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Rising from the hashes

india Updated: Mar 29, 2012 21:43 IST
David Carr

If you ‘like’ something, does that mean you care about it? It’s an important distinction in an age when you can accumulate social currency on Facebook or Twitter just by hitting the ‘like’ or ‘favourite’ button.

The ongoing referendum on the Web often seems more like a kind of collective digital graffiti than a measure of engagement. But it gets more complicated when the subjects are more complicated. Hitting the favourite button on the first episode of Mad Men is a different gesture than expressing digital solidarity with kidnapped children in Africa, but it all looks the same at the keyboard. Certainly some people are taking up the causes that come out of the Web’s fire hose, but others are most likely doing no more than burnishing their digital avatars.

As someone who lives in the world of social media, I can feel the pull of digital activism. And I have to admit I’m starting to experience a kind of ‘favouriting’ fatigue — meaning that the digital causes of the day or week are all starting to blend together. Another week, another hashtag, and with it, a question about what is actually being accomplished.

Evgeny Morozov, the author of The Net Delusion: The Dark Side of Internet Freedom, is not entirely dismissive of the Web as a political organising tool, but is sceptical of the motives, and power, of digital activism.

“My hunch is that people often affiliate with causes online for selfish and narcissistic purposes,” he said. “Sometimes, it may be as simple as trying to impress their online friends, and once you have fashioned that identity, there is very little reason to do anything else.” Which brings us to the online campaign denouncing the fact that Bully, a movie about child-on-child harassment and violence, has received an R rating from the Motion Picture Association of America’s ratings board.

By now, more than 460,000 people, including politicians and celebrities, have signed an online petition demanding that the rating be changed from R to PG-13, so that the young people most affected by the issue could actually see the movie. The petition was started by a teenager, Katy Butler, who was bullied for being a lesbian, and has blown up huge on Twitter and elsewhere.

Generally the way people express support for a film is by paying for a ticket. If Bully were seen only by the people who signed the petition, it would have a domestic gross of about $5 million.

I called Christopher J Dodd, the former senator who now runs the motion picture association. I expected him to suggest that all the online petitioners had failed to grasp the nuance and importance of the ratings system. Not so. “These are our customers and it behooves us to listen to them,” he said. Dodd said that he believes that some sort of compromise on the content of the film will be reached so that young people who wish to can see the film together without having to hold hands with or seek permission from their parents.

This made me think again about my own cynicism about Web activism. Sure, hashtags come and go, and the so-called weak ties of digital movements are no match for real world engagement. But they are not only better than nothing, they probably make the world, the one beyond the keyboard, a better place.

New York Times