The Final Straw: Social Media and the “Individualisation of Responsibility”

I’m scrolling through Facebook when suddenly, a video catches my eye. It’s a turtle with a straw being extracted from its nose, clearly suffering from a significant amount of discomfort. I look down at the smoothie I’m drinking and immediately feel a sense of penitence at the tiny plastic tube protruding from my cup.

In August 2015, marine biologist Christine Figgener and her team filmed this video, oblivious to the fact that it would become a viral smash, pulling on the heart strings of over 34 million viewers in the past three years. Only a few years later, the movement to ban plastic straws has reached a global scale, with large corporations such as Starbucks and American Airlines pledging their commitment to the cause. On top of this, transactions of reusable straws have sky-rocketed in the past 18 months, with The Sydney Morning Herald reporting that “sales of products such as reusable coffee cups, canvas bags and even reusable straws were up by more than 1000 per cent compared with the lead-up to Christmas last year” (Koehn, 2018).

Screen Shot 2019-03-13 at 9.00.10 pm
Without a doubt, videos such as this one are becoming so much more prevalent on our social media feeds, and can be argued to be a great contributor to this global movement towards the elimination, or at least reduction, of plastic waste.

However, something which has interested me particularly in recent times is a phenomenon coined the “Individualisation of Responsibility” (Maniates, 2001), whereby the everyday citizen like you and I feel individually responsible for environmental issues as a result of our actions. As Maniates explains, “when responsibility for environmental problems is individualized, there is little room to ponder institutions, the nature and exercise of political power, or ways of collectively changing the distribution of power and influence in society — to, in other words, ‘think institutionally.'”

I’ll happily admit, I fall completely into this category. Each day at uni I bring my keep cup, reusable water bottle and beeswax wrapped sandwich in my $15 calico bag. I play my own little part in this environmental battle, and make myself feel like a better person for it. But it was this meme that first got me thinking about just how insignificant a player I am in this game, as positive as my small actions may be.

[Image Source] – as well as some other very interesting commentary
Figgener (2018) too supports this idea, telling TIME, of the aftermath of her video: “I’m of course happy, but I don’t want the corporations to feel like they’re getting off easily just by eliminating plastic straws. I hope this is the first step.”

Hence, through this research proposal I am very interested in investigating the impact that social media has on the “individualisation of responsibility” for university aged students. How does the environmental content we engage with online impact our actions in the real world? Do students feel guilty when confronted with social media campaigns which target the environmental impact of the individual? Do university students change their actions in response to the social media they interact with? And does the “Individualisation of Responsibility” through social media take attention away from the corporations which are truly to blame, or as Maniates phrases it, “insulat(ing) people from the empowering experiences and political lessons of collective struggle for social change and reinforce(ing) corrosive myths about the difficulties of public life” (2001).

There is also significant social utility in this project, considering 99% of people aged 18-29 years has a social media presence, compared to just 47% of people aged 65+ years (Sensis, 2018). The research will be highly relevant for university students to not only observe the impact that social media has on their environmental opinions, but also to observe the impact it has on their consumer behaviours.

A 2006 study at the University of Sulaimani in Iraq also conducted research in this area, to “investigate the role of social media on environmental awareness of undergraduate students as an example of students at higher education institutions”. The results of this study indicated that the globalised nature of social media has contributed to the worldwide knowledge and discussion around environmental issues, especially considering “most students use social media (Facebook) more than four times daily” (Rahim & Jalaladeen, 2016). Furthermore, the majority of students have interacted with posts surrounding environmental issues (sharing, posting), with “the majority respondents using the like button continuously, sometimes using comments” (Rahim & Jalaladeen, 2016).

This study indicated to me that the use of social media to distribute sources containing material about environmental issues is most certainly prevalent, and the target demographic of students is highly relevant. I hope to take this research even further by looking at the impact this media has on the individual’s attitudes, and whether it contributes to the “individualisation of responsibility”.

Of course, this research is not at all intended to discredit the positive actions taken by students to reduce their negative environmental footprint. Instead, I hope to investigate the impact that social media has on their actions and attitudes.

And so, a research question for this project might look something like this: How does social media contribute to the “individualisation of responsibility” regarding environmental concerns and attitudes of university aged students?

Academic References:

Maniates, M 2001, ‘Individualization: Plant a Tree, Buy a Bike, Save the World?’ Global Environmental Politics, Vol. 1, No. 3.

Rahim, M & Jalaladeen, J 2016, ‘The Role of Social Media on Environmental Awareness of Undergraduate Students in University of Sulaimani in Iraq’, Journal of Arts, Literature, Humanities and Social Sciences, Vol. 10.


Published by susiealdermann

Fifth Year Bachelor of Communications and Media/ Bachelor of International Studies (Dean's Scholar) student

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