This is what I saw when I looked at Facebook a few weeks ago: “Change your FB profile picture to a cartoon from your childhood. The goal? To not see a human face on FB until Monday, Dec. 6. Join the fight against child abuse. Copy and paste this into your status and invite your friends to do the same.” If you want to know what slacktivism is, look no further than this.
“Slacktivism,” a portmanteau of slacker and activism, is an information-age term for feel-good measures taken in support of a cause that don’t provide any service to that cause ― monetary donations and volunteer work. Take the cartoon Facebook avatars, for example. This campaign is not raising money, providing volunteers or lobbying the government; rather, it is a simple entreaty to change a single image on your account. The ease of participation is the main advantage of slacktivism over other forms of activism. Anyone can join in and be a part of a movement that, though it isn’t really doing much, is certainly large enough to make some kind of a difference if it tried.
Slacktivism is, in general, used as a derogatory term. Critics say that it tends to dilute the effects of genuine awareness campaigns, making people who want to make a difference think that they have done so. Awareness bracelets, ribbon magnets or pins, Facebook groups, one-day boycotts; as Snopes.com anti-scam crusader Barbara Mikkelson said, “It's all fed by slacktivism … the desire people have to do something good without getting out of their chair.”
The general consensus is that nothing done so easily can have any sort of lasting effect. In the case of the Facebook avatars, this is most likely true. In certain other cases, slacktivism or at least slacktivist methods, have proven at least mildly effective in supporting their causes. During the protests following the 2009 Iranian presidential election, which many thought to have been won through voter fraud, Twitter users around the world showed their support of the protesters by tinting their avatars green. While this was just as effective at helping the protestors physically as the cartoon avatars from the current Facebook campaign, it did accomplish a different goal: letting the government of Iran know that the world was watching. Though it generally does not affect the physical world, it does seem that slacktivism can, in certain circumstances, have a psychological effect that extends beyond the slacktivist’s mind.
While the “Green Revolution,” as the Iranian campaign was called, may have helped decrease the violence done against the protestors, slacktivism is treated with outright scorn. A few days after the cartoon Facebook avatars campaign started, a mock news story that satirized the campaign began circulating the internet claiming that “they all just quit beating their kids. Even the really mean ones and the hardcore meth addicts.”
Slacktivism is an easy thing to condemn. On the one hand, it creates massive popular movements; on the other hand, those movements don’t usually do anything. Whether it’s effective or not seems to depend entirely upon the circumstances. As long as people urge others to take action by wearing a bracelet or changing an avatar, people will do so. Slacktivism is a product of the information age, and it is here to stay.