Urban Dictionary defines “slacktivism”—a portmanteau combining the words slacker and activism—as the digital equivalent of lip service, “the act of participating in obviously pointless activities as an expedient alternative to actually expending effort to fix a problem.” Wikipedia cites these prime examples: the signing of Internet petitions, wearing wristbands with political messages, joining a Facebook cause group, posting issue-oriented YouTube videos, and taking part in short-term boycotts such as the recent Earth Hour, an online event held March 28 asking people all over the world to turn off or dim their nonessential lights for an hour to urge government action against climate change.
Not slacker-y enough for you? How about the move by many Twitter users in June to turn their profile photos green, so as to show solidarity with Iranian protesters? “I find it utterly baffling,” wrote Australian blogger Raena Jackson Armitage on heyraena.com, “that people believed that doing this would really, actually make a difference to anyone other than to themselves and their own fuzzy, warm feelings. ‘Oh yeah, I’m a part of the Iranian revolution. Time for a soy latte!’”
Increasingly, though, as social media become more strategic and new media emerge from the husk of the old, slacktivism is becoming a four-letter word, a kind of derogatory shorthand used by people to debate (and mischaracterize) online activism in general. (Evgeny Morozov, in a May 19 post called The Brave New World of Slacktivism, said that while the Web has made it easier to be an activist, the surge in virtual involvement might be keeping things from happening in the real world.)
The latest scuffle over slacktivism broke out this past week, on the Progressive Exchange listserv, one of the largest and most influential email groups for progressive activist leaders. The discussion arose in response to two pieces: a short blog post by Tamar Schiffman on the Global Fund for Children’s Web site questioning the effectiveness of social media as a cause-booster, and the reposting of Morozov’s piece in Foreign Policy.
“I’m super uncomfortable with the term slacktivist,” member Michael Connery fired off in response. “Along with Tom Friedman’s Generation Q, (slacktivism) is a term that has primarily been used to tar and feather Millennials for not conforming to a Baby-Boomer view of activism.” Second, Connery said, the term “implicitly ignores all the real-world activism that today’s young people do in their communities, as well as in the political realm.” And third, people who use the term “slacktivism…are not convincing anyone or doing anything constructive by painting with such a broad brush a generation or a style of activism.”
Ted Fickes, another member of the exchange, suggested “there is no ‘right (or wrong)’ way to do social change or do activism” and suggested that people who use the term “slacktivism” either don’t understand the Cause Web—or fear it. “Technology … can be overwhelming,” Fickes wrote, chiefly for “most/many advocacy groups that don’t really have their own ‘theory of change’ and are often blindly shooting away, online and off, without much strategy, hoping something hits and at least building a list (of activist emails) along the way.”
Madeline Stanionis, CEO of the San Francisco-based Watershed Company, an online advocacy and fundraising consulting firm, said that “slacktivism is totally whacktivism.” In the case of two Watershed clients (ACORN and Planned Parenthood), “traditional activism cannot respond quickly enough on a national level to deflect a concentrated, full-force hit job by the right-wing noise machine,” she wrote. Only rapid-response teams comprised of online supporters have been able to fend off the types of attacks being waged today on these groups. “The assertion that online activists are slacktivists with no influence is bunk,” she says.
Even danah boyd, a social media researcher for Microsoft and a fellow at Harvard Law School’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society, weighed in at one point. Boyd suggested that people who keep bashing Twitter and other forms of social media are underestimating the simple power of these platforms to convene large groups of people around any number of concerns:
To be sure, it’s doubtful the slacktivism debate will simmer down any time soon. (There are at least a few panels being proposed on the topic for SXSW 2010.)
But here’s an idea, says Connery: Why not stop using the term?
There's no question that some social media strategies don’t always work (Project Houdini) and that some efforts, like Twestival and Smiletrain.org, continue to struggle with scale. In addition, some high-profile advocacy groups like Kiva and Lend4Health.org are still stumbling over new ways to manage transparency: at Kiva, a coalition of lenders is angry at the microlending site’s decision to start offering loans to small businesses in the United States, and their “revolt” online took founders by surprise. “It was stronger than we thought,” c0-founder Matt Flannery told the Mercury News. “(It was) a little more visceral and angry”—prompting Flannery and Kiva President Premal Shah to acknowledge the contoversy last month and admit the jury is still out on the U.S. program. [Meanwhile, at Lend4Health.com, founder Tori Tuncan was slammed with a similarly angry challenge—in this case, over her use of children’s faces and real-life stories online.]
But online activism is just getting started. For every survey that says Twitter is mostly irrelevant babble, there is an online fundraiser that’s using microblogging to raise tens of thousands of new dollars to the cause; for every 10 Facebook causes, there are at least a few new private Nings comprised of thousands of new members able to help each other raise money, support, and engagement around their needs in ways that no traditional organization could make possible. And thanks to the mobile Web, on-demand volunteering is just around the corner; the recent Facebook purchase of social media aggregator FriendFeed just made the potential for peer-to-peer cause activism much richer—and easier.
Make no mistake: there have always been legions of people of all stripes who prefer to “do” by simply writing a check or pushing a send button. But social media-leveraged activism? It’s many-to-many, online and off, a form of self-organizing and engagement that has nothing to do with playing small.
Still not convinced? Just ask Tamar Schiffman, whose post questioning online activism on Global Fund for Children helped to kick off this latest scuffle over slacktivism. Even Schiffman now acknowledges a shift in the conversation. “I would be heartbroken to see an end to sit-ins, canvassing, rallies and picket lines,” she wrote in a follow-up post on the Progressive Exchange:
—By Marcia Stepanek
(This piece first appeared on PopTech.com and is being re-posted here with permission)
(Illustration: Aviators are Awesome, by doodlemachine for istock.com)