Thursday, 4 September 2014

Memes and the dark side of the Ice Bucket Challenge

I've taken part in a few crazy stunts for charity in my time. Completing a 50 odd mile bike ride from London to Brighton aged about 11 on a 3 gear Raleigh Grifter (only two of which were working, not the useful middle yellow one though). Being beaten senseless by a Royal Marine armed with a gigantic cotton bud while straddling a slippery tree trunk suspended 6ft above an inflatable pool of murky, freezing cold water, aged about 19. The concept of tipping a bucket over my head for a good cause is therefore not alien to me. But one thing concerns me about this latest internet craze - the ethics. The introduction of social media to the equation, and the implementation of deadlines and "fines" troubles me a little. Of course, to most people it is just a harmless bit of fun, but examine the fundraising system it exploits. There are plenty of people out there to whom personal social media means more than is strictly healthy. I'm not talking about vanity; I am talking about vulnerable people with real social, financial and medical problems whose situation (or indeed personal beliefs) precludes them from taking part, yet who may not be willing or able to communicate this to their social circle. The ice bucket challenge (indeed most social media challenges) relies, in part, on guilt shaming people into taking part and donating, or risk being viewed as a social pariah. "Do this or you won't be a cool kid" - in how many other scenarios is peer pressure just plain wrong? Using the word "fine" for a refusal implies a penalty against unacceptable behaviour, and is another pressure tool. The fact that so many people try to embellish their effort, and in some cases risk life and limb to try and make their challenge different from all the rest, speaks volumes for the craving of peer acceptance and approval on social media, and somewhat detracts focus from the charity the effort is intended to highlight and support. When it becomes a question of how many "likes" one got, rather than how much of a benefit the charity received, the good spirit is somewhat tarnished - especially when it is reported that nearly half of challenges result in no donation to charity whatsoever.  (or at least not to a Motor Neurone charity, the disease having a bucket of ice tipped on your head is designed to briefly simulate). Think of the best challenge video you saw. Can you remember the name of the charity that benefitted, or how much they received?

 I'm not advocating banning such things, nor am I saying don't take part, but both charities and those nominating should be careful not to put vulnerable people (or for that matter, anyone) under undue pressure. One of the more notable dissenters, Pamela Anderson, has been variously reported as simply "refusing to take part" (ie shamed) or as not taking part due to her views on alleged live animal experimentation carried out by ice bucket challenge beneficiaries ALS. Whatever the reason, she is entitled to her own choice to take part without fear of a media backlash.

One of my favourite internet crazes is the meme (pronounced to rhyme with team as I discovered only yesterday).

Relying on a seemingly defined set of images, including those from popular culture, movies, and cute animal pictures - these things are everywhere on social media. Anyone can make a meme, and various generators exist on websites, or as apps. But can they be defined as art? Although the images are repeated, and often have a "style", the meme offers the author the chance to express themselves creatively through the text. Memes are often darkly humourous, cynical, sarcastic and tasteless. But as any Turner Prize commentator should know, taste in art is in the eye of the beholder. Tracy Emins' Unmade Bed was not to everyone's taste, nor Damien Hirsts'  severed cow. Banksy is an urban hero to some, and a criminal nuisance to others. The fact that a meme draws upon a specific set of creative skills, in my view makes it art - a medium that is readily available to millions. And that's what I love about them. There is always a fine line between funny and grossly offensive, and there are obvious areas of religion, race and gender that should perhaps be avoided.

To draw this post to conclusion, I am going to join my topics together; don't pressure people or feel forced to give money to charity - it should always be a free choice. And if you're getting nominated and want to provide a humourous response, whether you intend to take part in the challenge or not, why not make a meme?

Here are a few ice bucket related offerings to get you started:

Image copyrights remain the sole property of their respective owners.

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