“Amusing ourselves to death”

IGEM 2015, under the banner “Powering the Green Economy”, will take place next 9th-12th Sept in KLCC. The mega event, whose stated ultimate goal is to position Malaysia as a Green Technology Hub for the ASEAN Region, intends to disseminate information on who is offering what products and services concerning green technology—solar panels, rain water harvesting, eco-friendly apparel, electric vehicles—, and ultimately create leads to sales. It is targeted primarily at the industry and secondarily at the public. Its purpose is well aligned with the 11th Malaysia plan, which through its Chapter 6 “Pursuing green growth for sustainability and resilience” makes recommendations on how to achieve green growth in the country.

Today I received a promotional email from IGEM. I believe this email delineates the strategy to attract the masses to the event:

More exciting news for Visitors

As a pre- registered visitor, you will be in the running to win the latest iPhone 6! To be eligible for the running, please Pre-Register HERE.

There will be 2 more competitions running alongside at IGEM 2015:-

  • “The Most Retweeted” Twitter Competition – Participate by tweeting your best pickup-line themed: “Eco-friendly Pickup Line” to @IGEM2015 with the hashtag “#IGEM2015CONTEST”. The most retweeted entry will win a a brand new Apple MacBook Air.
  • Instagram Competition – Visitors are invited to snap and share the pictures of their visit at IGEM 2015. You should post as many pictures of either the best booth or a selfie with the best booth. Entries need to be hashtagged “#IGEM2015CONTEST” and the winner of the competition will win a brand new GoPro Hero 4 – White Edition.

So what are you waiting for? Pre-register now and be in a part of this event!

As a marketing stunt, this seems to be a very effective strategy, after all who doesn’t want to own a new iPhone? By tweeting and re-tweeting and sharing and cross posting, many people will get the message, possibly get interested and join the event. Nothing wrong here.

However, I want to put some attention to the channels being used, Twitter and Instagram, and what that implies for the message being shared with all of us.

The medium and the message

Marshall McLuhan, in his book “Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man“, famously claimed “the medium is the message”. Among its many interpretations, this phrase highlights that the message is not independent of the medium where it is broadcast—newspaper, radio, television, internet, others—, but it is actually shaped accordingly to the medium’s own characteristics, permeating its essence and altering its qualities according to the medium’s strengths and weaknesses.

Consider the following example: William Howard Taft, elected president of the United States in 1909, was a three-hundred-pound fellow. It would be unlikely for him to be put forward as a presidential candidate in today’s world. However, because Taft belonged to the era of writing and of radio, his visual features were not a political hindrance:

The shape of a man’s body is largely irrelevant to the shape of his ideas when he is addressing a public in writing or on the radio or, for that matter, in smoke signals. But it is quite relevant on television. The grossness of a three-hundred-pound image, even a talking one, would easily overwhelm any logical or spiritual subtleties conveyed by speech. For on television, discourse is conducted largely through visual imagery, which is to say that television gives us a conversation in images, not words. . . . You cannot do political philosophy on television. Its form works against the content.
Extract from Neil Postman’s 1985 book “Amusing ourselves to death

When television took over as the predominant medium, it alongside imposed the need to look proper. No serious political candidate could disregard his/her looks, or otherwise would risk to scare potential voters away. Ronald Reagan, elected president of the United States in 1984, had been, not by coincidence, a Hollywood movie actor. As media theorist and writer Neil Postman claimed, “cosmetics had replaced ideology as the field of expertise over which a politician must have competent control”.

William Taft

William Taft

Internet and the message

The internet has since become the new, predominant medium to distribute information, shaping the message to its own characteristics. For instance, before the arrival of the internet, access to mass media to disseminate information was a privilege for a subset of society, those with power, or money, or influence to access the distribution channels, such as newspapers or TV channels. Internet changed all that, enabling anyone to post critical reviews of movies—rottentomatoes.com—, dispense food reviews—tripadvisor.com—, or allow anyone to become an instant celebrity with a viral video hit—youtube.com.

Both Twitter and Instagram feature prominently high among the youth nowadays, setting up the stage for these communication tools to shape the new message. Instagram delivers a never-ending stream of images, each one of them consumed in a fraction of a second before the user scrolls down to the next image. Twitter relies on short messages of not more than 140 characters each—call it an excerpt of information, if you will.

Neither one of these channels allows for really deep, serious content to be shared or debated through them. Having a conversation using images, or just 140 characters at a time, is so inefficient that, in practice, it doesn’t happen. In order to produce an impact on the consumer, the messages produced in these channels must be short, concise, straight to the point. Possibly a cliché. The message then will not be a debate, will not allow the users to engage in a deep and insightful sharing on knowledge (unless there is a hyperlink to another website!)

Back to the competition

I believe that the power of the IGEM event resides in it being a catalyzer for a good cause, which is climate change mitigation. Green technology alone will not save the day, however it is part of the solution (I’ll delve more on this topic in a future article). The IGEM organizers are targeting the general mass to attend, and as such it’s very good that the attendees leave the event with some understanding on the dynamics of climate change, what to do about it, and how they can take part. Even though IGEM’s side of the picture might be mostly limited to green tech, every bit of awareness helps. However, I’m concerned that not much knowledge propagation will take place, since Twitter and Instagram and not efficient tools for this. If anything, it will certainly be any serious stuff, anything that matters much.

But since here we are, and there’s no need to be so serious all the time, I’ll take my chance! What “Eco-friendly Pickup Line” will be the most retweeted one? My pick:

“When I see you, my whole body heats up, I get globally warmed #IGEM2015CONTEST

Arggggh. Yeah, I’m not the best for these things.

Me trying my luck with a catchy one liner

Me trying my luck with a catchy one liner

Anyway, my point is, isn’t it such a numb message? I mean, an “Eco-friendly Pickup Line” won’t leave much space for actual learning, right? Fine, I can’t be serious all the time. However, I imagine that before the advent of the internet, the competition would have required the submission of an essay, making a proposal to help address the issue or something else, being also an educational activity. Nowadays, in contrast, we just use our wits to create a a simple phrase, which will make us feel nice about connecting with the environment, even if we haven’t taken part in any action, or even received any actual learning. Until, of course, we are bored again and we pick Angry Birds.

We seem to be indulging a little bit in too much amusement. Doesn’t it feel a little bit shallow?

Welcome to MESYM!
Connecting the green dots

MESYM.com is a crowd-sourced platform and a living database for environmental movements in Malaysia. There are many good actions being done out there. Our goal is to bring them together. We connect the green dots.