Culture

Social Media Challenges Can Seem Pointless, But They Can Work

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Social media challenges are having a moment.

Heaps of people have been sharing black and white selfies on Instagram, all with the #WomenSupportingWomen.

More than 6 million women posted as part of the #ChallengeAccpeted campaign but were quickly called out for not knowing where the challenge came from, or what it really meant.

I want to find out how effective social media challenges like these are, especially considering how many people they seem to attract.

What Happened With #WomenSupportingWomen?

It was a simple one – you had to post a black and white selfie then tag other women to encourage them to do the same. It was meant to empower all women but that’s not what critics are saying.

Many say the challenge was actually meant for Turkish women speaking out about their country’s ongoing feminicide, and that it was started by this photo of 27-year-old Pinar Gultekin, who recently died at the hands of her ex-boyfriend.

Others are saying the challenge stemmed from US Representative AOC’s recent sexism speech. And another group are suggesting a Brazilian journalist could’ve started it.

Regardless, celebrities jumped onto the bandwagon pretty quickly without seeming to understand what their selfies represented.

It was a similar reaction to when everyone started posting black tiles for #BlackOutTuesday in support of the Black Lives Matter Movement.

Crystal Abidin: “On social media, when we see trends like that coming at very high volumes all throughout the day, it can feel like we want to be a part of this instant unity – of this space online.”

That’s Dr. Crystal Abidin, a digital anthropologist and senior research fellow at Curtin University.

CA: “Everyone is calling out an issue – talking about racism, calling out climate change – and if you remain silent it doesn’t look good on the feed. [It looks] as if you’re not participating, as if you don’t have feelings about this cause.”

Abidin explained this feeling of guilt as virtue signalling, which is common among Gen Z’s on social media.

Social Media Was Made For Virtue Signalling

It’s similar for celebrities who also want to elevate their positions by being socially aware and impressing followers, but at the same time avoiding anything too political.

This has been dubbed as ‘slacktivism’, a form of activism with very little effort or commitment.

CA: “A lot of what our Gen Z are doing with online content creation has to do with creating awareness and visibility. It’s quite discouraging when we just cast aside the awareness building as not real activism.”

Abidin has a point. Young people have grown up on the internet. So, of course it’s where we go to be culturally, socially and politically aware.

Some also have little resources and money to donate, which is what makes social media activism all the more accessible.

Back in 2015 in response to the Paris terrorist attacks, many Facebook users started applying the colours of the French flag to their profile pictures to show solidarity.

Even bigger, was the viral phenomenon of the #IceBucketChallenge, where people were nominated to throw a bucket of ice over their heads to raise money and awareness for ALS.

But Do Social Media Challenges Actually Achieve Anything?

Slate Journalist Christina Cauterucci wrote that, “When it performs more good for the doer than the cause” that’s when activism on social media hasn’t achieved anything.

And if #WomenSupportingWomen was actually for Turkish women, then it’s questionable how much the Instagram challenge has helped them.

But what it did do was bring awareness.

CA: “It really depends on how we are measuring effectiveness. [If its] spreading awareness, visibility, things going viral – reaching the far ends of the internet, where we’d never normally assume these ideas would take root in – then definitely.”

Take the recent #WashYourHandsChallenge. It got people practicing safer hygiene habits during a global pandemic. And even in all its ridiculousness, the #IceBucketChallenge reportedly raised over $220 million dollars worldwide.

The Takeaway

While #WomenSupportingWomen is just the latest in a long line of social media hashtag campaigns, it’s not necessarily a bad thing.

We just need to make sure we’re taking a step back to understand the messages we are amplifying with these campaigns, and the issues that are driving them.