While scrolling newsfeeds full of widespread and seemingly insurmountable tragedies like cancer, shootings and hurricanes, it’s easy to feel powerless. And the answer, too often, turns out to be a click of the mouse or tap of the screen, manifesting as a like or a favorite. If the issue seems extremely important, it might merit an entire tweet, status or even profile picture filter. “Hashtag activism,” critics call it. And while there’s nothing wrong with spreading awareness about an issue, perhaps our need to feel as though we’ve done something to make the world a better place is too easily satisfied by social media.
By itself, a like or retweet doesn’t provide better educational opportunities for underserved communities, or improve access to water in drought-ridden countries, or change policies to make businesses more eco-friendly or cure cancer. Someone has to create the initiatives, write the laws and do the research. And while people are often able to step up and get things done because of increased awareness, awareness is just the first step in solving an issue.
If we really cared about solving problems, we would look past the first step. Essentially, we’re allowing ourselves to feel like we’ve become part of the solution when all we’ve done is pass the responsibility of effecting change in the concrete world on to someone else.
Admittedly, there are issues in which social media awareness makes a huge impact, because they are almost exclusively impacted by awareness. For example, social media can help break unfair stereotypes and other damaging social conceptions. But even that doesn’t mean anything if it doesn’t change the way we act.
We can’t, obviously, fully devote our time and resources to every problem that happens to pop up on our feeds. It’s simply not possible or practical, or even healthy. Sometimes expressing our support through social media is the best that we can do, and we don’t have to stop doing that. But if something happens that touches us deeply and that we have the opportunity to change for the better, how can we tell ourselves we’ve done enough with a like or a favorite if we have no idea whether it made a difference? How can we express our outrage, dismay or sorrow over an issue and expect it to get fixed when all we’ve done is express our outrage, dismay or sorrow?
Let’s not fool ourselves into thinking we’ve done humanity a great service by channeling our philanthropic tendencies into a tweet or status. We can do better.