Don’t write off the slacktivist.

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.

Sites like donateatweet.com ask people to donate a tweet a day. But to what? It isn’t clear.

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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Weh Yeoh

Weh is a disability development worker currently based in Cambodia. He is a professionally trained physiotherapist who has completed a MA in Development Studies at the University of NSW. He has a diverse background, having spent years travelling through remote parts of Asia, volunteering in an orphanage and adult shelter for people with disabilities in Vietnam, interning in India, and studying Mandarin in Beijing. He has experience in the NGO sector both in Australia and internationally in China, through Handicap International. He is an obsessed barefoot runner, wearer of Lycra, and eats far too much for his body size. You can view his LinkedIn (www.linkedin.com/in/wmyeoh) and follow him on Twitter @wmyeoh.

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24 thoughts on “Don’t write off the slacktivist.”

  1. Moving the dialouge away from the motivation or ethical stance of the slactivist towards the impact a slactivist can make interests me more than discussing how ethical or dedicated a person is to a social cause. Traditional letter writing campaigns and signature petitions are tools that NGOs have been using for a long time to advocate for social justice issues…just think about the basis of Amnesty International and how successful they have been in countless cases through their petitions. Honestly, if your specific intention is to pressure a particular body, be that a government department or a corporation deemed responsible for a specific act, then collecting as many signatures and support as possible is the goal and slactivism is a pretty useful avenue to reach that outcome. If I had a choice between standing on a street corner trying to lure people to sign my printed campaign or setting up an online advocacy page that reached exponentially more people…well you see my point.

    Numbers intimidate and global awareness gives voice to issues that can otherwise remain silenced. This is especially true in places where local populations have grown accustomed to stories of human rights abuses and are less likely to raise their voices or have the perspective to see how abusive internal situations can be. For campaigns that simply want a guilty party to pay attention and own up to something they know they are responsible for, a rally of international support is a lifeline of fresh air for the victims and a dream for the development of their cause.

    I see the point of the article and I appreciate that many people see the slactivist as lame but if it creates change and achieves victories, then it’s insulting and smug to scoff at the power of the slactivist’s group potential. For quality campaigners and change makers, this is a really exciting time to be an advocate and channel all of those who can’t imagine how to change the world beyond the realms of their computers! This is 2012!

  2. This was a really interesting read, and the comments were equally enlightening. I am guilty of turning up my nose at these Facebook reposts and shares… to be honest though, I have been somewhat brainwashed by my partner who works in development and can be a bit of a snob about these matters. I definitely will look at such behaviour with a more open mind now, and try to analyse whether there is actual some true benefit to each case before dismissing it.
    (I’m Rosie from Les’ facebook, btw)

  3. The term 'slacktivism' has no place in a development lexicon/trajectory whereby the desired outcome is to have the maximum amount of people contributing in their own ways to the reconstructing of the current state of the world into something more economically, socially, and culturally inclusive. This is an excellent post but I actually think that the point made here can be more forceful.

    Clearly, not everyone would on their own heed the need to carry out altruistic deeds. The word 'altruistic' itself implies a sense of detachment from social norms and in some cultures such as mine (Khmer) it can even be seen as a form of deviance. As those of us who have stepped out of our comfort zone and attempted to make changes in the world would understand, making a positive impact on someone else's life is ultimately a 'feel-good' act. For me, it is even downright addictive. We should accept the fact that there is no such thing as 'a selfless deed'. We should advertise all forms of volunteer work, treating it as a commodity on the market. Make it attractive, turn it into something that guarantees to make people feel good about themselves, and, indeed, most importantly we need to focus instead on building a framework that allows people to make maximum social impact given the time and effort they are willing to put in.

  4. Great food for thought. The KFC example is priceless (sadly).

    I've had a feeling for a while that the term might also be part of the campaign of belittling those who care (even a little bit) for caring by those who don't like having their conscience pricked. An interesting corollary was the use of "air quotes" and a sarcastic tone by people such as Glenn Beck when referring to "social justice". The danger is if development workers jump on board with the criticism they may actually be perpetuating an image which reflects badly on all development initiatives. Eg. when the Australian/Telegraph/Hun run their awful articles criticising AusAID, and it is a big easy target sometimes, it actually reflects badly on the whole industry, even those agencies which are doing what News Ltd is criticising AusAID for not doing. It also neglects to mention the benefits AusAID's money does have, particularly when given through NGOs. I completely agree with the point that we should not criticise those we consider "slacktivists" but work with them to improve their understanding of good practice in development and activism.

    1. Thanks @nokenwari. Absolutely – it's far too easy for media to broad-brush an easy target like AusAid, and then for that mud to stick on all aid and development organisations.

  5. I found this article http://bit.ly/sJ0Tfg; and the one it was based on by @katya http://on.mash.to/qV0H6q insulting in its labelling, from the title containing #slacktavist #slacktavism down to the end of each, using judgmental labels and drawing conclusions about #consumerbehaviour that for me had a demotivating effect.

    Many #socialmedia 'experts' seem willing to make value judgments #consumerbehaviour without much grounding in the art of true engagement, especially when it comes to #advocacy.

    By the way I don't like to be labelled #activist or #slacktivist, but rather an advocate for #civilrights and #humanrights. The latter is particularly patronizing.

    The use of the term #activist has become increasingly negative.

    My solo unfunded activities in cause promotion selected issues are not restricted to #socialmedia outlets. I use a range of strategies to raise awareness amongst politicians, policy-makers and the general public, seeking not only to share information and resources, but also to influence public policy.

    Continuing use of the term #slacktivist or #slacktivism is likely to upset many, as are the presumptions made about how useful such #feelgooders can contribute.

    The conclusions drawn are limited, lack imagination and for individualists like myself could well have the opposite effect to that desired with #engagement.

    See 43 responses on Topsy profile skylark100au1 http://bit.ly/sCb4gc see #slacktavist #disengagement #socialmedia http://bit.ly/sJ0Tfg; re http://on.mash.to/qV0H6q some 41 Tweets similar topic on #Twitter and a further 6 from today, 31 Oct 2011.

    In responding to another why.dev article "Who Reads International Development Blogs http://bit.ly/uB8NDf by Brendan Rigby I covered some further relevant ground.

    I do not have the time to pursue further pursue this but recommend that the principles covered in avid Tenant's articles may provide some opportunity from which extrapolation may be made.

    David Tennant Lawyer the Dangers of Taking the Consumer out of #Advocacy bit.ly/pIjp6s. Lest we forget theoretics

    David Tennant lawyer 2005 Australia’s desperate need for a National Consumer Council bit.ly/s4YStb Grounding with consumers is neglected bit.ly/pIjp6s

    The absence of consumer grounding when #consumerbehaviour and motivation are assessed in a number of arenas regrettable

    Sorry this failed my expectations on all counts.

    Madeleine Kingston

    skylark100AU1 (#civil & #humanrights Twitter account

    and skylark100AU2) (eco and energy Twitter account

    Melbourne Victoria Australia

    1. Madeleine,

      I'm sorry the piece didn't live up to your standards and that you found the word "slacktivist" offensive. However, if you read the definition and explanation in the first two paragraphs, you would have seen that a slacktivist is someone who does feel-good actions, that require little or no effort, in a way that does little to help the end recipient, but does more to make the slacktivist feel good. Going by the length of your comments on this site, and the number of tweets you've directed towards our whydev account, clearly you are not somebody who advocates using "little or not effort". Clearly, a slacktivist does not describe yourself. Your argument appears to be that using the term slacktivist or slacktivism is offensive and likely to turn many away from a good cause. I don't disagree, but let's call a spade a spade here. What you refer to yourself doing is in no way slacktivism.

  6. Great post. I very much agree with your comments. The dismissive labels and poor engagement efforts toward people who take small actions online is a huge lost opportunity for our sector.

    1. Thanks for taking the time out to comment. Your mashable guest post was really inspiring and made me completely change my mind about the value of slacktivists and how our sector can deal with them best.

  7. That said, the actual development practitioners in the organisation generally don't like the Public Affairs people because they think they don't understand the complexities of the work they actually do. But we're focusing on two different target audiences – they're looking at development beneficiaries, and slactivist campaigns are targeted at donors. Its a completely different ballgame.

  8. Great post Weh! Its really got me thinking. I think there are a number of ways of thinking about how 'slacktivism' can contribute to the development sector, and consequently development. In a nutshell, focusing on whether the average punter who supports 'Make Poverty History' just wants to 'feel good' about supporting a bandwagon cause rather than really wanting to understand the complexity of development issues in Africa undermines the value of the mobilisation of the global social movement to the cause. To be honest, I myself am not a fan of Make Poverty History – I think overemphasis on fund-raising and not enough on responsibly directing that aid has created its own development issues, but you have to admire the power of a catchphrase, a couple of celebrities, and a very savvy marketing campaign has down for global awareness, community education and opened opportunities for advocacy. Not to mention funds generated for development agencies on the ground to utilise in actually addressing development issues.

    Lets face it – these days, philanthropy and humanitarianism are commodities. Millionaires, corporations, individuals will pay to feel good about themselves, or at least look good to other people. The brands of international organisations and charities – Breast Cancer Foundation, Amnesty, Oxfam, Red Cross – in some senses have a purchasing power. They know that if Mount Franklin puts pink lids on their bottles, they sell more bottles of water to people who think they're doing a good thing by buying that brand rather than another. Mount Franklin must be good because they align themselves with fighting Breast Cancer. Does the person who just bought the bottle of water know how or what they've contributed to? Does the person who just donated to Oxfam on the pretext of 'buying a goat for a family in Rwanda' actually care whether the money is used for that exact purpose or do they just like the idea of it? More importantly, does it matter??

    You know and I know that Oxfam is not using that money to buy herds of goats – its directing it to actual development projects. But in selling this idea to someone, and in facilitating that 'I just changed someone's life' feeling, they have not only received funding to continue their work, they've raised awareness, formed a bond with someone who will either donate again, try to find out more, potentially get more involved and more importantly, tell their friends to do the same. THAT is the power of slactivism to the international development agency. Is is the strengthening of their brand, the harnessing of their donor/constituency support from which they receive regular income and can conduct advocacy through mass social movements.

    I work in an international development organisation but got my foot in the door by getting a job in the Public Affairs department, which includes marketing, fundraising, communication and community education. Coming from a development background, its fascinating to watch a serious development agency create for itself a recognisable image and palatable message for the general public. The ability of the organisation to function is dependent on retaining the loyalty of their donating constituents.

    In simplfying development messages for public consumption, professional marketing agencies and media consultants are engaged. These campaigns don't happen by accident! And social media is becoming one of THE most important parts of broadiening and strengthening a development organisation's donor and support base – and that in turn increases not only its brand value, but its legitimacy – to fundraise, to advocate, to make statements. Gimmicks like putting price points on donations – $25 will save sight, so why not give us $100 and restore sight to four people? are an unabashed appeal to people's need to 'feel good.' Donors need to feel connected to the cause they support. By giving them some sense of the change they're making, Consequently, there is an entire sub-industry within the devleopment sector dedicated to making other people feel good about themselves – and it may or may not relate to what the development org is actually doing on the ground. Lets face it, people don't want to know that the money is not going directly to the purchase of a lens to fix cataract – rather its funding a the flight from sydney to nepal of a Programs officer to assist a country office with training in accountable financial management, but they know that the organisation must be using it to keep doing what it does well.

    the Click Like to support our cause and donate a tweet campaigns are actually really clever – each click has a dollar value. Every fan on an organisation's facebook page is a potential donor/supporter/advocate. Each 'Like' boots the ratings of their page, which increases the number of times their ad will show up in people's newsfeed or profile, exposing it to more people who will click 'Like.' Once you have your captive audience, you have the potential to convert them to donors, engage them in information about your cause, and utilise their skills. Its part of building a public profile. THAT is the real worth of slacttivism.

    1. Hey Renee, great response! You cover a lot of areas in this comment. In answer to some of your points, I think it does matter whether Oxfam actually uses that money to buy herds of goats or not. Transparency is ultra-important for NGOs, particularly as donors become more and more savvy and are likely to ask the tough questions. It is the role of the NGO to not only do work in a sustainable and meaningful manner, but also educate the public about what this actually means. Therefore, taking shortcuts and publicising feel-good measures which don't have a long-lasting effect, purely to get donations, is not a good way to go.

      You said that people might not want to know that the entire sum of money they give goes to the recipient, but again, it's the role of the NGO to educate the public that if 100% of the donation did go the recipient, the NGO would not be doing a good job at keeping itself sustainable, employing good people, innovating, marketing etc.

      If I understand correctly, your point is whether or not we should simply give people the chance to feel good, even if that means more donations and a lesser understanding of development practice. My answer to that is that we need to take the opportunity for donors to feel good, but for the right reasons. NGOs need to be transparent about their activities and also use whatever chances they can get to engage with donor/slacktivists to better understand what sustainable development is. Thanks for your thought provoking comment.

      1. Hey Weh, you raise very valid points, and I concur with all! Transparency and accountability are basic obligations of any NGO and I didn't mean to suggest that 'deception' under the guise of 'marketing' in order to solicit money was justified in any circumstances, even if it is a means to an end. In any case, there is fundraising legislation that prohibits any kind of solicitation for purposes other than what has been communicated to the donor.

        My point in fact was to suggest that there are many different audiences that an NGO communicates with.
        Slacktivism provides an opportunity for initial engagement, for the purpose of opening up further discussion to a group of people who perhaps would not normally engage, or maybe want to, but don't know how to go about doing so. I'm not suggesting that development should be oversimplified because its unimportant for donors to know where their money is going – quite the opposite!
        The goat example – People either need a reason or simply a set way to engage. Slactivist tools package these opportunities and put them in people's everyday field of experience. They make it easy and simple for people to become involved – because whether people are interested in the cause or not, only a select group of people are going to go out of their way to look for information and work out how to get involved in a way that matters to the cause. Its a bite sized opportunity to get people's attention. Once there, its an opportunity for the NGO to explain the significance of the goat. 'If you donate XX amount of dollars, its enough to buy a goat, which will allow a family to have an income by taking part in our community initiative, which will mean that the children are then free to go to school and get an education.' What i meant was, donors know that in some ways, buying a goat is symbolic of giving someone their right to an education. Its giving them a tangible way to engage with more complex development concepts. For people who want to help but don't know how, people who want to engage others in a deeper understanding with no background in development, its a tool for passing on a concept succinctly followed by a call to action, which is then a platform for more indepth discussion.
        In any case, its impossible to build a support base by not being 100% transparent with your donors – providing information breeds trust. Slactivism is just a tool to draw people into having those discussions.

  9. Thanks for a great summary. I think you're right, some of these activists could be more constructively engaged, but I particularly like Clare's comment that many of them are already doing lots of constructive things. Tweeting and Facebooking about causes is symptomatic of people's interests and activities, not an alternative to more practical interests and activities. So I think even labelling slactivists generaly as just "taking the first step" or "people who don't know how to get involved" is demeening, as from this post we can see that's not the necessarily the majority.

    1. Absolutely. The temptation to look down at people who do feel-good measures is too easy, and it's far too easy to say that that is all that they contribute. Thanks for the comment.

  10. Great post and excellent points! Slactivists sound like people who are interested, but perhaps don't know how to get involved or take the next step. A lot of people don't JUST want to donate. They want to volunteer, sign petitions, tweet about important issues, write about causes they care about, etc. Slactivists are at least taking that first step to engaging in these issues which is way better than the VAST majority of the population which simply doesn't care about social justice issues. We need to then harness these people's interests better rather than putting them down. Of course slacktivism isn't ideal as a scenario but when building movements, we also need large numbers of people to spread the word if we're going to get anywhere. Not just a core group of people who are extremely involved.

    1. I like this attitude very much. Rather than putting down slacktivists we should acknowledge that they're doing more than the rest of the population who don't care at all. Thanks Akhila.

  11. Thanks for this! I wholeheartedly agree – especially as we engage and observe people participating in (sl)activism online, we need to remkember that we often don’t know how or what else that person is contributing. (Like, I often get the “why are do you only care about Africa, how come you’re not combatting poverty at home?” My respinse: “How do you know I’m not, bucko? People can do many things at once.”) I think for some people, social media (sl)activism in particular is used in conjunction with other work – I’m a student, so the time and money I have to give to support all the things I want to is limited. I do extensively volunteer, work for, and do research with a number of causes, but as long as I’m in school (and as long as I have to work to support doing unpaid internships), there – sadly – is a cap on my contribution. The same is true for many of my friends – (sl)activism is done in addition to the constructive work and involvement they do.
    I do agree that we need to educate and engage (sl)activists better, though, because the same isn’t trie for everyone (and hey, I could use some education too!) And challenge people to take the next step. This is what bothers me about many “awareness” campaigns (even those done by ‘legit’ dvm workers/activists). We can still raise the level of discussion and push for $ore in-depth involvement – indeed, we HAVE to, I think, for the real work to get better and be better supported by a broader base of people.
    TL;DR I agree. Thanks again for the post!

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