We live in a world where memes are pretty much part of our everyday experience. We are constantly sharing, creating, and posting funny, shocking, or important messages and jokes that we hope others will enjoy and share too, all with the hopes of going viral — achieving that fleeting 15 minutes of internet fame that so many people crave. But the question is, when a meme is going viral for a cause, how much work is actually being done?
Back in the 2010s, during Breast Cancer Awareness Month (which takes place every October), Facebook was seeing a rise in breast cancer awareness memes. In particular, there was a meme that was asking women to put up Facebook status that simply said their name and the color of the bra that they were wearing. The purpose of this post was to flood everyone’s Facebook feed with these cryptic messages, thus drumming up curiosity, and in turn bringing attention and awareness to breast cancer causes and research. However, how much is actually getting done by the bizarre post-sharing? To put it bluntly, how is someone sharing the color of their bra going to help actual breast cancer patients with their care and possible cures?
In my opinion, I think what made the Facebook breast cancer awareness meme so viral in nature was the fact that everyone wants to feel included — FOMO is a real thing, after all! So when people logged onto Facebook and saw that everyone was part of a puzzling, cryptic trend, it made them curious. They wanted to be in the know. And then once they found out from someone what the posts were actually about, that probably made people more likely to participate, to brag to the other unknowing Facebook users — to show off saying Look, I’m in the know now, too. Thousands of social media users wanted to participate and share with their friends because it was part of a big, long, viral joke, and they wanted to be in on it, too. But did that inside-turned-outside joke actually raise any awareness for the cause that it claimed to champion?
This is where I feel that the social media meme fell short of mobilizing its audience. While everyone was happy to participate in the entertaining social media side of the cause, very few of those people probably then donated to a breast cancer research fund, signed up for an awareness walk, or scoured the internet to learn more about the disease and how to prevent it. Sadly, most people just jumped in on the fun while it was hot and then let it fade away. It reminds me a lot of the ALS ice bucket challenge that took place back when I was in high school — where people posted videos of them dumping buckets of ice-cold water on their heads, and then got to choose several people that they wanted to pass the challenge along to. In addition to posting the challenge, the person was then expected to make a donation to ALS research. But realistically, how many people did that? I know that I did, but several of my friends that I tagged in the challenge were more than happy to post a screeching video of them freezing themselves with icy water, and then going about their day with no money raised and just a funny video for their Instagram feeds.
However, in the case of the ALS ice bucket challenge, the ALS Therapy Development institute itself even noted that over $4 million dollars were raised to help with research. So maybe there is hope for some of these cause-centered viral memes after all. In the case of the breast cancer awareness memes, I think if there had been a more structured guideline for the challenge (such as there was with the ice bucket challenge, where after posting the challenge, you included in the post description that you were donating to the ALS institution), there may have been more success. But when the purpose of the breast cancer meme was just to confuse your followers until they figured out that it was being done to “raise awareness” for breast cancer, that’s a lot of social media posting for very little tangible return.
How does this relate to being an author? Personally, I think no matter who you are on the internet, if you’re trying to use social media to help build your platform, you want to make sure that you’re doing it for the right reasons. Things can go viral for some very good reasons, such as the cases with the ALS ice bucket challenge and the breast cancer awareness meme — but they can also go viral for astoundingly negative reasons as well. So if you’re trying to create content that people want to share, whether it be cause-related or otherwise, always make sure that you can put your money where your mouth is (be it literally or figuratively). If you’re going to speak up for a cause, then absolutely speak up for it! But make sure that your actions are backing your words. Your fans will not take kindly to you being all talk and no action. You want your readers and your audience to see you as someone who they can trust, and who sticks to their word. Be the ALS ice bucket challenge meme that you wish to see in the world.
What do you think about cause-related social media memes? Do you think that they do a good job of raising awareness for the causes they claim to be about, or do you think it’s just an excuse for people to post viral content to seem socially-conscious, with very little behind-the-scenes work being put in?