Social media has transformed my life. Starting with an online social network at my church, then spilling out into Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and more, connecting with people online has given me more friendships, a better social life and more exciting opportunities than I’ve ever had before.
It hasn’t just been good for me, though. Scores of charities have been the beneficiaries of people’s inventiveness and creativity in using social media to raise awareness of their issues and to raise funds in creative ways.
It is now quicker and easier than ever to let the world know what you think about a given need or injustice, and to do something simple and practical about it.
As good as this is, however, there is a downside. Since we now can make a difference so quickly and easily, we are coming to expect to, and are disappointed – even outraged – when we can’t.
Take the Great Bake-Off Meltdown, for example.
If you already know what I’m talking about, you can skip down to the *. If, however, you live overseas, or under a rock somewhere, you may not be aware that in Britain at the moment there is a televised baking competition. (Yes, I know. There’s a sewing one, too, but it’s not on at the moment.)
In last week’s episode the contestants were asked to make Baked Alaska (a dessert of cake topped with ice cream and covered with meringue. Yummy!). They had to make every bit themselves – even the ice cream – in a tent, somewhere in England on one of the warmest weekends of the spring.
I don’t think any of them managed to get their ice cream fully set, but one – Iain’s – was little more than liquid. This wasn’t helped by the fact that one of the other contestants, Diana, had taken Iain’s ice cream out of the freezer for a short while and hadn’t told him.
The way the programme was edited, it appeared that Diana’s action was entirely to blame for the runny-ness of Iain’s ice cream, although some of the programme’s presenters have since stated that that was not the case.
On discovering his sloppy mess of a dessert, Iain despaired. He tipped it into the bin and walked off the set.
Each episode the weakest contestant is sent home, and this week it was Iain who left, on the grounds that he failed to show what he had made.
The BBC received over 500 complaints, with many people demanding that Iain be reinstated.
But here’s the thing: the show was recorded back in the spring. Even if some great injustice had been perpetrated (it hadn’t), there is absolutely no way the BBC could rewind time, undo what had been done and insert Iain back into the mix.
Yet the nation’s expectation that a trending hashtag and a slew of emailed complaints will make an immediate difference left people apparently feeling more aggrieved that their voices hadn’t been heard than they were over the incident in the first place.
In an intriguing twist, it now transpires that Diana fell ill before the filming of the next episode and dropped out of the competition. Hopefully that gives some kind of ‘closure’ to the debacle (and the way it was reported in at least some newspapers allows those who want to read it that way to believe that she withdrew because of the social media response, their understanding of the way time works clearly being somewhat suspect!).
This is, of course, a fairly trivial example. People getting this overheated about melted ice cream in a contest which, as Diana pointed out, has no monetary prize, is just a bit silly. We could laugh and move on.
Except that the trend extends to more than cakes. Having seen the power of social media to change things, we now expect it to, every time. That’s fine when it comes to raising money for good causes, or letting governments know what we think about proposed policies, but what about when it comes to more complex issues, like Israel and Palestine, or other ongoing situations like the Ukraine and Syria? The danger is that when we see our instant activism failing to make an instant difference, we will get discouraged and, as has happened with traditional methods of political engagement, will feel disenfranchised and stop bothering.
Except for the more extreme fringes, who will continue to whip up support for their causes without any more rational voices presenting an alternative approach.
This all sounds a bit doom-and-gloom, and I don’t mean to be fatalistic about it. I think what I’m saying is, be realistic. Don’t get so swept up in the world of instant results that you get discouraged when the bigger situations take longer to resolve. Don’t give up too easily.
The reason Iain left the Great British Bake Off – as the judges made clear – was not because his ice cream melted, but because when it did, he gave up.
If we’re in a contest worth winning, we can’t throw in the towel – or the cake – too soon.
Picture Credit: The Great British Bake Off