In recent months, referring to much of online activism as ineffectual “slacktivism” has become increasingly popular. According the slacktivist blog (yes, there is one), the word was actually born in the mid-nineties on Usenet and didn’t appear again until 2000 in a discussion about people “whose idea of activism is clicking the ‘forward’ button in their e-mail.” Though the applications have evolved past email – greening a Twitter icon, joining a Facebook cause group – the idea remains the same. As columnist Nancy Lublin wrote in the May issue of Fast Company:
It’s not hard to see where the word comes from (slacker + activism = slacktivism), and obviously, it’s usually not meant as a compliment. Basically, it refers to doing good without having to do much at all. It’s inch-deep activism that you can do from the comfort of your own couch, whether that’s clicking for good or texting to save the world.
Yet, more and more, people are pushing back against the term, arguing that slackitivists are just people taking their first steps into activism. Slacktivism is the shallow end of the digital activism pool. Effective organizers can motivate these newbies into the deep end, and into gradually increasing levels of commitment and action. This was our goal at the Obama campaign with much of Obama’s social media presence: start with an account on MyBarackObama or by joining One Million Strong for Barack Obama on Facebook, then tell a friend, then make a donation, then volunteer for door-to-door canvassing.
It is true that actions in the “shallow end” rarely bring about the desired change, but ignoring these actions and the people who take reflects a misunderstanding of their value. In a post on Mashable, Geoff Livingston of the social media consulting firm Zoetica quotes Randy Paynter, CEO and Founder of the community portal Care2:
What the world needs now is far more engagement by individual citizens, not less, and simple steps such as signing petitions or even sharing opinions/tweeting are steps in the right direction…. Because small steps can lead to bigger steps, being critical of small steps serves no good. It simply disenfranchises folks.
The “slacktivism matters” crowd got a new piece of supporting evidence today from Facebook, where analysis revealed that the simple act of friending a politician was a meaningful measure of their intent to vote for that person:
An early sample of some of the hottest House and Senate races bodes well for the world’s largest social networking site. The Facebook political team’s initial snapshot of 98 House races shows that 74% of candidates with the most Facebook fans won their contests. In the Senate, our initial snapshot of 19 races shows that 81% of candidates with the most Facebook fans won their contests.
This indicates not only that a user who friends a political prefers that person, which is self evident, but also that friending indicates intent to take action based on that preference. In the case of an election, this means that joining a politician’s Facebook group meant that the person cared enough to get out and vote for that candidate.
In the cases of truly dead-end slacktivism, like American Twitter users greening their avatars in support of the post-election protesters in Iran last year, the problem may not have been with the initial action itself, but that there was no clear or credible next step for those concerned people to take to truly influence the outcome they cared about.