I feel we could benefit from refining our goals in making the awareness day catch on:
There are two reasons for this:
To identify the underlying cause
To more precisely frame the signifier metaphor to match the signified - to ensure the key message to change behaviour actively points to the underlying (signified) message.
What I mean by this is “smartphone addiction” is a phrase often used as a proxy for a number of behaviours but the meaning and our purpose would ideally be afforded by the event to make the movement take off.
My understanding is that smartphones themselves are not the underlying problem we are truly trying to raise awareness of, but in this case actually serving as a proxy metonymy for certain addictive behaviours they facilitate if not used responsibility?
We would be trying to discourage those specific behaviours in this movement, not general cellphone use (for example we are not discouraging the usage of apps like a GPS, google and online shopping or delivery services or decrying cellphones themselves as bad).
Since then a smartphone-free day would actually a symbol for an underlying problem. I will use the examples here of social media addiction and of people’s lack of engagement with the physical world through screen addiction as potential underlying problems.
In these examples proposing social-media-free day (or week, which would be easier with the focus narrowed to just social media) or setting maximum screen times (with a timer that activates and displays the moment you look at your phone) or other regulatory behaviours or better customising notifications or setting oneself unavailable would be the sustainable behaviours we would be wanting to promote people integrating into their lives as the long-term solution.
Defined focus is far easier from a marketing stance. Historically drawing attention to the generalisation of smartphones themselves as a negative has become less successful in marketing due to their increasing inextricability from people’s lives with far more jobs being digital and remote in nature. Due to the associations with nostalgia and many of us having negative association of people complaining about the latest technology (whether TVs, the internet, games or phones) being “bad” as a blanket statement (humorously parodied by Adam Connover ), criticising phones directly without careful marketing may risk us being written off as simply anti-technology and potentially out of touch given it can be argued we’re conflating both the harms and the benefits including the multiple accessibility and vital communication needs inextricably tied to the use of smartphones.
Defined focus to the specific harms would also allow easier gathering of wealth of data on the event itself, to be accumulated as the movement itself grows, in order to build momentum and buy-in beyond the “spare a thought” tendency: eg statistics on the harm of social media addiction - how it affects one’s psychology in terms of causing depression, the harm to productivity, what it costs companies, risk to life and physical health, impact on families, and other data on harm would be easier to find to motivate for a day targeting social media usage (or unmanaged notifications or more than a certain maximum amount of time spent per day on smartphone in terms of cost/benefit to one’s life) rather than the open interpretation of appearing to oppose the utility of phones in general.
This would bring a much larger buy-in - it is a lot harder to dispute the harms of social media addiction or the risks of inattentiveness to one’s surroundings than it is to defend the entire culture of smartphone usage as a whole - ie if a dramatic change also implies negative judgement about their existing habits (and many people are attached/self conscious about their phone lifestyle to the point of becoming defensive about it) they are tempted to jump to the most extreme and emotional interpretation in order to justify themselves, eg “You’re saying cellphones are bad? Well I need mine to look after my elderly relative and be available if my children need a ride home!” (Even if this is not their main use of their phones, their own needs are still technically indisputable).
By contrast if it is made clear the proposal is clearly defined to specific and well-documented harms we wouldn’t be opening it to interpretation (and thus easily strawman-able in debate) on what the actual harms are and what our message is - they will be less inclined to see it as a moralistic judgement/witchhunt on their way of life or freedom with drastically demanded change. People are more open to hard statistics as useful data to consider how they can improve their cellphone usage patterns. The data would be its own persuasion, similarly to how an alcoholic has to see evidence of the harms done by their addiction before they will admit they are an addict and seek treatment.
Once we’ve identified that we’re targeting the underlying cause this leads onto our method employed ie point 2: the relationship between signifier and signified.
Good examples of this are the difference between movember and earth day and also shaving heads for cancer drives. In the case of Movember, many people treat it as simply an opportunity to not shave, which is what it has become, as “no shave november” forgetting that it is a fundraiser. Even fewer people actually know what the fundraiser is actually for - that it’s about men’s health issues such as testicular cancer, prostate cancer and suicide prevention and that the money saved on shaving products is meant to be donated towards those causes. The lack of easy association between the event and the cause metaphorically has meant that
The same was the case in terms of the ice bucket challenge, which went viral but which few people would be able to tell you was actually to promote awareness of the disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and encourage donations to research and that people linked to the challenge were supposed to donate money. The exact correlation between the challenge and donating money is also less clear, some say only if they did not do the challenge within 24 hours they would have to donate the money. This made the relationship even more confusing as the incentive should then be to “lose” the challenge and donate, in which case one would not be publicising their taking of the challenge to raise awareness. Prior to that there was the “cold water challenge” and the consequences for not taking this were donating money to cancer research, however the meaning behind this became lost where
in some cases the penalty simply became buying drinks for friends
with no connection to charity whatsoever. Another origin of the ice bucket challenge is supposedly
as a means to support pet charities. Thus the distance between signifier and signified meant the precise message became open to interpretation and the intended good effect was largely reduced to a party game/ opportunity for social media narcissism completely devoid of its actual intended context and purpose: generating enough interest in a mass movement to raise awareness and donate. The purposes can be said to have failed due to the mechanism itself (ice buckets/cold water) not reinforcing symbolically the reminders of the actual cause.
The reason this is significant is for example the notion of cutting social media is a very direct relationship between signified (goal) and signifier (the event) as opposed to a cellphone-free day where depending on the underlying purpose it may lose meaning or become a symbolic gesture which becomes divorced from the original interpretation if the ultimate goal is not to get people to move away from cellphones but certain harmful specific cellphone behaviours.
A comparison here would be, if we identify that the main concern behind wanting smartphone free days is not the dependence on phones in all situations (as alarms, medical reminders and ability to keep track of children and caree’s safety or the ability to receive emails while out of office enabling more leave time to spend with family is arguably a good thing) but perhaps prolonged usage and disengagement from the world is the problem, or social media addiction, or unregulated usage, or the addictivenes of social media, or the underlying personal insecurities and other social factors which make social media addictive.
If we don’t address these underlying causes in the signifier itself we may end up failing to address this need - similar to the example of the ice bucket/cold water challenge becoming completely devoid of meaning, people might go off their smartphones for a day only to return with tons of photos (taken by someone else’s phone) tagging them on social media and leading to long conversation threads online which is just a reinforcement of “check in online” culture. In this case all they’ve succeeded in is avoiding their responsibilities for a day while still being active on and promoting social media through reinforcing instagram culture. Hence drilling into the underlying goals and then making sure the signifier aptly reflects the signified intent of this initiative to prevent the message becoming diluted, generalised and even counterproductive to its purpose, as in the above examples.
By contrast, examples of movements which have succeeded in preserving their meaning and association are Earth Day and
drives because the direct link between the action of head-shaving for cancer wigs AND the naming reinforces the exact cause being foregrounded.
It is impossible to “get your head shaved for cancer” or “donate your hair for cancer” without being reminded of the actual cause and the association with hair loss due to chemotherapy. If someone were to ask you what the CANSA Shavathon referred to and the underlying cause you could easily figure it out and remember it. Similarly, turning off the lights on a day called “earth day” forces us to remember this is for the benefit of the earth. This is a successful relationship between signifier and signified, hence it is so often cited as the key example of a successful awareness day.
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