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Bra colors & cancer: Putting the social in social networking

When we started this Story Lab blog a few weeks ago, I wasn't sure what to expect. We wanted to create a new kind of journalistic space where a community of readers -- however you define it, geographically, by interest, etc. -- could come together and use the power of new technology to help reporters shape stories together to better explain and understand our world. The idea is to, in effect, create stories together.

I was a little surprised that the topic that set the blog on fire yesterday was ... bra color.


Was posting your bra color on Facebook a joke? Was it an attempt to raise breast cancer awareness? (To really raise your awareness, go the National Cancer Institute's breast cancer page.)

People were having fun, being silly, thinking seriously, getting angry, ranting, arguing. Readers said The Post was silly to devote resources to this topic, or that we were wasting time, or we were right on the money, getting it right. It was amazing to watch this passionate and opinionated discussion unfold in real time here on the blog, as well as watch the bra color phenomenon go wildly viral around the globe on the net.

I asked people to send me their stories - and I got amazing help. In a few hours, more than 50 people sent emails to my Washington Post address and more sent notes to my Facebook account. They sent me links and passed on pieces of the puzzle about where this viral phenomenon started and how it was taking off. The messages were thoughtful, funny, angry, wry, lighthearted -- in other words, just like the discussion, all over the map. Some of the comments I was able to use in the article, after I made sure it was OK with the readers who'd written in. But others that were equally great, I didn't have the time or space to squeeze in.

I tried to talk to the author of an amazing blog post about being a breast cancer survivor and how she grappled with the bra color question, but we were unable to speak before my deadline hit. I would encourage anyone interested to check out her post.

Claudia wrote in with critical statistics: "Cancer *in all its various forms* is the second cause of death among women (Source: Centers for Disease Control). Heart disease is number one, responsible for 7 out of every 25 female deaths. Cancer in general is responsible for 3 out of every 25 female deaths. Stroke is the number three cause, responsible for 1 out of every 25 female deaths.

Of the various forms of cancer, Lung cancer is responsible for 34%; Breast is 19%; Colon/rectum is 13%; Pancreas is 8%; Ovarian is 7%."

Here are a just a few of the many messages that came in yesterday that struck me: (published with permission).

No, I'm not posting [my bra color]. Whether it raises awareness of breast cancer is dubious, at best, but please note that it has now moved on to underwear by color and type and is rapidly degenerating into something prurient. Imho, it's a massive, humiliating joke.


Madison, WI

(FYI. I had to google IMHO. (Ah, such an oldster at 47.) I'm grateful that this same reader, K Nolan, then let me know, later in the day, about the next viral posting: "URGENT! FACEBOOK VIRUS ALERT. An email recently went out to women asking them to post the color of their bra. THIS IS A VIRUS.To fix it, you must remove your bra, then go to Setting>Enable Webcam> Record Movie. Please repost to your status." "See what I mean?" K Nolan wrote.

But this one, from Genevieve McDonald, about her exchange with her daughter, Katy McDonald, I thought, really captured the strange spirit of the whirlwind day. It encompassed both how silly the request seemed, and the fact that, whatever the reason behind it - it worked. At least for the moment.

Ok, so yesterday someone told me about posting my bra color on facebook as a way to raise awareness about breast cancer. I was cynical & didn't rise to the bait, it feels sort of scandalous & sexual to me, not having anything to do with cancer so I didn't respond to it. I just read your column out loud to my 18 year old daughter feeling my cynicism was justified. I told her that it didn't seem to be raising awareness about breast cancer and she responded with, "On any other typical Friday would you be sitting around thinking about breast cancer, it seems to me it has done what it set out to do." She was right! My bra color is a plain, boring beige!

What did this all mean? On Friday, I tried calling a couple of "social media experts" to ask that question. Alexandra Samuel had this to say:

This is a great illustration of the value of asking for low-threshold participation. Too often, organizations and businesses seeking social media engagement ask their supporters to do something relatively big, like submitting a video or blog post. But creating mechanisms that invite micro-participation is incredibly powerful, because it makes it easy for so many people to get involved -- and form there, to move them towards more substantive involvement. The real challenge for [The Susan G. Komen Foundation] now is to take those 134,000 new followers and turn at least some of them into engaged supporters and contributors.

This bra color thing swept the globe Friday for some reason. It's a wonder any work got done. It became my work of the day (and, I guess, today.) It demonstrated the awesome power and wide reach of social networking. But will it last? Will it change anything? Will anything meaningful come of it? Or was it an ephemeral, mystifying and somewhat goofy flash in the pan?

Again, K Nolan emailed a provocative thought: Facebook "invitations proliferate like mice, but I have to wonder whether anyone ever actually gets out and volunteers and DOES anything. Virtual good works? I'm pretty sure that's an oxymoron."

Is it?

By Brigid Schulte  | January 11, 2010; 10:06 AM ET
Categories:  Build-A-Story, How I got that story, Journalism , More on the story, The Blowback  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: Pick of the Day: When a man becomes a woman
Next: Pick of the Day: Readable health care reform


I am one of those who wrote in pointing out that women get cancers other than breast cancer. I have both ovarian and breast cancer. Did you know that the "breast cancer gene" causes both?

We need more awareness of a lot of things. I'm doing my part for ovarian cancer by encouraging people to paint their toenails teal, the color of ovarian cancer awareness.

I want to know what color your toes are!

Posted by: bethesda6 | January 11, 2010 1:22 PM | Report abuse

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