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Beyond slacktivism: Can we click our way to social change?

   /   Mar 25th, 2010News, Tech

When the punditocracy  convened in late 2009 to assess the “aughts” (or whatever we’re calling the just-concluded decade), they focused on the War on Terror, the proliferation of reality TV, the fall of Wall Street, and, of course, that series of tubes that has rapidly morphed from novelty to necessity.

In all the prattling about the Web’s transformation of everything from the daily news cycle to the way we construct identity, most pundits overlooked the shift from direct action. A host of online-only organizations, including Donors Choose, Kiva, and Charity Champs, support social innovation through citizen philanthropy, online petitions, microvolunteering  and Facebook Causes.

Such tools make it easy for anyone anywhere with an Internet connection to contribute to a cause. But are they discouraging in-person action and ushering in an age of “slacktivism,” where participation is as easy as clicking a button? It depends on whom you ask.

Internet researcher Evgeny Morozov weighed in last year with perhaps the most linked-to treatise on the subject. Denouncing the Millennials as a “lazy generation” who can’t be bothered to engage offline, Morozov argues that digital activism detracts from “real-life” advocacy campaigns, allowing those who might once have “confronted the regime” directly with “demonstrations, leaflets, and labor organizing” to settle instead for the “Facebook option” and “join a gazillion online issue groups instead.”

There’s no research comparing the relative effectiveness of digital and “direct” activism, notes Morozov — who holds that online engagement, when coupled with direct action, can enhance one’s commitment to a cause.

VolunteerMatch, a leading web-based connector that links volunteers with social organizations (by regions and areas of interest) agrees. It makes a concerted effort to distinguish itself as “anti-slacktivist.”  “We’re using technology to create enduring relationships based on real-world contributions of time and energy (and often skills as well),” writes Director of Communications Robert Rosenthal on the organization’s blog.

Over on the Global Citizen blog, Kristin Ivie takes a different tack. Inspired by her interview with “activism 2.0” evangelist Justin Dillon, Ivie contends that because digital activism fits easily into people’s daily routines, it keeps causes at the forefront of their concerns, as opposed to large protests or events that galvanize people for a day but don’t provide a mechanism for ongoing involvement. Like Morozov, she also notes that “most real change takes more than a few clicks,” and favors a twinning of digital and direct activism.

And then, of course, there’s Twitter, that microblogging phenomenon whose trending topics have spawned sitcoms and spread celebrity death rumors in seconds. It’s easy to dismiss Twitter as a self-indulgent time-waster (who cares that you’re eating a sandwich right now?), but, ignoring its low signal-to-noise ratio, it’s one of the most effective tools to raise awareness in real time about breaking news stories and social issues. Witness Twitter’s role in the recent Haiti earthquake. Leading news sites aggregated tweets from and about Haiti, and international aid organizations and small businesses alike used Twitter to raise millions of dollars for Haitian relief efforts, as well as spread the word about Haiti-related events and organizations.

As with any type of action, Web and social media campaigns have varying degrees of effectiveness. One tweet, or a million, does not a social movement make. The difference between slacktivism (see “Green Avatars for Iran”) and real digital activism depends on the vitality of the knowledge disseminated and the potential for ongoing engagement and in-person action.

Photo: moriartyontherocks

One Response

  1. Absolutely — and slacktivism is only carries a negative nuance if you let it. Lots of talk at recent nonprofit conferences on the subject, including a panel I led at the recent NTEN conference. See