From the Vogue Challenge to the Challenge Accepted hashtags on social media, we delve deep into the black, white, and gray areas of going viral, the tempestuous temperament of trends, and the message lost in the swelling sea of sentiments and selfies.
Look, we get it, you don’t want to miss out on anything. With a much stronger reason than boredom, like say, social psychology and the intricacies of being human, it isn’t unfounded and unjustifiable to argue why many of us stick our noses where they’re not intended to or why our fingers are flexing muscles from too much scrolling. By now, you will have likely been asked by at least one mutual friend to take part of a social media movement that compels you to post a photo in black and white, captioned with nothing but the simple phrase: Challenge accepted. Almost everyone else is doing it, so you think: Why not? It wouldn’t be too long before you filter through your gallery and desaturate it to its stark extreme and post it for all the world to see and let’s be real here, hit the double tap. Sure, it is an effort of solidarity, virtually linking in arms with like-minded individuals who are beautiful, strong, incredible, fostering a spirit of inclusion amid criticisms, but is that all there is to it?
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Just as soon as I got my first challenge accepted message from a friend early on, an obvious template chain of text not meant to be broken, I politely had to defer participation because of a very important caveat: it was specific to women. No, it wasn’t a decided desire to withhold necessary support for the all too important women in our lives. More than anything, I knew this wasn’t a social media moment I had to actively be part of. Here, women were clearly working towards a digital safe space, and with the exponential numbers pouring in for the quickly becoming viral hashtag, the effort proved to be effective. However, as quickly as I received the first invite, I got more as time ticked by, this time from men with an all too obvious omission of the word women in the dispatched note. As earnest as their intentions obviously were, this was a clear case of miscommunication, much like how it is exhibited in that team building icebreaker game of pass the message where most often than not, the endpoint is a highly diluted version of the concentrated phrase from its origin. In fact, it got so lost in translation that even other women encouraging me to join in on the fun failed were unknowingly complicit to the exclusion of the challenge accepted parameters.
This isn’t an attempt to piss on the proactive passion to exalt empowerment for women by way of a black and white photo, but rather to disrepute the disappointing display of performative posturing on social media. While it was heartwarming to see a coming together of females in a poetic point of passion, there was an equal, if not greater frustration seeing men take up a space that wasn’t intended for them, and worse, taint it with tasteless thirst traps just because. Clearly, all context was lost as it took a life of its own in a sea of selfies, especially since the instructions did read to send the challenge accepted consideration to 50 people. With the Instagram statistics currently running at a whopping 5.4 million posts, what does it really mean?
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Remember when at the early onset of the now enduring Black Lives Matter movement and persistent protests, a fitting tribute sprang forth as an effort to not only illustrate the lack of diversity on mainstream media, but to also celebrate the immense talent and wealth of creativity from people of color? As valiant as the intentions of the #VogueChallenge obviously were, it wasn’t long before everyone, even those who are nowhere near oppressed and marginalized to hop on the bandwagon and inadvertently turn what was already an inspiring outpour of versions and visions of re-imagined possibilities and potential into a measly act of self-service. “I am a Black, young Muslim woman who wanted to create something new while speaking on something that is very important,” said Oslo-based student, Salma Noor, who first posted a black and white photo of herself lensed by Angélique Culvin, with the Vogue logo superimposed and a message of protest that read: Being Black is not a crime. “I was happy to see so many beautiful faces and talented photographers like Angelique that don’t get enough credit for their hard work,” she details toVogue in an interview. “I would [also] like to see more models of different ethnicities and skin colors, [exposure for] those without a big platform.”
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More than just a hashtag going viral, these imprints on the internet are historical earmarks that are clear dissents to the status quo, as it also is a riot against the pervading injustices that uphold barriers that are meant to broken down at this point in time. There’s nothing wrong with participating in a consolidated social media effort such as the Vogue Challenge and the more current Challenge Accepted hashtags, but if the only goal is to piggyback and take part for the sake of, then the value is lost. More so, these digital derivatives are meant to stir and sustain the conversations from awareness to heightened engagement. It’s a numbers game, yes; but it is also an effort to effectively reach people, thereby informing and involving them in the persistent plight such as historical inequalities of gender and race. That is if people looked into the meaning behind these viral hashtags and smash the surface level, knee-jerk, and aimless desire to dip their toes in what’s trending at any given moment.
There is a greater danger to the desire to be included in something viral online, as much of the world is hell-bent in doing, especially without knowing the full meaning of what they are getting on or standing for. With a predilection to be warped in its evolution, what starts off as an ideal raising awareness becomes a defanged approach to achieving social equilibrium. Take the Challenge Accepted offshoot for example. For many, it was just a harmless trend-of-the-moment or for some, a call to action for women to band together in the name of feminism, but with a little digging, it would be revealed that the “challenge” traces its origins in Turkey, where it was crafted to reclaim the harrowing implications of black and white photos, which historically meant another woman’s life lost to rampant femicide, or a sex-based hate crime on the mere basis of gender. On Instagram, @beelzeboobz wrote: “The black and white photo challenge started as a way for women to raise their voice. To stand in solidarity with the women we have lost. To show that one day, it could be their picture that is plastered across news outlets with a black and white filter on top.”
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Clearly, it isn’t an excuse to propagate an aesthetic, but rather an pictoric precedent and tale of caution that if the world doesn’t speak up and shape up, this wouldn’t just be a case of an Instagram challenge accepted, but a death sentence to, as this circumstance highlights, women. With the proliferation of invites, very little of which even touched on the hinge of feminism, the message was lost and reduced to a mere obligatory grandstanding of vanity. This isn’t a crucifixion of conceit, but rather a reminder to look beyond the fishbowl of narcissism through hashtags, viral opportunities, and you know, a twisted case of the challenge accepted. While in the pursuit of feminism, the avalanche of attention was swayed from what was necessary to what honestly become a tired trope you’d rather scroll away from on Instagram. In a conversation with The New York Times, public relations and influencer marketing manager, Cristine Abram, says, “That was the spark that led to the resurgence of the hashtag challenge. It’s all to do with female empowerment. There was this hashtag that already existed to raise awareness around other large issues. Tapping into that allowed participants to gain traction a lot faster because the algorithm was already familiar with the hashtag.” However, as it has become all too clear for many early adopters to the movement, it went from women supporting women to well, the me, me, me mindset.
If there is anything to learn from this dynamic digital dogma, it is that while the landscape is lorded by visuals, it obviously cannot exist and therefore ceases to function in its purest intention to uphold the human plight and experience without words that give depth and credence to justice- and awareness-rooted social media challenges. At this point, language is still king, because it is that vessel that will carry that message to where it is supposed to be, and therefore, it shouldn’t be waylaid for an optical distraction. As it stands, there is still a lot of ground to cover, a steep mountain to climb, and a fortress of walls to tear down in terms of inequality, inanity, and injustice, so as active stakeholders in the realm of communication, it is our duty and responsibility to look before we leap, because if you merely accept the challenge on the grounds of misguided and misinformed lip-service then trust that you will fall trap to an endless pit of misery and regret. Yeah, sure, you can hit delete and edit, but when it comes down to it, were you in it for the cause or just yourself?
Not every dare has to be done, but you know what’s a better deal? Making the hashtags mean what it is supposed to be and who knows, this way we can finally walk that talk and say we made the world a better place for you, for me, and the entire human race. Challenge accepted.