Tweeting the change you wish to see is easy. Global attention is as elusive as ever

I was alone on a drive from Maine to Massachusetts in early December when a crazy idea hit me. Listening to Christmas music along a snow-lined I-95, my epiphany was to write a letter to rockstar Pink and ask her to sing a Christmas duet with me, the proceeds from which would be given to Doctors Without Borders to help female rape and torture victims in the Congo.

Stay with me and I’ll back up a bit.

Ever since reading Nicholas Kristof and Sheryl WuDunn’s 2009 book Half the Sky, a haunting yet inspiring volume on female indignities in some of the world’s roughest spots, I’ve had tugs on my conscience to do something creative to help discarded women.

At the time I read the book I was living in Africa, and one of my first responses to Kristof and WuDunn’s calls to get involved was to step up my coverage of women’s rights issues in countries like Tunisia, Kenya, and Egypt. But I wanted to do more, and finally, listening to Josh Groban and Faith Hill sing a duet of “The First Noel” as I cruised toward the New Hampshire state line, I had an idea outrageous enough for my liking.

Finishing up my drive in the powdered Berkshires, I finalized the plan in my head. The song would be John Lennon’s ponderous ballad “So This Is Christmas” (officially recorded as “Happy Christmas”), which Pink and I would release in late 2012. My choice of artist was easy; Pink has a voice that can fill the Superdome, but more importantly, there’s humanity in her work. I get the sense she’s someone who gives a damn. The choice of the Congo wasn’t hard, either. Before you finish reading this column, more than one Congolese man will zip up his pants and walk away from the woman (or child) he just forcibly inseminated, if he doesn’t kill her first. The world forgot about the women of the Congo, and then it forgot that it forgot about them.

Here’s how I would try to get Pink’s attention. I’d post online a video of me explaining my plan and singing an a cappella version of Lennon’s song, to show I can lug a tune. I would then write an op-ed about the vicious treatment of women in the Eastern Congo, and within the column explain my plan to have Pink help raise awareness of this sexual abattoir. I would then use social media to circulate both the video and the op-ed as much as I could.

Despite the outlandish nature of my philanthropic plot, I was optimistic that something might actually come of it.

While more than 1,000 people have viewed the video I posted, my plan has so far fizzled, and no one in Pink’s entourage has called my office. Many of my Twitter followers and Facebook companions kindly watched and shared the YouTube video, but that was about it. No editors ran the column on Congolese women (they found the piece to be too rich in “activism,” although I personally don’t feel helping raped women and girls is a politically charged issue. I was taught in journalism school that newspapers are to “comfort the afflicted,” but I digress).

Is it that no one cares? Did Pink discard my invitation? Is my voice painful? The answers are no, probably not, and I don’t think so.

Two of the fiercest current and growing global competitions involve courting educated workers and attracting the attention of digital sharers. Aside from physical competition—that is, the struggle for geographical territory and the administration of military might—contests both for capable professionals and digital attention will preoccupy power brokers in our surging age of screens. “Every last piece of real estate on the screen is vying for your attention,” New York Times tech writer Nick Bilton wrote in I Live in the Future & Here’s How it Works, a reality compounded by our confrontations with multiple screens.

And I acknowledged all this.

I was still naively sanguine that my peculiar plan had legs. But I got an updated lesson on how hard it is to effect change using social media, even with a seemingly novel blueprint. I know that I don’t need ten million people to view my video and circulate my strange idea to achieve my plan of singing for women on the mend—rather, I just need the one right person to learn of it. But a million sharing dendrites help, and reaching this number of transactions is damn hard.

I’m still thinking of ways to push my plan of coupling a journalist with one of the world’s biggest rockstars to record a holiday song for battered women. And if it works out I’ll be singing all the way to sub-Sahara. I’m reminded, though, that the vast networks that let us do so many things are also among the distractions that curb attention required to do them.

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Justin D. Martin is a journalism professor at Northwestern University in Qatar. Follow him on Twitter: @Justin_D_Martin Tags: , , , , ,