Selfies, charities, and the importance of critical analysis

Saturday, 26th April 2014

I must begin by stating that I am in no way knocking the money-raising aspect of #nomakeupselfies, nor seeking to discourage anyone who took part. Raising money for one day is fantastic, and that money will go towards good things. Nonetheless, I think that it is unhelpful to argue - as many seem to be - that the final donation figure negates all criticism of the campaign.

The original #nomakeupselfies in support of Kim Novak were really quite powerful, and reminiscent of Lady Gaga's moving, exceptional Body Revolution.
I also recognise that going without makeup is a big deal for some people, and I don't think it's fair to assume that someone hasn't done a personally difficult, brave thing just because they haven't flung themselves off Niagara Falls.

However, when the cancer donations got tacked on the end, it all became a bit… muddled.

On the one hand, it's difficult to argue that encouraging donations to good causes is a bad addition to anything.
The trouble is that cancer awareness is a big, important topic, and promoting positive body image is also a big, important topic. Attempting to fit both of those things into 140 characters is not going to do justice to either one. It is, inevitably, going to lead to confusion and accusations of shallowness; which is exactly what happened.
The conflation of the two topics also seems to have led to unfortunate comparisons: I have seen some really harsh criticisms of women 'showing solidarity' with cancer patients while not looking remotely ill. This is unfair to the women, but illustrates a key issue with social media campaigns: if you have to spend an hour tracking down contextual information to understand the sentiments behind the campaign, the campaign is not simple enough for Twitter.

It is fair to say that some of the criticism leveled at the campaign (and especially its participants) was needlessly harsh. We don't achieve anything by writing off sincere participation in charitable activities as vain or stupid. Even if that were true, it pays to remember the old Bernard Mandeville quote, 'Pride and Vanity have built more Hospitals than all the Virtues together'. And judging purely on the evidence of my own social media feeds, it is not true: there are plenty of people for whom this campaign was a meaningful and worthwhile experience.

That said, I think that there is always room for improvement. I think it is fair to criticise the campaign as a whole for:

a) Really restrictive phrasing. Yes, the name is catchy, but making 'no makeup' the focus (rather than, say, 'unflattering') has resulted in some painfully gender-normative statements and needlessly reduced the target audience.
On a personal level, I find it insulting and alienating to have presumptions made about how I feel about my appearance based solely on my gender. It took a lot of time and imagination to get past that gut response; and I would imagine that not everyone got that far.

b) Repeatedly claiming to 'raise awareness' of cancer, which was not the focus nor, for the most part, the end result of the campaign. While some people did post personal stories and other detailed information, I doubt that anyone learned very much. When I think back to the powerful, challenging awareness campaigns that I have seen over the past decade, any comparison seems slightly insulting.
Posting a link to a donate page is not, in itself, raising awareness. It is the online equivalent of a charity collection tin at a supermarket checkout: it might make you more aware of the charity's logo, but fundamentally, you are putting money in the tin because it's a charity and you have some change. It's providing a convenient opportunity to act out a desire to help.
What neither the link nor the tin are doing is educating you about the cause, or giving you any inspiration or incentive to seek out more ways to help.

c) Weak narrative. While turning a popular meme into a fundraising activity was inspired, the choice of cause feels very random. Perhaps for the originator (who I have been unable to identify), there is a meaningful link, but it is equally possible that 'cancer' was just the first good cause that came to mind.

I also think that it is always legitimate to raise (meaningful) concerns and criticisms about any campaign, and that charitable status does not change that.
There is a disturbing tendency to write off the problems of charitable campaigns, simply because they are for charity. Unless the entire profit from a campaign is found to have been spent on gold-plated limousines for the executive team, you probably won't hear too many negative comments; and those you do hear are generally dog piled by well-meaning people. 'They raised A MILLION POUNDS! How dare you criticise? Did you raise a million pounds?'
Any and all criticism is taken as an accusation that the campaign is a waste of time and never should have existed. There is, it seems, no middle ground between unqualified success and total failure.

Unfortunately, if we only ever talk about positive impact, we aren't pushing campaigns to achieve bigger and better things. We aren't making sure that every minute and every penny that goes to charity achieves its full potential.
Giving Evidence has written a great deal about the importance of properly analysing what doesn't work, and what could work better.
If aspects of the campaign helped it to reach more donors, that's important to know.
If aspects of the campaign confused, put off, or otherwise disincentivised potential donors, that's also important. Could £1m have been £2m, or £10m, or accompanied by a rise in volunteering and commitment to regular donations?

It's impossible to tell just from this campaign whether doing something different would have had positive or negative results. And it's pretty damned difficult to argue that 'already popular meme' + 'charitable cause that just about everyone agrees with' is not a winning formula… at least for today.

#nomakeupselfies has, as a one-off spontaneous campaign, achieved wonderful short-term results, despite widespread criticism.
Whether it has any lasting impact is another question. I believe that it can, but only if we are able to examine its strengths and its weaknesses, and learn from both.