Social Media Campaigns in the Age of Hipsterdom: A Few Thoughts

Brought to you by the 2013 Word of the Year, here comes its distant cousin: the nomakeupselfie. Wait … Sorry, just to be clear on the terminology: it’s the #nomakeupselfie. Female members of the social media community heroically spread awareness for cancer research by posting a picture of themselves on their Facebook page. So far, so good you might say. Hey, it’s all for a good cause. Who doesn’t get behind cancer research, right?

Now that we have established that everyone dislikes cancer, what’s the deal with the #nomakeupselfie campaign? Judging from the initial response, it sure is a pretty impressive advertising campaign. But it also reveals something about the state of society. It is hard to wrap your head around the fact that a picture of a female face sans makeup is supposed to be related to cancer research. Unless I missed the ground breaking research revealing the relationship between the two, it is clearly a marketing ploy. On the face of it, there is nothing wrong with marketing ploys. There is no compelling reason why clever marketing should be the exclusive domain of big corporations and celebrities. But why is it clever?

That is the crux of the issue. Why does a #nomakeupselfie compel me to give to cancer research? It works because of the mechanism of false modesty. To understand what false modesty is, look at the post-match interviews of any football star. You will always hear something along the lines of “it’s all about the team” or “I just try to everything so that the team wins”. No one ever believes this, but every star feels compelled to give the appearance of modesty. If they didn’t, they would be torn to pieces. The people who spread the #nomakeupselfie hype have fallen prey to the same phenomenon. We associate posting a picture without makeup as an act of superlative modesty. How defiant of modern beauty standards to leave off the makeup, how self-aware, how unpretentious we tell ourselves. And this positive association prompts us to give to the cause.

The problem is: it is pretensious. The #nomakeupselfie is pretentious because it happens in a context in which the sole express purpose is to not apply makeup. That fact is known by everyone involved, both the person who takes the picture as well as those who later look at it. This is a situation very different from, say, going to the year’s biggest party au naturel. Not only does everyone know that the action takes place for an explicitly good cause, but also that there is no particular message behind it. The form is the content. Given that the taking and sharing of the picture takes place in the context of a campaign which deliberately leads people to exhibit nomakeup pictures of themselves, there is no particular act of personal modesty behind it. As an analogy, think about a situation at the beach. Going nude at the regular beach could imply some sort of statement. The same, however, does not apply at the nudist beach. Nudity is expected. Yet, we still treat the people taking #nomakeupselfies as if they were going to the regular beach, when in fact each and every one of them is joining the nudist beach. Because there is no connection between the picture and the actual cause, the implication is that this is just a statement for the sake of making a statement.

False modesty is the nightmare of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who saw a tendency to promote modesty as an ideal in order for the weak to protect themselves against the strong. Rather than acknowledge their need for self-promotion, people try to cloak their behavior in charitable terms. Genuine modesty is certainly a good worth preserving. But in contemporary society, it is often crowded out. Not only do we revere actual modesty, but we also make sure that the appearance of modesty is upheld in circumstances where it is not appropriate. We celebrate Charlize Theron for her courage to gain a significant amount of weight in order to portray serial killer Aileen Wuornos. We don’t stop to think why it had to be Theron in the first place, one of Hollywood’s most beautiful faces. We give Oscars to Matthew McConnaghey and Jared Leto because they were willing to slim down so they could make for believable HIV patients. Would Charlize or Matthew have done it for a school play? Doubtful. Yet we still hold them in high regard not for their performances, but for the circumstances of the performance, just as we think highly of the brave people taking the nomakeup pictures. Yet, the extent of the courageousness in both cases is limited. When someone doesn’t subscribe to the impression of modesty, we notice. That is why people like Zlatan Ibrahimovic or Kanye West are so polarising. They take credit for themselves where it is due, but also where it isn’t, without ever pretending that they are “doing if for the team”. This is irritating.

The point of this is to say that finding a balance is necessary. Don’t mistake self-promotion for charitable behaviuor. Sadly, the #nomakeupselfie campaign fits into the general patters of hipsterdom that we now observe on so many occasions. What seems to be important is not the substance of the action, but rather what the action says about the person doing it. Whoever came up with this marketing device obviously recognized this. You can and should still give to cancer research, but, alas, do it for the right reasons.