Sunday, 28 April 2013

"Likes Don't Save Lives" email chain

***edit: 29th April 2013. Have changed embedded video to official UNICEF Sweden channel at their twitter request ***

The below is an email chain between me and three other researchers.

I've just watched this video that Holly posted and I think it would be nice to get your views on it with a view to blogging your thoughts.

When I watched it, my critical gaze probably fell immediately not onto Unicef Sweden (Were they child actors? Would that matter? If they are, what was the remit for the casting agent?!) but to the taxonomy of Facebook. It's an issue of language for me, so I should probably start by saying that I no longer feel like I'm going on to Facebook as much as I'm going in to Facebook - looking inside my ephemeral postbox for a new letter, watching my closest friends cross a street made out of 1s and 0s to knock at my door in the form of a 'wall post'. It's the issue of Facebook 'friends' that I find alarming. Truth is, of all my Facebook 'friends', I probably couldn't tell you all of their names if I were to bump into them in town. Indeed, some of them I actually haven't met in a physical sense. To 'like' something on Facebook, then, isn't - as far as I am able to tell - an act of registering your taste for, or favouring of, anything anymore than accepting a friend request is to recognise a friendship.

A like of a band's Facebook page might denote simply that you listened to them a few times; liking an author's page may simply be an effort to illustrate to those looking at your page that you are literate (it doesn't mean you've actually read anything). A 'like' is often the building of an identity (so palpable an identity that the Facebook platform is a social space of mourning for the dead. What happens to our data when we die, how do we manage our sadness?). Equally, a 'like' can be an active subversion. A 'friend' says something unpalatable or idiotic - in response you 'like' it, actually hating it. Alternatively, somebody says something sad and you 'like' it, qualifying it in the proceeding comment that you don't actually like it but you want them to know you read it, or are thinking of them.


I had some of the same initial thoughts: the boy started speaking I thought it was real testimony from his country (which isn't specified in the video, PROBLEMATIC?) Anyway, once he started talking about facebook I realised it must have been staged, but then that raises all kinds of interesting points about where the video was 'located', why it was staged as such, etc. As a piece of campaigning material it was very powerful but I also have a lot of questions about the production of the clip. This reminds me of an advert from the Swedish military where they take a similar tactic- trying to interpolate 'us' and 'other' in a jarring way that creates distance between our lives and distant others: the army video is called "Everybody's everyday is not like ours"

I love that UNICEF are challenging lazy social media activism and pointing out that its kind of bullshit, but I'm not entirely happy with their suggestion that individual donations are adequate. Its a typical feminist critique: where is the structural analysis??? Poverty/ inequality/ deprivation don't result from the failure of individuals to donate small sums, but from injustice in political and economic architecture. It would have been better if the video hadn't reduced its message to the individual (although I guess that's the campaigning outcome UNICEF would like).

I think a comparison between this UNICEF video and Kony 2012 would be interesting, because they seem to use the same media for some of the same purposes, but with entirely different frames. Kony2012 is all about overstating the power of social media to promote awareness and influence policy makers (and it had a very minimal money raising goal) whereas this video is ostensibly using social media (youtube, facebook) to criticise its lack of impact. Both try to appeal to the 'facebook' user on terms she can understand, but in the UNICEF case it tries to challenge the comfortable assumptions about online activism. Hmm!


A miscellany of thoughts:

I guess distance is required in order to subvert the narratives of that specific genre; to hijack our original sense of direction. The familiarity of the unfamiliar child, speaking an (assumed) unfamiliar language in the unfamiliar space is what makes the mention of Facebook jarring and draws our attention in. Acknowledging structure would have diluted the message of this specific video - don't just 'like' me, help me - and it's important to note that a donation is theoretically only a click away.

The likelihood that these pieces of content emerge through our own social media channels is also interesting; in liking we like not liking, if you follow, which is interesting in line with what Ros was saying. Also, I 'like' Unicef Sweden, a video pops up in my feed telling me I shouldn't just like things; I wonder whether anyone will simply unlike the page as a response? In addition to this, regimes of feeling on Facebook not only marginalise dislike, but create a flattened and homogenous terrain of meaning. I 'like' a video of a bear being rescued from a bin, but I also 'like' an article on gender in the media. There is clearly a qualitative difference here, which can never be conveyed through a corporate medium such as this; I cannot love or find interesting.

"I 'like' a video of a bear being rescued from a bin, but I also 'like' an article on gender in the media. There is clearly a qualitative difference here"

I guess this also brings up the question of how we're measuring meaningful action. Kony 2012 is a hugely successful lobbying tool, regardless of the outcomes. It relies on 'attention philanthropy' to occupy flows of information (if only for a short time) to get coverage and official responses. So what does it mean if I 'like' this particular video? Well, it means it'll increase the reach of that particular piece of content. By sharing it on my timeline I know at least three other people have watched it, and here we are discussing it. It has provoked a conversation, and I don't think we should underestimate the power of talk. It's how we act on this talk that is in question; anyone here actually donate? I can't remember the other ideas I had…


Cheers for the invite to the conversation. I thought the video was very interesting. From the point of view of interpassivity (where the video acts on our behalf, relieving us of our feelings of being passive), we can perhaps see it working on three levels within the video's narrative:

 1) The criticism of clicktivism which the video addresses (suggesting the views 'doesn't just like/follow' as this is less of a meaningful action) is itself a criticism of interpassivity in allowing our 'like' or 'follow' to act on our behalf.

 2) But also the suggestion that you give money instead (which the video doesn't seem to realise is also something of an interpassive gesture). As Zizek says: when we are presented with the picture of the starving child, the true message is dont think of the structures which have caused that child's poverty, simply donate or purchase in order to be relieved of having to think. I think Sydney has completely hit the nail on the head with: "Poverty/ inequality/ deprivation don't result from the failure of individuals to donate small sums, but from injustice in political and economic architecture."

 3) Our consumption of the video (I dont know if you noticed, but I ironically 'liked' the video when Holly posted it - ho ho ho). Our consumption of the video perhaps gives a kind of distinction: "yeah, we're not like those other people who just 'like' or 'follow' causes; we are real activists who donate" completely missing the point that, as Sydney pointed out, this in itself is ineffective. For me, such integrations of an ethical duty with a consumable product or action is a typical way of performing ones radical identity - and feel authentic in action - rather than act 'politically' (problematic notion) to change the structure itself. The liking or following of a cause is an act of ethical performance of an ethical identity in the same way as people choose to buy fair-trade or recycle. This isn't to say, of course, that fair-trade or recycling are bad things, just that they might be counter-productive in actually bringing about change in the first place by playing into the capitalist-consumer ethical bonanza.

This is why I lean away from Holly's argument that "it means it'll increase the reach of that particular piece of content" and "I don't think we should underestimate the power of talk" because I think, while this is true quantitatively, the video does nothing to create new solidarities that might bring about change, and instead plays into the narcissistic individualism of the activist-consumer who 'consumes' (likes, follows, watches, purchases, donates…) the video for their own identity. In other words, I think there is a link between the form of the conversation (through a consumable ethics) and the inaction which follows.

Thursday, 25 April 2013

Blood donation and the Boston Bombings

Last week’s events in Boston were intriguing to watch, and at the heart of much of the early coverage was the issue of blood donation. The twittersphere was ignited by NBC Sports Network telling of competitors running past the finish line toward the nearest hospital to donate their blood. These warming tales of altruism amidst crisis were ubiquitous in media reportage, which encouraged mass attempts to donate. In fact, the mantle was assumed by so many that the Red Cross had to issue a press release to advise that it had reached its stock quota, but that it did require ongoing public support to cope with the 70,000 small and great disasters it responds to throughout a given year.

As President Obama spoke at the interfaith memorial service in Boston’s Cathedral of the Holy Cross, he remarked that those lining up to give blood are the same as those who offer shelter, food, a phone call or a car ride to others in need. “That's love,” he said. And indeed, love may well have something to do with it. But in the case of disaster-inspired blood donation, that impetus to give blood – without having it requested, or perhaps having never even done it before – is an individual’s attempt to assist with or remedy a disaster with which they have few other meaningful ways of engaging. It's through their bodies [significantly] alone that they feel they are most able to do this. Indeed, this ad hoc donation isn’t a solitary phenomenon. Since systematic blood donation was introduced after WWII – before the introduction of the National Health Service – disastrous events have triggered spontaneous mass acts of donation, with those donating not realising that blood for immediate post-disaster transfusion will very often already be available; for instance, July 2005’s London bombings saw the national blood service spring into expeditious action. Nearly 1500 units of blood were dispatched before it returned to normal service on the same afternoon.

Cathedral of the Holy Cross, April 18, 2013 (PHOTO: REUTERS / BRIAN )
In these narratives of altruism it is often forgotten that there is an incredible underlying organisational rhythm in the workings of blood donation systems. In Madrid’s main blood bank, nearly an hour’s drive away from the bustle of the capital’s core, it might be surprising that the heart of this system of blood procurement, storage, and dispatch, is not a frosty plasma fridge or a line of whirring centrifuges. Rather, it is the shelves of worn folders, each containing the daily data provided every morning by Madrid’s hospitals. The bank can predict the ebbs and flows of blood donation: summertime will see a drop in donations as people vacate the city for their holidays, but this is met by a similar dip in blood demand. These intimate understandings of supply and demand prompted the UK blood service’s preemptive drive to collect a 30% surplus of its O- stocks (the universal blood group) in response to concerns of a donation dip during the Olympics. After all, royal jubilees and national sporting events halt the regular donation patterns that the UK generally enjoys. This has a different, perhaps graver, effect on the UK’s blood supply than an horrendous and unanticipated disaster in which hundreds are killed or injured.

Outside the Madrid Blood Bank, (Ros Williams)
With this week’s crisis in Boston, and those like it, in mind, the UK blood service faces the challenge it has always had of mobilising post-disaster altruism in such a way that concerned members of the public will become consistent donors who can add their blood to the already efficient system. Regular calls for particular groups of blood donors, donor drives that stimulate regular donation by individuals, booking people in for future donation appointments (as the Red Cross has been doing in response to Boston and as will have been done for many of the more than 10,000 who called the give blood helpline in a 24hr period after the 2005 London bombings) – these are all ways of sustaining blood donation. Ultimately, the need to channel post-disaster donator energy into long-term donation begs the question: how it is that people can be made more aware of the need for consistency over one-off public-spirited donations?

If we zoom out to the governance of the wider public donation system that exists in the UK, the NHS blood and transplant service comprises several operating units, each with its own objectives. Along with the blood components unit, there is the stem cell donor and patient services unit that encompasses both the British Bone Marrow Registry and the NHS’s umbilical cord blood bank. For this unit, one of the key concerns is securing a sufficiently diverse collection of stem cells from a wide variety of immunotypes so that people with blood malignancies like leukemia can receive stem cell therapy. This unit is key to the research and development programmewhich, sustained by NHS blood and transfusion service funding, works within areas as diverse as blood cell manufacture from stem cells and molecular diagnostics.

As the Anthony Nolan Trust has pointed out, along with an All-Party Parliamentary Paper released last year that the charity co-authored, there is a significant dearth of certain groups of people (this is often translated into “asian” or “black and minority ethnic” people) donating umbilical cord blood or registering as bone marrow donors. Specific blood drives will often be set up in response to individual patients who require treatment but cannot find a match. But again, singular ad hoc donor recruitment drives in response to individual illness – whilst crucial – cannot hope to capture the long-term sustained attention of a nation full of potential donors.

Back in 2011, the coalition government announced that it would be investing £4m in a collaborative project between the NHS blood and transplant service and Anthony Nolan to provide a single point of access registry for all British stem cell donors. How, then, might the NHS successfully harness people’s altruistic desire to donate, and bring into the public discourse a more nuanced understanding of the importance of individual, consistent donation across various communities and groups? Perhaps more importantly, how can collaboration with charities and other bodies assist in this endeavour?

Thanks to Holly Steel, Nik Brown and Alice Bell for their thoughts on this piece

Friday, 19 April 2013

The Contemporary Other, PG Conference April 2013

Over the last couple of months, a few postgraduate friends and I started organising a postgraduate conference. We managed to secure two external key note speakers; Gurminder K. Bhambra from the University of Warwick spoke on Citizens and Others, offering insights into the difficulty of marrying imperial history with contemporary citizenship. She discussed the US and the UK as contemporary examples of this, suggesting that the ongoing move toward “a more perfect union” brings us to a paradoxical juncture wherein the US constitution itself was never incongruent with the systematic subjugation of the other (namely, those who lived on the land now recognised as the united states). She also made mention of the UK history curriculum, that is undergoing a rewriting wherein teaching is to focus specifically on the history of the British isles. This thereby distantiates from education discourse the mulitiplicity of histories that have come to inform Britain as it stands today. This is an ongoing discussion about this matter in the UK media (see here and here).

Professor Gurminder K. Bhambra
Simon Winlow, who was visiting from Teeside University, gave an account of the English Defence League in his talk Don’t know who you are? ... Find somebody to hate. Winlow discussed his conviction that is wrong to assume that there is a growing political consciousness in many working class communities. Rather, he argued, the escalating anxiety borne of the contemporary capitalist system in Britain has been galvanized in the projection of hate onto the Muslim other.

Professor Simon Winlow

A number of external and home speakers presented on politics, structure, disability and representation. This bred a number of really interesting question-lead conversations. A highlight for me was Alex Simpson’s talk on Market Society and the Other. Anchored in the Hegelian conceptions of the Other and the One, he advocated a move toward looking not only at othered peoples, but the agents who bring that otherness into being. For Alex, this is doubtless routed in his concern with the Elite and the super rich. 

On reflection, Winlow and Simpson seemed to share much in common here: the system, and those who perpetuate it, are often sidelined in sociological consideration of the people affected by systems. By looking at this less accessible group, research into the Elite – also being undertaken by our closing speaker, Rowland Atkinson – can help us to theoretically unpick (or, for the more revolutionary, physically dismantle) the process of othering and the various articulations of identity it produces.

Alex Simpson
Dr Rowland Atkinson
Conference delegates

photos courtest of Semire Yekta