Liking Vs. Doing: A Thorny Seesaw

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As we permit social media to penetrate ever deeper into our DNA, it’s easy to get caught up in its potential for inspiring and capturing audiences and constituencies. Mediums like Twitter and Facebook, as we all know, act as seamless and barrier-free bridges between a voice and targeted ears and minds, creating “atmospheres of conversion”—especially with our plugged-in millennials.

Yet such undeniable vehicles of information exchange come with their flaws. While social media allows for the transport of voices, it does not, for example, provide the opportunities for physical and emotional engagement in a topic—a crucial aspect for brand loyalty in youthful consumers. Take UNICEF Sweden’s 2013 campaign against “slacktivists”, drawing the line between a “like” on Facebook and donating funds—stressing that only one of these actually puts malaria nets in undeveloped Africa. 

It is exactly this breed of “hashtag activism” that can cause concern, shedding light on the potential for apathy that comes from a world massively connected through cold binary code. With this in mind, other weaknesses like endlessly competing voices and the demand for brevity (Twitter demands 140 characters or less), it is questionable, from a comms standpoint, if social media is actually the golden key to true, pathos-level audience engagement that millennials crave. 

And as is often the case, answers are to be found in the most unlikely places. Say, for example, contemporary installation art. 

Lying on the fringes of modern society, contemporary art in general presents itself as the most unexpected and unsung content medium. Shrouded in a haze of knowledge barriers and demographic niches, it often goes unnoticed—despite having profound implications for millennial-oriented communications. 

Take contemporary artist Ai Weiwei as a strong example, hypothesized as “China’s most dangerous man” by the Smithsonian and “the most powerful artist in the world” by ArtReview magazine. His relentless, social media-driven criticism of the Chinese government has created a following so large he’s seen as a national threat, followed and beaten by police and even his studio bulldozed.   

But Ai Weiwei is not an activist. His Instagram account is at a loss for pictures of victims, charitable appeals or brazen government criticism.  

He is an artist, and does not place his message in his online accounts. He presents his brand/philosophy as an individual through a medium that is spontaneous, intelligent, overwhelming, and both physically and emotionally engaging—almost becoming irrefutable or impossible to ignore. He emphasizes shock tactics and apologizes for nothing. 

As a package, it’s everything millennials want. Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook only become sharing tools—a delivery system.

Ai Weiwei makes overwhelming installation pieces such as Sunflower Seeds—pouring 100 million hand-painted porcelain seeds into a warehouse to comment on the “Made in China” culture and its geopolitical effects—or another amazing work, Remembering—where he spelled out, using 9,000 backpacks, the words:  “She lived happily for seven years in this world”  to criticize China’s response to its  2008 earthquake. The engagement starts and ends here with a cohesive and awe-inspiring project that itself holds the message; social media only acting as a platform for organic growth, fed by genuine, raw, emotional responses. The art acts as his voice, Instagram and Twitter instead becoming a discussion platform. 

Why does UNICEF get dismissed with a nonchalant “like” when a Chinese artist can inspire a generation of intellectuals? Put simply, social media does not create engagement, it provides an incubating environment for strong content and media that does. It’s not enough to tell even the largest group of followers there’s a problem to be solved, that your business has a solution, or that you’re “different” like everyone else; it takes creative and outside-the-box reaching out and storytelling that strikes at the audience pathos. 

Stunts, campaigns, avant-garde advertising, innovative media—these are the things that bring traction, not Tweet scheduling or boosted Facebook posts. It’s the difference between Ai Weiwei posting Instagram pictures of earthquake victims and asking for donations, or making art that overwhelmingly expresses the gravitas of the situation, creating a genuine desire to donate. Heart strings can’t be plucked in 140 characters, but it can put that documentary, that thousand-words picture, that interview, that art piece, or that PR stunt on the world stage to spread and do it for you. When UNICEF boarded this train, they launched this brilliant campaign. 

In short, don’t just start a conversation. Give them something to talk about.