Today, everyone has a cause. Mine is mothering humanity through carefully constructed sentences of social commentary and contemporary fiction. The latter, you’ll have to wait and read to decide for yourself. The former, however, is under fire. Do words—thrown out into a giant worldwide web that is interwoven with truth and lies daily—really make a difference?
It is a very noisy web.
Let’s take a look.
My first thought when discussing cyberactivists was Vani Hari aka The Food Babe. You might be like, “Come on! Her?” I bet you thought I’d hit some of the harder topics ablaze in the media today, but Hari was one of the first people I heard of to create real change with the use of nothing more than a blog and a relentless and optimistic heart.
According to FoodBabe.com, Hari’s unhealthy lifestyle, which landed her in the hospital, inspired her to make big changes to her diet. She didn’t go to nutrition school to “get healthy.” She simply wielded the power of the Internet. In her switch from processed foods to “real food” she also began to investigate hidden or harmful ingredients in the American food supply. She drastically changed her own life for the better and decided to share her story and her new knowledge online with friends and family, using her platform to speak out against the lack of transparency within the American food industry.
Nearly a decade later, her personal blog has become a powerful change agent, helping to influence multi-billion dollar food giants like Kraft, General Mills, Subway, Chipotle, Chick-fil-A, Starbucks, and more to address the concerns of their consumers and make very real changes to their products.
The Food Babe is a cyberactivist. Her tactics have sometimes come under fire. Her writing has taken serious hits. Her critics are numerous. Her claims can’t always be 100% substantiated by science. And the Food Industry refuses to name her as the catalyst for their product modifications. That still doesn’t change the fact that her blog has lead to real-world awareness and action.
I think Hari was one of the original influencers of social media. She did, after all, garner a spot on TIME’s very first “Most Influential People on the Internet” list, which has now become an annual thing and a coveted label.
The term influencer may induce eye rolling from older generations, but it’s a very real aspiration for a lot of tweens, teens, and twenty-year-olds. Talking to friends the other day, I compared it to my generation’s “I want to play video games professionally.” Basically, the unicorn of job possibilities.
You may still be naysaying, but people get behind faceless causes with little-to-no usefulness all the time. Influencers just personalize an idea by giving it a story.
In my MFA studies this week, old Breast Cancer Awareness memes on Facebook came under scrutiny as being little more than a frivolous bandwagon for quasi-supporters to jump aboard. Facebookers shared and shared again obscure or sexualized, coded messages in the name of “awareness,” but didn’t bother to participate, donate, or educate, according to a case study in the book Strategic Social Media: From Marketing to Social Change. It made me think of the recent “Blackout Tuesday,” which saw millions of people throwing up black squares of solidarity all over social media, but did little to promote real change for the Black Community. To make real change, like The Food Babe, you have to put your money (or resources) where your social media mouth is.
I will, however, argue that awareness is sometimes the first step to social change. Perhaps, when people jump on these somewhat misguided bandwagons, their online demonstration of alliance can be a catalyst for later change. Vani Hari’s efforts have also been criticized as “misguided,” but her bandwagons crashed full-bore into real walls of resistance in the food industry and mac-n-cheese is now a safer, easy weeknight meal option for kids across America.
If you still think cyberactivism isn’t a thing, check out TIME’s “Most Influential People on the Internet” list for 2019. Some of them hurt my peepers, yes, but I could also see Mothering Humanity getting behind the message of more than a few others.