Meaninglessness in symbolism

Over the last few days, Facebook has been flooded with Cartoon avatars. When someone exchanges their image for the cartoon, they usually post this message.

I have changed my profile picture to one of my favorite childhood cartoon characters. Purpose? To not see any human faces on Facebook until Monday. Only an invasion of good childhood memories. (FOR THE FIGHT AGAINST CHILD ABUSE)

Plenty of people online have taken the time to point and laugh at this, myself included. Though its not without well meaning charm to see various images of Spongebob and She-ra bouncing around Facebook, it makes me wonder about what this kind of pedantic “slacktavism” really does.
In an interview with the Harvard Business Review, economist at the University of Chicago John List suggests that the feeling of giving is only part of the reason behind individual’s decision to help. The other part is social pressure.

In discussing the ways that charity is most effective List says “ask should be personal because the social cost of saying no is so high that just about everyone will say yes to a face-to-face ask. Second best would be a telethon, third best a mail solicitation.”

So the most effective of all giving is with a face to face connection. The combination of self-comfort and social pressure creates the best atmosphere to successful charity organization. This suggests that online causes like the one centered on online cartoons (one’s that include no specific organization or direct purpose to follow) may actually cause more harm than good.

It allows the user to get the happy warm feeling of charitable action, without performing any charitable action. It also lets their digital friend group see their actions (or inaction) and approve of them, fulfilling the second point of charitable giving.

True some users may be inspired to seek out a charity specializing in helping abused children. Unfortunately, those numbers are harder to quantify and it is unlikely that that slim number of people are those who wouldn’t have donated to charity regardless of the cartoon avatars. Plus, this action doesn’t have the immediate social approval factor.

It is doubtful that anyone really believes that a child will be helped from his G.I. Joe avatar, but they have received all of the benefits of charity, without the charity. A better concept is one that includes a specific organization or group whom money, time and assistance could be donated rather than the amorphous concept of “Child Abuse.”

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1 Comment

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One response to “Meaninglessness in symbolism

  1. Nice post. I agree completely that the cartoon character “awareness” move was misguided, as was the “Post what color bra you’re wearing to raise awareness of breast cancer” movement before it (even though significantly fewer people made fun of that one. Wonder why…anyway, that’s a comment for another blog post).

    But I totally disagree with John List.

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