Pink Slime and the Problem of Viral Campaigns

Will clicking a Like button or forwarding an e-mail really change the world? That depends

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It takes a lot of courage to admit this, but I am against eating pink slime. Also, I think that guy in Uganda should stop kidnapping and murdering children. Also, I laughed at the old lady in North Dakota who wrote a rave review of the Olive Garden. Wait, did I say that it took a lot of courage? I meant it took none at all. In the world of viral opinioneering, it takes neither brains nor intelligence nor even a brain of any kind to get on board the bandwagon. All it takes is a Like button.

In case you’re not spending a lot of time on Facebook these days, pink slime is an unspeakably vile mixture of beef scraps and connective tissue, which, washed with a goodly amount of ammonia, goes back into the food supply in school cafeterias, fast-food restaurants and maybe even supermarkets. The Ugandan guy is a warlord named Joseph Kony, who is the target of a very cannily designed, and less than 100% accurate, social-media campaign. The lady in North Dakota, Marilyn Hagerty, is the reviewer for the Grand Forks Herald, and her entertainingly clueless review of Olive Garden has been the sport and diversion of coastal sophisticates like myself for the past week or so. For different reasons, these three topics have been among the most discussed on social media in recent weeks, but the same dynamic is at play. You find out about something via a Facebook post, often one directing you to a video clip, and then either reshare it, Like it or tweet it, in whatever order. You don’t actually engage with the debate in any way; you just pass it along. Both the pink-slime protests and “KONY 2012″ were designed with going viral in mind; that was the goal of the latter, to make Kony’s name better known, and it has succeeded, having been viewed by more than 76 million people on YouTube since it was posted on the site a week ago — although not without inspiring a number of detractors, many of whom note how little the Facebook love will change things.

(MORE: Invisible Children Releases New Video in Response to ‘KONY2012′ Criticism)

There’s no doubt that we all feel more involved than we actually are by participating in these viral campaigns. But so what? At least they offer us a chance to actually do something other than fret, glower or tsk-tsk when confronted with some evil in the news. The pink-slime campaigns, mostly on Change.org, led McDonald’s, Taco Bell and Burger King to vow not to use the stuff anymore, which must have been pretty painful to them, both for cost and p.r. purposes. But I tend to doubt that “KONY 2012″ is going to do much to capture that Ugandan warlord. And of course, Hagerty, having first been lifted from obscurity by all the snarking, now enjoys the support of various contrarian trolls, who find in her story an ideal platform to vent their unending hatred of the elites. (For my part, I will go on laughing at her hilarious review. I am already planning on making “On a hot summer day, I will try the raspberry lemonade that was recommended” my new catchphrase.)

(MORE: Ozersky: The American Way Of Eating: The Book That Foodies—and Rush Limbaugh—Are Fretting About)

The instinct to react perversely to a viral meme is a strong one. I get that. I have to admit to having done so myself. When an instantaneous consensus against Chick-fil-A formed at New York University, my first instinct was to figure out how to separate myself from it, to appear smarter than the crowd, to go in the opposite direction. In that case, I’m convinced I was right, and stand behind my argument; other times, like in my qualified support of horsemeat, TIME reader comments convinced me otherwise. It’s really in those kinds of forums, where arguments can go back and forth, that what used to be called “the public sphere” still exists. It’s great that viral campaigns actually can accomplish some things, but it’s when they actually get people discussing issues, rather than reacting to them as if they were baby-sloth videos, time wasters amid their actual work, that they do the most good. Maybe we should eat more pink slime, maybe we should eat less: but at least we are talking about it, not just dealing out mindless approval or scorn.

Anyway, if you agree, please forward this to your friends!

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