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The Word ‘Challenge’ Has Lost All Meaning

You can’t turn the fight for justice and equality into a frictionless meme

The semantic drift of internet language is unstoppable, and therefore not too worthy of complaint. “Canceled” now means “criticized,” and the label “Marxist” is shorthand for “thinks we should take down statues of Confederate generals.” Well, so be it. Just have to carry on.

It’s curious, though, to see how the word “challenge” has not mutated in resonance, but simply and quietly abdicated any substance. When an online trend lands in the category of a challenge, all this tells us is that we’re privy to a semi-astroturfed viral campaign — something morphs into a challenge when it’s packaged with in-built peer pressure that drives other people to participate, for fear of missing out, looking bad or seeming removed from the culture. The challenge prompts one to act, but the action required is one of self-promotional conformity.

In the summer of 2014, the “Ice Bucket Challenge,” meant to raise awareness of and money for research into amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, was massively popular across social media. People recorded videos of themselves being doused with buckets of ice water, tagging friends to do the same (or make a charitable contribution toward the fight against the disease). The efficacy of this campaign was widely debated at the time — anything so popular is bound to draw backlash — but five years later, the ALS Association touted it as a fundraising success.

The challenges that followed, however, were almost never tied to a cause. Some, like 2016’s “Mannequin Challenge,” which had people arranging themselves to appear frozen in time while a camera moved around them, were memes fueled by a spirit of creative competition. Others were stupid, dangerous dares: The “Fire Challenge” predated the ice buckets but gained media attention afterward as teens suffered serious burns from setting their skin ablaze with flammable liquids.

Broadly speaking, internet challenges can be sorted into one of those two models. One is an amusing gimmick that spreads through ingenuity and elaboration; the other is something purposefully dumb that could exist as an offline phenomenon among friends — trying to swallow a tablespoon of cinnamon, or snort a condom and pull it out through your mouth. 

The election of President Trump has led to a wave of activism both amplified and hamstrung by the currents of virality; his term in office has seen awe-inspiring protests mobilized via digital means, yet it’s also bred a class of opposition that is totally virtual and performative. Someone who replies angrily to every Trump tweet, racking up thousands of likes each time, is likely convinced that this is authentic, meaningful defiance, comparable to an organized protest with clear demands. But repeatedly calling someone “Mango Mussolini” makes no actual bid for change, nor does it project what’s possible in a country not led by the orange bad man. 

In the same way, turning the fight for human justice and equality into noticeable, shareable, ongoing streams of content tends to strip any solid objective in favor of a certain emotion. And the language remaining can feel appropriative of essential movements. It becomes a sequence of agreement for its own sake, or a blank template passed from person to person, generating its importance by sheer iteration.

Such was the case with the black squares Instagram users posted in June, theoretically in support of Black Lives Matter, and now a celebrity-led vogue for women upping black-and-white portraits has been enabled in part by the hashtag #ChallengeAccepted, which affixes a note of urgency and achievement to an ordinary activity.

Who, or what, is being challenged here? And to what end? Surely it’s not a challenge to upload selfies, nor could these pictures (in the absence of other information) be read as a challenge to whatever stands in the way of the nebulous idea promoted. Yet the implication of a challenge, carried down from fads that demanded silly or complicated stunts, makes for a reflexive context in itself. Posting the black-and-white photo is good because it’s a trending challenge; it’s a trending challenge because it is good. You are free to add your spin, but that’s where you’ll get into a debate about the exact purpose of the “challenge.”

In fact, the world alone will serve to rationalize whatever it is you want to see happen. The irony-poisoned side of Twitter has absorbed this usage, inventing stuff like the “text me back challenge” and the “get out of bed challenge.” These things are only challenging to the degree that basic inertia prevents them.

Meanwhile, life in America gets more challenging by the day — particularly for those who already face a host of unfair challenges. In the realm of web discourse, the challenge is to make those challenges present and relevant instead of crowding them out with black squares and glamour shots. That means challenging one another to face reality. Pushing friends and family to do better, and do the work. Contradicting falsehoods and misguided assumptions.

None of these tough conversations can be engineered for maximum exposure, since they resist the oversimplification and erasure that allow a rapid transmission from a few accounts to a few million. The most pressing challenges, and challenging opinions, will by definition not receive the coverage or mass approval granted to a completely neutral stance. Neither will anodyne forms of political commentary that refuse to describe or engage a problem help anyone surmount a personal obstacle. A genuine challenge for us now is to see the difference between blowing up on social channels and dismantling systems of oppression. It’s far too easy to conflate a swift success of branding with the long, continuous effort of reinventing a toxic culture.

At the very least, don’t pat yourself on the back for phoning in the message.