Do Symbolic Gestures Make a Difference?

Whether you think it’s the symbol of world peace or a corrupt thugocracy, when a major world organization like the United Nations shows up in Second Life, people take notice. Second Life Insider reports that on October 15-16, Second Life residents will be able to participate in the United Nations Millennium Campaign to Stand Up against poverty.

The Millennium Campaign was launched to hold the countries of the world accountable to their commitments to the eight goals that would eradicate extreme poverty by 2015:

  1. Eradicate Extreme Hunger and Poverty
  2. Achieve Universal Primary Education
  3. Promote Gender Equality and Empower Women
  4. Reduce Child Mortality
  5. Improve Maternal Health
  6. Combat HIV/AIDS, Malaria and other diseases
  7. Ensure Environmental Sustainability
  8. Develop a Global Partnership for Development

With the Stand Up campaign, they are trying to set an official Guinness World Record for “the greatest number of people ever to Stand Up Against Poverty and for the Millennium Development Goals” (I didn’t realize there was a category for that! Seems like any number would set that record.). To that end, they are asking people around the world to participate — including virtually in Second Life. SL residents can obtain a free white wrist band for their avatar and click it at the appropriate time to assume the “stand up” pose and be registered as a participant in the event.

This article sparked an interesting discussion in the comments section, with Prokovy Neva starting it off:

You do have to ask whether awareness/Internet/SL things like this are really the best use of scarce resources and the good UN name.

I can’t imagine what clicking on a pixelated wristwatch in a video game like environment will actually do to alleviate real poverty of real people.

This is dangerous virtuality, in my view, like cocaine — it makes people mistakenly believe they are really doing something, that their feeling good about having their awareness raised is something having effect in the RL [real life]. It isn’t.

Tomas Hausdorff countered:

I think activities like this that raise awareness do have a significant value. No, they don’t directly address the underlying problem. I don’t think anyone would be confused enough to believe that clicking an object in a virtual world “solves” anything, any more than standing in front of a building waving a placard “solves” anything.

However, reading the sign, participating at a particular time…these things should make at least a percentage of the participants spend a few moments thinking about the Millenium Development Goals. And like a commercial on the subject, all it is intended to do is reach an even smaller percentage- those who might be incented to actually *do* something about the goals.

For that reason, I think this is a worthy effort.

Aimee Weber, who built the campaign in SL noted:

The magic is not in clicking an pixellated wrist band. The magic is in the numbers of citizens of nations who will know what their governments promised they would do in 2015.

Prokofy then got to the heart of what has been bothering me about this campaign from a social marketing perspective:

Awareness-raising without some specific recipes for action really gets to feel like disaster porn to me.

Symbolic gestures can be powerful in bringing about political or social change. Think of Rosa Parks sitting on the bus, the lone Chinese protester facing down the tank in Tiananmen Square, even the thousands of citizens who miss work and spend money to travel to the National Mall for various demonstrations each year. These gestures are so powerful both for what they represent and because the participants have something significant at stake — whether it’s their safety or life, or the time and money they give to show their identification with the cause.

And other symbolic protests or awareness-building events on a smaller scale can also be effective by increase an individual’s empathy for — and personal stake in — the issue. Tomorrow’s DarfurFast, in which individuals will be fasting in solidarity with the people of Darfur; numerous walkathons and runs that require a physical commitment as well as collecting donations; even Hands Across America, which seems a similar concept to the Stand Up campaign, but which collected money that was donated to local homeless and anti-hunger agencies — all of these events are designed to raise awareness but also have a call to action associated with them. Whether it is donating money or writing to your local Congressman, these are actions that could make a difference in the issue.

My concern with the Stand Up campaign and other initiatives that have no accompanying action beyond standing up or clicking on a virtual bracelet is that they don’t go anywhere. Awareness is absolutely the first step in getting someone to become involved in an issue. But a campaign cannot stop there. Awareness then needs to lead to some sort of action, otherwise you are wasting your time. If the Stand Up campaign encouraged people to do things like sending an e-mail to their country’s policymakers to demand that they take action to reach the Millennium Goals, writing letters to the editor of their local newspapers, volunteering in their community’s food bank to do their part to alleviate poverty — these would be a good use of the awareness and good will the campaign generates.

But a symbolic gesture that requires little or no actual commitment or risk from the person doing it is an empty gesture. It feels good at the time, but then they feel they’ve done their bit and quickly forget about the issue.

Just as knowledge is necessary but not sufficient to bring about behavior change, awareness is necessary but not sufficient to bring about social or political change.

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  1. I share your concern. I think that often times people sign a virtual petition or click on a pixelated wrist-band, they feel they’ve fulfilled their social responsibility to whatever goal their advocating. But awareness is only the beginning of a longer process.

    Here’s a model I learned about long ago that I have found quite useful. If you want change, first you have to make people AWARE of the problem. Then you have to help them UNDERSTAND why the problem exists. Next comes the tricky phase: You have to lead them to a state of DISSATISFACTION in which they’ll consider making some change. And finally comes CREATIVE ACTION. Moving from level to level can be a tough slog, but that’s what’s necessary if you want to solve some of the appearingly intractable problems.

  2. Roger,

    Thanks for your comment. I like your model — the dissatisfaction element is new to me. Does the model include guidance regarding how to move people from level to level?

    I generally use the Stages of Change model for changing behavior — moving people from the Precontemplation stage where they are not even aware of the issue or that it may affect them personally; to Contemplation, where they start to consider whether the behavior is something that they want to adopt; to Preparation, where they get ready to take action; to Action, where they perform the behavior once; and finally to Maintenance, where they continue to perform the action if it is more than a one-time act. The model specifies where in the process you need to focus on the benefits of the action, minimize the barriers, show that it is socially desirable and provide reinforcement. It’s quite useful for social marketing.

  3. You have an interesting model.

    But I’m not sure most people change (bad habits, buying decisions, etc.) unless they are DISSATISFIED with what they’re currently doing. And DISSATISFIED enough to make changes.

    I first learned this simple model 30 years in an IBM Sales school. They taught that the customer has to be dissatisfied with the status quo (i.e. a changed situation would be preferable) in order to take action (i.e., buy). And the same often applies when quitting smoking or drinking, or switching (politcal)allegiences.


  4. Roger,

    I think we do actually take the “dissatisfaction” element into account in the model, though it’s not specified as such. We position the product (the behavior/action) to show how it is different and better than the competition (which may be not doing the behavior or doing something else entirely), which I suppose approaches the dissatisfaction state from a different angle. By showing the benefits to the action and why it’s better than what they are currently doing, we give people a reason to change. Perhaps we’re just talking about the same thing but with a different spin.

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