some parents (or related caregivers) are horrible to their children — and I’m not minimizing that impact. But the word “abuse” appears here to be sugar-coating the enormous broader issue of violence against children (which is the subject of the Facebook campaign)–which is far bigger than I think most people understand. According to ILO statistics, there are 215 MILLION child laborers (a human rights violation), 126 million in the worst forms of child labor (including slavery, trafficking, and prostitution).

    Sorry for the slightly long post, but I wanted everyone to be clear what we’re really talking about.

    • http://geofflivingston.com Geoff Livingston

      Thank you, Daria. I so concur with you on this, and appreciate you adding clarity to the matter.

  • http://www.twitter.com/tomjd tomjd

    Just from the above comment I learnt something new and important about child abuse.

    Something like this obviously does trigger cynicism and, as we’ve seen in the comments here, even hostility from some quarters. But that’s clearly not reason not to do something. It is equally clear that for other people it was a trigger to think about and, for a smaller but not insignificant number, take action on an important issue.

    The point is not whether something like this “should happen” or not. Despite the conspiracy theories this campaign originated with a single person, who shared an idea on the social web. People liked the idea, so it spread.

    To me this is no different than the “15 albums” or “20 thing about me” memes. People like participating in group activities. This one had an important message, and surely that should be applauded, even if you question its efficacy.

    These memes will continue to circulate, that’s just how the social web works. So we might as well pay attention, learn what we can about what motivates people to participate and how this sort of clicktivism can be linked to other forms of civic participation.

    Sure this is messy, often silly and questionably effective. Welcome to democracy, that’s how it works.

    • http://geofflivingston.com Geoff Livingston

      “People like the idea and it spread.” That’s the truth, we can play Monday morning quarterback until the lights go out, but the truth is this concept worked where many others failed. If it only had more tied to it, we could see even greater results, but let’s not poo poo the success. Thank you, Tom, and thank you for the awesome success you had on this week’s #zooGood chat!

  • http://johnhaydon.com John Haydon

    Geoff – great post here, and even better comments! I agree with Daria that there may not be a huge awareness issue with CSA – at least in terms of it being an issue. No one is saying “Jeeze – I did not know that children were being sexually abused…”.

    At the same time, we shouldn’t criticize the efforts of a single individual (Jay). We should in fact commend Jat for two things:
    1) Bringing attention to this issue
    2) Correcting things after getting feedback

    Jay is part of a greater ecosystem that can work as a whole to make real change.

    Sadly, only one out of eight orgs mentioned on his Page even mentions this campaign.

    • http://geofflivingston.com Geoff Livingston

      No doubt, Jay did the right thing. And he brought more attention to the issue than most 501c3s in the biz are capable of achieving.

      • http://johnhaydon.com John Haydon

        Exactly. And he had a singular focus that we easy to communicate.

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