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I Like It On The Floor

I did a doubletake when I saw a friend's Facebook status update last week: "I like it on the kitchen table." Probably just a private message mistakenly posted as a status update.

Then my sister posted, "I like it on the hall floor," and after a moment of feeling vaguely icky, I knew something was up. So I Googled and, of course, found that it's the latest viral breast cancer awareness campaign taking Facebook by storm. (The "it" is actually where a woman likes to leave her purse/handbag.)

It follows on from a similar innuendo-laden campaign in January where women would just post a color on their status update -- white, red, whatever -- which in fact was the color of the underwear they're wearing.

Malcolm Gladwell, who in a recent "New Yorker" article argued that online activism was a poor relation to traditional activism, should take note. (Gladwell's article basically argues that online activism is based on weak rather than strong ties and digital activism lacks the all-important hierarchy. You can read my critique of the piece here.)

Gladwell would probably scoff at the "I like…" campaign, but I think it's precisely why he got it so wrong: it's a smart and creative example of how social networks can be used to get a message out and mobilize (and of course it can be combined with traditional campaigning, giving out ribbons etc.)

The mistake I think Gladwell made was his fairly myopic view of activism, in that he was overly focused on epoch-defining events such as the civil-rights movement or overthrowing the Iranian regime.

Activism comes in many different forms. It can involve storming the barricades, chaining yourself to the fence of a nuclear-power station, but it can also be signing a petition outside your kid's school or setting up a Facebook group to alert people to the dangers of dodgy henna tattoos. It can also be about mobilizing women into getting a breast examination.

As Maria Popova argued in a recent essay:

We need a definition of what activism is, not what it is not, before we can argue for or against its existence. As far as I'm concerned, activism is any action or set of actions, be it organized, grassroots or self-initiated, that aims to resolve a problem that diminishes the quality of life of individuals, communities or society. The civil rights movement is one example: it sought to bring equality and justice across racial borders. The suffrage movement is another: it sought to give women equal rights as political and social agents.

One of the critiques of "clicktavism" (notably Micah White's scathing polemic in "The Guardian" earlier this year) is that the click rates are "so dismally low they are kept secret" i.e. a lot of surface awareness but not much action (like donations).

But hasn't activism and campaigning always been like that? Committed core and agnostic majority. I'd bet petition sign-up rates were dismally low as well. In offline days, I would imagine that a lot of effigies were burnt, placards waved, or T-shirts worn to get just a few lousy signatures on a rain-soaked petition.

Unless a New York ad agency was paid millions to come up with the idea, isn't the "I like… " campaign a great example of cheap, smart, and engaging digital campaigning? (It's still unclear where exactly the "I like.." meme comes from.) You don't just click or post but, in the initial confusion over why friends are posting suggestive comments on Facebook, you actually have to think, Google, engage.

Again, it's not going to find a cure for breast cancer, but I bet it would prompt lots of women to go to their doctor for an examination. More so than a ribbon or wristband campaign, which we've now all become so blase about.

In terms of raising awareness through the media, you can almost hear the collective yawn of editors when Breast Cancer Awareness Month comes up, especially with the proliferation of charity days/weeks. (Next week is Global Handwashing Day and World Rural Women's Day, by the way.) Much easier to interest an editor about a health/issues story that also happens to be jam-packed with innuendo.

Or for another effective digital campaign, take a look at Greenpeace's (pretty gruesome) online campaign against Nestle. Through a viral video campaign it forced the food giant to stop buying palm oil, which has been linked to the destruction of the rainforest.

Whether or not you agree with Greenpeace or their sometimes heavy-handed tactics, you can't deny that the campaign, which went viral on YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter, made a difference. A critical mass of people, through clicking "like," sharing a video, and targeting Nestle's Facebook page, forced a company to change its practices. But these are the clicktavists Micah White argues "damage every genuine political movement they touch."

Would Gladwell and White prefer Greenpeace to stick with its old tactic of getting a bunch of teenagers to hang around the supermarket and badger shoppers into signing their petition?