Online social hubs such as Facebook, Instagram, Twitter and now TikTok have all become centers for conversations regarding climate change and ecology in recent years, coinciding with a much grander green movement that has swept across the United States. Naturally, the social media dialect has transformed how these topics are addressed both inside and outside of these respective platforms, giving rise to a slew of trends and hashtags that have dominated the discourse on climate change. A recent and demonstrative example is found in 2018’s metal straw movement.
While the exact origin of the movement against plastic straws in particular remains elusive, a few key moments can be pinpointed — the first of which being a 2015 video from a young marine biology student. The video captured an injured turtle with a plastic straw lodged in its nose, and a young woman coming to its aid. Other possible catalysts include various more localized campaigns to end plastic straw use in restaurants and businesses, all of which used social media’s shareability to reach global audiences.
The main pillar of all of these cases are online social platforms like the ones mentioned above, which ignite passionate conversations and most importantly, trends that turn these movements into unavoidable social habits. The transformation from movement to online trend brings a plethora of new factors into play, and the movement against single-use plastics is no exception. Hashtags and character-limits confine social media campaigns to short, shareable quips — and participators are identified and labeled. In this case, the use of reusable straws became an easy pathway to flaunt climate activism materialistically, through easily postable pictures and captions.
“VSCO girl” became a popular term to identify people who used and shared their use of “sustainable” accessories — “VSCO” being derived from the popular photo-sharing and editing app of the same name. The wide use of this term helped to solidify the movement’s “trending” status online, the implications of which are subtle and double-edged; on one hand, there suddenly existed popular, widespread awareness of the threat that single-use plastics impose on the planet, but on the other hand was the consequences of reshaping a real issue into a familiar aesthetic.
Suddenly, the dialogue surrounding plastic waste was no dialogue at all, but rather a series of fashionable photos posted to an Instagram account. Reusable straws became hot commodity items, selling furiously on Amazon as social media influencers posed with them effortlessly dangling from their lips. Not only was the ecological impact of the mass distribution of these items rarely, if ever, considered, but the issue at the core of this trend was no longer an issue either — purchasers of these trendy reusable straws could easily feel absolved of further social responsibility regarding plastic consumption, all because the reigning online aesthetic was resolution.
If everyone on my feed is sporting metal-silicone straws, all marine life must be saved, right?
This distorted mindset is real and rooted in how people interact with social media on a daily basis. The role it plays in shifting conversations easily governs how issues like these are popularly viewed, simply because these platforms dominate global conversation. Issues become diluted, watered down to easily digestible but mindless actions that do little to solve the bigger problem.
However, just as fashion trends quickly go out of style, the reusable-products-turned-accessories do as well, making their final metamorphosis into the butt of social media’s joke. All that remains in conversation is some variation of the phrase, “Hey, remember that VSCO girl phase?” — summing up the power and tenacity (or lack thereof) of eco-movements made into aesthetic. The real harm here is in the facade; the repeated mutation of this issue turns it into something almost unrecognizable, and in doing so, makes it vulnerable to the same criticisms that drive shoes and hairstyles out of fashion every year.
The key point here is this: Society’s struggle with sustainability isn’t fashionable. It isn’t photogenic and it can’t be conveyed in 180 characters or less. This is a problem that can only be addressed and solved consciously and uncomfortably — granted, neither of these things are simple, but the willingness to try is what offers hope that society can change its dangerous habits. Although, it’s also important to note that this is not any one person’s fault. No one who owns a metal straw or took part in a hashtag can be blamed solely for aestheticizing the metal straw movement. What happened here was deeply cultural; social media has infiltrated almost every facet of our society, and dealing with that fact is something that must be done collectively.
The relationship between social media and climate activism can be symbiotic. It will take work, accountability and, above all, recognition that the way we’ve gone about things isn’t perfect — but at the end of the day, anything really is #possible.