April 7, 2014

What did Kim Novak have to do with the #nomakeupselfie trend?

The #nomakeupselfie caused such a stir these past few weeks around the world; sparking debates, raising questions and even forcing some of us to explain what a selfie is to our grandmas. Since it sprung from nowhere and made waves through social media, the no makeup selfie trend has raised millions for cancer organisations around the world. The trend hit Barbados a little bit late in the game but people still snapped away and raised money.

As someone who was actively involved in the campaign locally, I've thought long and hard about what this campaign said about crowd funding, online participation and selfies. Getting people, young people in particular, actively involved and interested in a cause is no easy feat. I wrote my Master's thesis on youth participation in politics, and investigated the ways in which social media can act as a driving force to engage them. As a generation who is often accused of being selfish, complacent and disconnected from society, we can learn a lot about how to get people to do two things: Give (donate) and give a shit in general. The campaign mirrored quite a few points made in my thesis; a few of which I'd like to talk about, because it both upset and excited quite a few people.

Firstly, I found myself having to explain the link between taking a selfie & raising cancer awareness in general. This was one of the main points raised on a daily basis! In order to do so, I had to explain where the whole  #nomakeupselfie trend is rumoured to have started for it to make a bit more sense. Though it's not 100% clear, it all started with Kim Novak. Here's what I've put together after quite a bit of research:

1.) Kim Novak attended the Oscars last month, the former on screen siren was criticized for her 'shocking' appearance; at 81 years old, her face looked distorted by plastic surgery. The response was as rapid as it was vicious and Twitter exploded in snark over the frozen look of Novak’s face. People fumed that she had not aged “gracefully." 

2.) The novelist Laura Lippman shared a photo of herself without make-up "in solidarity" with Kim Novak after being mocked for her appearance. "I looked at her photo and thought, 'Well, damned if you do, damned if you don't' … all I could think was, God love you, Kim Novak. We criticise women for ageing. We criticise women for not ageing. We criticise women's bodies. We criticise women for bad plastic surgery. Calling herself "Team Novak all the way", Lippman took a photograph of herself and shared it on Facebook, challenging readers to share bare-faced photographs of themselves as well. Lippman said that some people thought she challenged only writers to do this, but it was open to everyone, men and women. Some thought it was about the very concept of selfies, but she only cared only that the photos be raw. "The only thing I asked people to do was share photos of themselves without make-up — in solidarity with Kim Novak. The point isn't that she look good without make-up, the point is this is what she looked like. The selfie part was never meant to be mandatory."

3.) The link between the thousands of selfies posted in response to Laura Lippman's blog post & breast cancer awareness is still unclear. Days after her initial tweet, the internet attached the "no make up" idea to cancer, and you could argue that the connection makes no sense. Because of the nature of the campaign (linking cancer with 'selfies'), it resonated on an emotional level rather than an intellectual one. 

4.) Because the campaign was linked to cancer awareness, people assumed Cancer Research UK was involved, even though they weren't. They cleverly caught on to the trend really early in the game, and posted a photo offering a shortcode as a way for people to donate to the cause. People also seemed to buy into the campaign it because it wasn't engineered deliberately by Cancer Research UK. It was a rare example of pure, not manufactured, virality and they were doing it because their friends nominated them to.

Unfortunately, somewhere along the virtual line, a lot of meaning was lost. People started posting the selfies because they were following the trend, and not donating or talking about the cause. I think people were reading into it too much by suggesting the most valuable response a woman could have to a huge problem like cancer is to take off her makeup, as though this is a meaningful sacrifice. To be clear, it’s not a huge sacrifice, and it cannot be compared to anything as brave as facing the public when you are undergoing cancer treatment. That’s what taking your makeup off was being compared to though. Posting a picture of yourself looking, as you imagine, your worst, was understood as somehow demonstrating empathy with those of who've been through what it really looks and feels like to have the dreadful disease.

The fact that this campaign incorporated the buzzword of 2013 surely didn't hurt either. Some people are obsessed with selfies! But on a deeper level, posting a selfie made people feel good about themselves; it was about affirmation, self-confidence and authenticity. The crazy thing is that for some, taking a selfie without make up was incredibly difficult and awkward. Some of my friends, who I consider to be the most beautiful women I know, struggled to see the beauty in their photo without their 'make up' mask. That's a HUGE issue, and one which is being addressed in many different ways recently but I don't think that this was the point of the nomakeupselfie trend.

My understanding of posting the selfie was more strategic though: images are very powerful, and people relate to them. 'Going bare' simply prompted a gimmick - people need an easy way to get involved and relate to something. Asking people to text the shortcode wasn't enough, you had to include an image and a way for them to pass the 'baton' along to their networks. The real secret weapon was the call to action. Initially, many selfies included links to charity pages. But the campaign only really achieved critical mass when the text donation element came to dominate: no forms to fill in, no credit card details to enter. Whether you were posting a photo, or donating money, all you needed was a phone. And that's the fundamental lesson here for fundraisers: anyone who hopes to achieve virality of any kind needs to think about how their message will work on mobile. The bigger something gets, the more mobile comes into play. Phones turbocharge the spread of ideas.

I was really excited by what I was seeing on my newsfeed - SO many of my friends were taking part, regardless of age, location, or usual social media behaviour. The best one I saw was from a friend who has lived in 3 countries and she included text donation numbers for all the countries where she had friends - it made the ones that didn't mention it all the more irritating. Some of my friends also explained that they didn't see the link between a selfie and cancer, so they posted images that they considered more relevant such as diagrams showing how to conduct a self examination.  Even if they disagreed with the campaign, they were voicing their opinions online, raising even more awareness. I don't blame them for not seeing the link, I was just happy to see that they cared enough to post SOMETHING and spread awareness to their networks. Anything is better than nothing right?

The bottom line for me was this: in order for people to get involved in a cause, they're going to need some sort of emotional attachment to the cause, or the action they're going to take to get involved. For young people in 2014 and beyond, that action is most likely in the form of social media and mobile, and it has to be easy as cake. Some say this trivializes the whole concept of charity and giving, but I don't think it does. Those who wouldn't usually care enough to take part in volunteerism or to donate to a cause, are more likely to if they see others doing it (virtually or physically) and I'm all for whatever it takes to get them involved. Every little helps, and the Cancer foundations around the world are happy for it.

Read my other posts on the #nomakeupselfie trend:

Practise what you preach: An exciting #nomakeupselfie follow up

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