I cannot count the number of instances I have had to sidestep oblivious students walking through Sproul Plaza with their heads down, immersed in their smartphones rather than what is immediately in front of them. And I don’t think these individuals are simply trying to avoid eye contact with the numerous solicitors positioned along the walkway. This epidemic is bigger than Berkeley.
CNN recently reported the death of a Christmas traveler who fell to his death from San Diego’s Sunset Cliffs in late December. Multiple witnesses attested that 33-year-old Joshua Burwell appeared to be distracted by “an electronic device” as he slipped and fell off the cliff’s edge. Watch out, UC Berkeley students. These habits can be deadly. Instead of running into me on your way out of Sproul Plaza next semester, you could make it 10 feet further and instead have an unfortunate encounter with the frontside of a bus.
Burwell was probably one of the 64 percent of American adults who now own a smartphone. According to a 2015 study by the Pew Research Center, just four years ago, only 35 percent of American adults were using smartphones. The rapid growth of smartphone usage has been paralleled by the development of some seemingly peculiar, yet soberingly familiar, habits. The same Pew Research Center study referenced above also illuminated which age groups were most often guilty of a few of these practices. 93 percent of 18-29 year-olds admitted to using their smartphone to “avoid being bored” during the weeklong survey. Only 55 percent of those 50 and older reported using their smartphones to battle boredom. A disturbing 47 percent of respondents aged 18-29 confessed to using their smartphone to “avoid others” around them. Only 15 percent of respondents over 50 years old reported using the same tactic.
Smartphone-induced behaviors extend beyond these antisocial practices. Almost everybody knows someone who cannot appreciate a good view or a piece of artwork without taking a picture of it. When I was in Spain last summer, I witnessed a troubling number of tourists breeze through museums, take pictures of various works on their iPads, then immediately walk away from each respective piece scrutinizing their photographic handiwork, as if it merited a longer glance than the world-famous artwork itself. Not only do smartphones offer a lense through which many people literally choose to see the world, they also allow users to share their thoughts with the world-wide-web anywhere wifi or cellphone connection exists.
The Pew Research Center’s study found that 67 percent of smartphone owners use their gadgets to “share pictures, videos, or commentary about events happening in their community.” A friend or family member accompanying a video or article he or she shared on Facebook with at least a paragraph of opinionated commentary is, for most people, a routine occurrence. With hundreds if not thousands of online “friends” or followers, the Internet seems like a good place to advocate a particular cause. Anyone, literally anyone, with Internet connection and a functioning brain, can participate, preach or promote online. In this new age of “Internet activism,” it’s prudent to question the actual efficacy of such endeavors.
As of Dec. 30, the UNICEF Facebook page had 5,706,640 “likes.” But does this translate into any form of social activism or charitable action? Last year, Sociological Science published a study that analyzed the Save Darfur cause on Facebook. At the time of the study, the cause had attracted more than one million members. After an examination of member participation during a period of almost 23 months immediately following the page’s conception, the researchers discovered that 99.76 percent of these members did not donate a single penny to the cause.
Three University of British Columbia graduate students used a variety of experiments in an effort to discern which types of activism are most conducive to substantive social action. Their findings revealed that those who initially engage in a form of private activism — such as writing a letter to one’s congressional representative — are more likely to engage in more substantial and personally costly forms of activism in the future, compared with those who initially participate in a public form of activism — such as promoting a cause through Facebook or Twitter.
Internet activism is indeed a positive force in some instances. The numerous protests that have helped propel the #blacklivesmatter movement toward the national spotlight were and will continue to be aided by those who choose to spread news, dates, locations and other logistics about these demonstrations online. Such sharing encourages participation in a campaign that has relied heavily on public protest to achieve the widespread awareness needed for any type of social revolution here in the United States. On the other hand, organizations battling human rights issues in underdeveloped countries benefit far less from Internet interventions compared with those taking more traditional approaches. Many nonprofits surge on the fleeting rush of support induced by viral videos only to find that Youtubers’ attention spans either aren’t long enough — or pockets aren’t deep enough — to sustain long-term solutions. On March 5, 2012, the Kony 2012 video was released. In six days, the 30-minute film had been viewed 100 million times. We recently celebrated the coming of 2016 and Joseph Kony is still at large. As of Jan. 7, 2016 the video itself has only amassed an additional 873,903 views after the initial 100 million accumulated just six days after the March 2012 release date. In December 2014, Invisible Children, the organization behind the Kony 2012 video, announced that it would begin winding down operations and hand over its Africa-based programs to other institutions by the end of the year. While the Invisible Children organization certainly benefited many Africans who were subjected to the horrific deeds perpetrated by Joseph Kony, the nonprofit stands as a reminder that a sensational Internet campaign is not a sustainable business model for a charity organization.
Public awareness is critical to inducing social change, but do not conflate the dissemination of information with actions that concretely help a cause. Clicking share may educate me about the AIDS crisis in sub-Saharan Africa, but by no means does it mean that you or I will be doing anything about it. Action is inherent to the concept of activism. Stop clicking. Start doing.
“Off the Beat” columns are written by Daily Cal staff writers until the spring semester’s regular opinion writers have been selected.