A recent post over at Mashable got me thinking about the issue of slactivism. It doesn’t take much brainpower to work out the origins of the word (slacker + activism), and it’s now so much in common parlance that it has its own Wikipedia entry. Slacktivism is defined as “a pejorative term that describes “feel-good” measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfaction.”
The word ‘pejorative’ is, I think, particularly accurate. Slacktivism has widely been derided as something that is lazy (hence the word “slacker”), and is done more for the benefit of the slacktivist than for the people who the cause is trying to support. An example of slacktivism that springs to mind occurred last year (twice!) when people on Facebook set their status updates to either describe the colour of their bras, or where their purses were. What was all this in aid of? Raising awareness of breast cancer. Quite rightly, there were some questions asked at the time as to whether anybody with a Facebook account could possibly not be aware of breast cancer.
Similarly, there have been countless jokes made about phrases like “Donate a Tweet” and “Like our Cause on Facebook”, and questions asked about the true impact of these actions. No doubt, asking questions about whether slacktivism itself is likely to promote any meaningful change is entirely valid.
However, a study cited in the Mashable piece suggests that perhaps we shouldn’t be writing off slacktivism after all, because, as it turns out, slacktivists aren’t all that bad. Here are the main findings:
In the 2010 national survey, people who frequently engaged in promotional social activity were:
- As likely as non-social media promoters to donate
- Twice as likely to volunteer their time
- Twice as likely to take part in events like charity walks
- More than twice as likely to buy products or services from companies that supported the cause
- Three times as likely to solicit donations on behalf of their cause
- More than four times as likely to encourage others to sign a petition or contact political representatives
One of the inherent assumptions about slacktivism already outlined, is that the action occurs more for the benefit of the slacktivist than for the cause. Particularly for development workers, this is an easy assumption to make. But before we assume this to be true, we need to spend a little time navel-gazing, and looking into our own motivations.
Last month on whydev, Brendan asked a very simple question: why do you work in development? Even though individual motivations differed, the common theme supporting the reactions we received was a desire to help, despite the difficulties that are encountered. In essence it seems, most people in aid and development not only genuinely care about the cause they are working for, but also work extremely hard in often trying conditions. The slacktivist, however, most likely cares about the cause he/she is supporting, but doesn’t need to do any difficult work to support it. In some ways then, the slacktivist is like the development worker, only a slightly more B-grade option. The slacktivist is the Diet Coke of the development worker.
It’s not difficult to see why looking down our noses at slacktivists is an almost instinctive next step. But this is where we need to separate the slacktivism from the slacktivist. Sure, write off slacktivism as having minimal effect. But what the research seems to show, however, is that slacktivists really want to help, and are actually more likely to do so than others. So instead of dismissing them entirely, perhaps we should engage them better.
Here are some simple suggestions as to how NGOs can harness the power of the slacktivist:
1) Despite a propensity for slacktivism, don’t assume that the slacktivist isn’t willing to do more. For me, this is the take home message of the study. It’s too easy to assume the slacktivist feels that simply tweeting about something or liking a cause is enough to satisfy their desire to help. Push them, and we might see some real results.
2) Engage with what people are good at, and use their skills wisely. In a previous post on CSR, I outlined how an NGO used people from the marketing team of a corporation to clean out shelves and move boxes, when devising a marketing campaign for the NGO would have been a better use of their skills. Similarly, using the skills of slacktivists could occur through further investigation. For example, let’s say someone has just “liked” a page. What next? The organisation could contact the person to detail some volunteer positions that require specific skills missing in the organisation. Hook, line and sinker.
3) Let’s explain to the public in clear and simple language, what good activism is. Rather than simply writing off slacktivism as poor activism, NGOs can help educate what worthwhile activity is, without the NGOspeak. Similarly, it should be the role of NGOs to educate on what damaging activism is.
4) Focus on the cause, not the action. Spend energy questioning whether the slacktivist is promoting a good cause first, before worrying about the fact that their action may be inconsequential. After all, as the research shows, slacktivism is not the only action that slacktivists take.
5) Following on from this, be skeptical about slacktivism which is more in the interests of profit than a worthwhile cause. Last year, KFC in Utah ran a promotion promising to donate $1 to diabetes research for every 64 ounce (1.89L!) soft drink bought. So really, what was KFC’s motive? To contribute to research into diabetes, or to contribute to the incidence of diabetes?
What do you think? Is it possible to engage slactivists in more worthwhile causes, or should NGOs focus their energy elsewhere? Or, are there many good examples of slacktivism that we can’t write off the activity altogether? Let us know in the comments.
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