Why online activism fails and JC Penney too!

There are times I think that those of us who are heavy users of social media forget that the entire world is not plugged in. Oh, it’s easy to forget when you surround yourself with like-minded people who share similar interests but the reality is social media is more or less a middle class game. At the very least participants are hanging on by a pinky to the middle class dream and probably have the resources available to participate in the game.

Yes, more and more people are accessing the internet, hell…they have to since the vast majority of jobs and other functions have migrated to the internet. I mean, can you really find a job in 2011 without access to the internet? Most likely not. Yet even for those who have access, it is not always reliable and daily access. This point was brought home to me a few days ago at work as I tried to contact families who had signed up to receive school supplies, the sign-up sheet asked for a phone number and email address. For the sake of efficiency, I emailed folks only to learn more than half the folks did not have access to email regularly for a myriad of reasons but mostly financial. Thankfully I ended up calling people as well but it was a very valuable lesson learned.

In fact that lesson was brought to the fore front when I read the latest internet woe yesterday regarding JC Penney and a rather inappropriate shirt for girls they were marketing. While waking up and sipping my coffee, twitter was abuzz about this shirt; bloggers were furiously writing and demanding that JC Penney stop marketing this shirt and even Change.org got into the act with an online petition. Online activism is often very powerful and of course JC Penney issued an apology and the shirt was pulled from its online site. Of course many in blogger and twitter and commentary land derided those who would deign to buy a shirt for their daughter that basically sends the message that the only value for girls and women is their looks…well I tell you who, people who don’t have the luxury or resources to see the larger picture.

The problem with social media activism and online activism and hell social media in general is that overall it does not represent the entire world or speaking from just an American perspective it does not capture the entire American populace. So often when we in social media land get on our high horses about an issue we are singing to the choir, especially in places like Twitter where the users’ trend towards being better educated, having a few more shekels in their pocket, etc. I suspect the shops like JC Penney and others before them know this too. They know in small town America shirts like this sell, first and foremost because they are affordable.

Economics is the driver for many and for a large swath of the population they do not have the resources or luxury to be picky. When you are working 40+ hours a week trying to keep your head above water and food on the table it’s a luxury to think of the larger picture and deeper meaning. Instead you think oh it’s cute and it doesn’t mean anything. Yet even if you do think what the fuck, not everyone has equal access to better options. In fact better options can often be quite cost prohibitive. I am learning this now that my daughter at 6 has crossed into actual kid clothing and suddenly I have to be even more vigilant about what I buy. Thankfully I only have one small kid at home so I can afford the extra strain of buying what I feel is kid appropriate clothing that does not send lousy messages. Yet in my job, most of the families I work with don’t have that luxury so daily I see girls wearing clothes that their families can afford that frankly have messages that don’t send a positive message. These are the same families that often cannot afford the luxury of having their daughters exposed to non-girl things; it’s why dance classes in my area are frankly scary with the focus more on the final performance and being dolled up rather than on learning proper techniques.

I have said it before and there are others saying it too but social media is not representative of all. Sure it cost nothing to blog or tweet from a financial perspective but one must have time, it takes time to develop a following and get people to read your stuff. Now that it is no longer about just writing a blog post a day but actually marketing yourself; that is time and a luxury that many in the working class do not have. As long as the conferences which are increasingly viewed as a way to get noticed are hundreds of dollars with very little in the way of scholarships being offered, it means that the same voices are getting play. It means the working class perspective is missing and if we want to create true change it must include all voices.

Until the middle class and the working class and whoever else can come together to demand not only that such absurd messages not be marketed to our kids but that true affordable alternatives be created instead, online activism is frankly in my opinion not winning.