Shirts and Boobs
On Monday, "Boobquake" faced off against Iranian cleric Hojatoleslam Kazem Sedighi, who had the previous week declared, "Many women who do not dress modestly...lead young men astray, corrupt their chastity and spread adultery in society, which (consequently) increases earthquakes." As a cheeky (no pun intended) protest, scientist and feminist Jen McCreight proposed that on Monday, April 26, women would dress as immodestly as they desired to see if it really increased the number of earthquakes. As a protest, this was an interesting proposal and potentially brilliantly flippant. At first, it seemed to echo the effective pink chaddi campaign in India last year.
But Boobquake very soon went awry. As Kendall Thiessen said in his twitter stream, "Once you introduce boobs, you KNOW the kind of response you are going to get. Clearly the message was lost." It was indeed. The Facebook page for Boobquake-- while admittedly attracting a lot of attention and leveraging angry humor in a really smart way-- soon turned prurient and irrelevant, having nothing at all to do with Iranian women or women's rights at all. For a movement that was about supporting women, it kind of missed its mark, and turned into a denigrating force instead.
Boobquake's hijacking had been anticipated by "Brainquake," a counter-protest organized by Negar Mottahadeh and Golbarg Bashi. This protest faced off against Boobquake benevolently-- Negar and Golbarg both hold respect for Jen and her ideas and intentions-- but placed the protest back squarely into respect for women and women's rights, and even more importantly, back into the realm of Iranian feminism, which was at the core. The Boobquake vs. Brainquake debate turned into a late-night tweet session among tweeters @ideasurge @negaratduke @faizahm @john_weeks @shrutisinha @maymaym and myself, @lksriv.
Then, on Tuesday, Jason Sadler of iwearyourshirts.com announced he was heading up a campaign to collect and send 1 million used t-shirts to disadvantaged populations in Africa. This is a really bad idea, running the gamut from useless intervention to wasteful effort to condescension and disrespect. Mashable caught the idea up and ran with it as an effort perfectly made for "social media for social good" (a concept I've had trouble with in the past). As I write this, the effort is being ably covered by @tmsruge @meowtree @Katrinskaya @TalesFromthHood @texasinafrica @santis and @alanna_shaikh. These aid and development professionals have deconstructed the idea and fleshed out its implications and potential consequences. In some cases, they have offered constructive criticism and alternative ideas. (I am particularly drawn to investing in community-based needs assessments, and an idea proposed by TMS Ruge, to invest in capacity-building local textile and clothing manufacturing.) To Jason's credit, he has currently agreed to a teleconference to talk about his idea-- either to justify it or to field other, more sustainable, practical and respectful ideas.
The takeaway from these two seemingly unrelated campaigns, though, was the following:
1. Benevolent intentions coupled with poorly-aimed initiatives result in efforts that ultimately undermine the communities that are their target.
2. Lack of local context or cultural context is a major contributing factor toward failure.
3. Social media is a powerful tool to thoroughly and rapidly vet a development idea or campaign. (See Christopher Fabian's piece on 1 Million Shirts, "How to Fail Fast and with Scrutiny"; and Negar's piece concerning Brainquake, on social media and feminism.)
4. But social media in its present forms is limited in its ability to create a sustained, long-term effective movement, whether in the development context or the political realm.
To that last point, Kendall had at one point in the twitter debate asked, "What is the last social movement that got picked up on social media that didn't devolve?" While I can think of a number of nonprofits that use social media effectively to communicate their activities, programs and thought leadership, I couldn't think of an independent movement that didn't burn out or peter out quickly.
So, in the end, social media as currently practiced on sites like Facebook and Twitter doesn't lend itself to cultivate deep observation or patient movement building. (Think about Haiti, post-quake. The social media world has moved on.) Social media, then, is really best for short bursts of awareness-raising, directed actions, soliciting donations arising from particular events, and for creating contacts and building networks. Sustained movements require conscious awareness, engagement (which includes proactively managed social media tools), cultivation and active personalized stewardship, and investment in impact.
(Just one more thing: Despite the name of this post, I absolutely hate the word "boob" as slang for breast. Just had to put that out there.)