Celebrities – the trolls of (virtual) global development?

Brendan Rigby's post on his facebook probably captures a sentiment that many of us share:
Duncan Green of From Poverty to Power (...) says that this Geldof-led band reformation feels like a mistake/step backwards. I agree. Surely, we've come further than this in 30 years in representation, knowledge and public campaigning? Why is Africa and African countries still the stage for the egos and guilt of others?
My initial response was short and simple:
I'm going to sit this one out. The default rituals of celebrity involvement are getting too tiresome for me. People like Geldof don't really want to listen, learn and change and are wasting my time...
But then I heard a distant knock on the my development blogging door and as an inner voice urged me to keep that door shut. I opened it nonetheless and let them in: The celebrity development trolls who usually operate on a strange reverse-hibernating system and wake up as important festivities in the Northern part of the planet are quickly approaching, e.g. Thanksgiving, Christmas or Hanukkah,…

I opened the door and all I could hear was a loud yell
ISN’T DOING SOMETHING ALWAYS BETTER THAN DOING NOTHING?!?!!?!?!?
Well, it depends…
ISN’T DOING SOMETHING ALWAYS BETTER THAN DOING NOTHING?!?!!?!?!?
Well, maybe read the Taxonomy of Arguments in Favor of Bad Aid again...

Our strange co-dependent relationship with the distant celebrity ‘other’
A few weeks ago a major German newspaper conducted important fieldwork: They identified one of their major commenting trolls and asked him for an interview (Hate on the Internet: I am that troll (in German).
The single, unemployed man in his mid 50s agreed and basically stated the obvious: How he enjoys derailing debates for the sake of it; how he throws in generalized prejudice for a cheap ‘finally someone says it like it really is’; how he vents his frustration on Twitter when he feels ‘censored’ and ignored by the moderators and how he moves on from one news site to the next.

But what I found equally important was the lack of self-reflection of the news site: Yes, it is easy to point fingers at trolls when complaining about the decline of quality of online debates, but at the same time the news sites are eager for the traffic, the clicks, the comments on the comments, the trolling for and against the trolls and returning visitors with more clicks and comments.

Engaging with celebrity involvement in development often feels similar: You write about the bad job many celebrities do (e.g. Victoria Beckham), happy to receive a bit of traffic, some Likes and sharing, but deep down you and I know that this is not going to change celebrities’ behavior.
Some have started to educate themselves, but at the end of the day for every thoughtful intervention there are going to be five or so stereotyped pre-Christmas fundraisers, ill-prepared field trips to Africa and that nagging feeling that once, just once, the celebrity, PR person, friend, NGO etc. would have spent an hour to think it through, read up on basic stuff and ask one of the many, many experts some simple questions: ‘Is this a good idea? Should I be doing this?’

The 10,000 hour rule (+/-)
For all it’s worth, there is Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000 hour rule: As much time as you have (hopefully) spent on your singing, acting, musical instrument or other artistic skills many of us have spent doing, researching, reading about, discussing or teaching development. There is an entertainment industry-and then there is a development industry. Maybe we should both work in the industry we know best?

I acknowledge that we are all entitled to opinions: I can write ‘I didn’t like your last movie’ and you can say ‘I want to help women in Africa’, but then we need to realize that my critique doesn’t trigger the urge to move to Hollywood and your urge may have real negative consequences ‘on the ground’. I can’t act-but you can’t save people.

But that’s the challenge with trolls: You should be ignoring them and yet there is a moment when lonely face-palming and distant weeping about bad ideas are not enough and you turn to the keyboard with the desperate hope that once, just once…

Comments

  1. I'm trying to think of a good way to work the line, "who trolls the trolls?" in my comment... Oh, just did...

    More and more I'm finding myself thinking, as you wrote: "I'm going to sit this one out. The default rituals of celebrity involvement are getting too tiresome for me. People like Geldof don't really want to listen, learn and change and are wasting my time... "

    And apart from the occasional Twitter spasm (usually when I'm very tired or tipsy), I've mostly gotten past the point of caring enough to engage.

    I agree that social media, perhaps Twitter most of all, tend to dumb down the discussion, reduce it all to 140 character isms that don't really say anything, which is probably just as well, since no one really listens anyway.

    And yet, like you, I can't quite shake the feeling that there are some substantial differences between what happens when Geldof, Beckham, Bono, Clooney, The Jolie-Pitt Complex, et al ad infinitum troll the aid industry, versus what happens when someone like you or I troll the film industry. I think there's something that needs to be analyzed (by someone smarter than me) around the fact that Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, Sean Penn et al ad infinitum almost certainly do not see themselves as trolls. I think they seriously think they matter and have something to contribute, which is all the more troubling given the amount of power--real power--that they have to engage unilaterally and (and this is the part that just kills me) be taken seriously. Maybe that's the point right there: "Uh, Geldof, you *do* realize that you're a troll, right?"

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