the great slacktivism debate.

Willie Matis and I had a great conversation via Twitter about slacktivism the other day, so we felt a blog debate was the best way to try and settle it.

This blog post is one half of the debate about Slacktivism with Willie Matis over at www.williematis.com.

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As with any debate, it helps to use the same definition.  Thanks to Willie, here is the definition we will be using:

Wikipedia says- “The word is usually considered 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”.

Urban Dictionary says – “The act of participating in obviously pointless activities as an expedient alternative to actually expending effort to fix a problem.”

Mashable says - “So called ‘slacktivists’ take easy, social actions in support of a cause – signing a petition, liking a Facebook Page or putting a pink ribbon on their avatar.” (Writer: Katya Andreson)

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By definition, slacktivism does not result in real activism.  It’s basically the simple act of sharing information about a cause without actually doing anything to support that cause.  The act of sharing is seen as being enough because it creates “awareness”.  The real benefit is it makes the sharer feel good.  But what good is awareness if it doesn’t actually result in anything?

Some of the worst instances of slacktivism have occurred on Facebook.  You might remember this campaign:

1)   Change your Facebook profile picture to a cartoon character to show your support for stop Violence Against Children.  

This campaign is the epitome of Slacktivism.  A large number of my Facebook friends changed their profile picture.  But I guarantee you most of them never even looked into Violence Against Children.  Changing your profile picture was just a way to show the world that you were against child abuse.  Okay.  That’s good.  But did the campaign do anything to actually stop child abuse?  Maybe I am a cynic, but I don’t think so.

The term Slacktivism has been brought to the forefront again after Invisible Children’s Kony 2012 campaign video went viral.  Actually, it is the most viral video in history.  It received 100 million views in a mere 6 days.  From a marketing standpoint, that’s incredible.  And Invisible Children deserves major kudos for their marketing efforts.  But, unfortunately, from a development standpoint their campaign falls flat in a major way.

Let’s be clear from the start.  Kony 2012 is a mix of slacktivism and poor activism.  It is not just slacktivism at work.  If it was just slacktivism they wouldn’t have received some $5+ million dollars.

It is slacktivism because people are blinding sharing the video.  100 million people.  That’s an awful lot of people.  I wonder how many of those people have actually watched the video in its entirety?  I wonder how many people actually looked into Invisible Children, the critiques of Invisible Children, and the conflict?  Or if they just shared it because everyone else was.  No one wants to look like the douchbag who doesn’t care about children getting abducted, mutilated, and killed.  And the campaign makes it seem that sharing is enough.  Just by sharing the video, you’ve done your part.  I would be surprised if a large majority of the people sharing this campaign could actually articulate what the conflict is about.

Most of the time, slacktivism is more annoying than anything else.  It’s annoying to activists who are out there doing the hard work because it is a lazy form of activism. But it’s harmless at the end of the day.  So, activists just roll their eyes.

Kony 2012 is different.  Kony 2012 is slacktivism AND poor activism.  What makes this situation worse than other forms of slacktivism is that people are blindly sharing a video that encourages people to engage in poor activism.

It is poor activism because the narrative and call to action in the video fall flat.  It oversimplifies the issues to the point where it provides misleading information.  Some information is just bogus.  99% of people don’t know who Kony is?  Maybe among current American high school and college students that’s true.  But, I bet 99% of people know who Kony is in the DRC, CAR, Uganda, and Sudan.  I bet 99% of diplomats and people who work at major NGOs, the UN, the ICC, etc. know who Kony is, especially if they work in Africa.  But, I guess all of that knowledge is nothing until Kony is “famous” in the US.  You can’t help but get a feeling of “White Man’s Burden” when watching the video, a huge faux pas in the international development community.  Finally, their solution is over simplified and doesn’t take into account the nuances of the situation.  Catching Kony is a lot more difficult than Invisible Children makes it seem.  It’s not just a question of everyone knowing who he is.  There’s a reason why he has eluded capture for so long.  It’s because he spends most of his time deep in the African bush.  And past efforts have resulted in a lot of bloodshed.  No amount of bright colored rubber bracelets is going to fix that.  I could go on, but I’ll leave it at that.  You can read more about the issues with the viral video campaign herehere, here, here, here, and here.

Invisible Children has responded to some of these critiques.  Some of their defense is about their programs and not the video itself.  Most agree that their programs are not the problem.  Invisible Children has some amazing programs on the ground.  Have you head of their LRA Crisis Tracker?  It is a great use of technology for social impact.  And that’s just one example.  But their programs were not mentioned in the video.  The Action Kit money is not going to their programs.  Unlike their programs on the ground, the video did not include a strong Ugandan voice.  And the video is what went viral.

So why did it go viral?  It went viral most likely because it was oversimplified.   It went viral most likely because of the poor narrative.  It went viral because it went straight for your heart, which was more important than your mind.  That’s the reality of fundraising and development.  If you don’t win over someone’s heart, you don’t get money.  And “aid porn”, though ethically grey, helps significantly.  Which highlights the issue of slacktivism and brings us back full circle.  Slacktivism is full of ignorance. 

Yes, Kony 2012 created a lot of awareness about Kony.  But, the information that most people received was not adequate.  So, what they are aware of and the reality of the situation is two different things.  Yes, it created a dialogue.  I think it is important that these issues in international development have been brought to the forefront.  But, how many of the 100 million people who watched the video took the time to learn the other side of the story?  I don’t know the number but I don’t think it is anywhere close to 100 million people.

So, was the campaign a success overall?  The jury is still out.  But, as a cynic, I don’t think so. 

In conclusion, I do not like Slacktivism.  Maybe, it is because I have been on the activist side most of my life.  It is annoying to see people thinking they are making a difference simply by sharing a link, sharing a video, or changing their Facebook profile picture.

If you really want to make a difference, get off your butt and do something.  And you can start in your own backyard.

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To check out the counter debate be sure to head over to Willie’s site.  Then come back and let us know what you think!  Leave a comment or give us a shout out on Twitter at @Willie_Matis & @StacyMccoy.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “the great slacktivism debate.

  1. Kris T. , INDY

    Stacy,
    I disagree with you on almost every point you make, though you make them well. (I’ve articulated my full-er thoughts on the matter on Willie’s blog.) One point you make, however, resonated strongly with me.

    It’s the “feel good” part. I do think social media users have conditioned themselves to equate the like button or the retweet icon with an “accomplished” feeling.

    “Like the ‘Stop Kony’ video if you want to end violence against children” Liked. Problem solved, right?

    We all know the problem isn’t solved and anyone who thinks so has sorely missed the point.

    On the other hand, I think you miss the mark by the widest margin here:

    “It is annoying to see people thinking they are making a difference simply by sharing a link, sharing a video, or changing their Facebook profile picture.”

    If sharing information via social media isn’t making a difference, then what’s the point of those 3 buttons you have on the bottom of your blog? Our relatively new way of dispensing information can, does and has made a difference…in lives, careers, classrooms, nations and international community.

    Lastly, as the self-proclaimed activist you, I’d think you would be missing out on a huge opportunity if you shun all “slacktivists.” Not everyone can jump into every issue feet first, but they sure can get the word out. Slacktivism is the conduit to reach the right people.

    My suggestion: Shift your thinking. Slacktivism isn’t a sea of lazy rubes liking and retweeting themselves to “feel good” nirvana. Nay, slacktivism is a conduit, a flowing river of willing twitter accounts and Facebook updates ready to rush your message to the true believers.

  2. Social media can be an activist tool. But it is only a useful tool if what happens online is moved offline. Take the Arab Spring. If those activists just stayed on their computer the whole time sharing information and voicing their opinions, nothing would have changed. Nothing would have happened. But because they used social media to organize and to coordinate offline efforts it worked.

    I use social media to share information that I find important all the time. You’ll see a lot of the links I share on my Twitter feed are related to international development – mostly news. But I don’t think I am somehow helping those causes just by sharing that link. I think it’s important to stay up to date with what is happening in the world. But I don’t call that act of sharing activism. I just think I am sharing information that I find important and that helps show who I am and what I care about.

    I don’t have a problem with sharing information for information’s sake. It’s when people do it because they think it means something more that bothers me – and that’s what slacktivism is. Like I mentioned in the post – the Facebook profile picture trend was the biggest form of slacktivism that I have seen. And you can’t tell me that changing your profile picture to a cartoon character did anything. I doubt Violence Against Children saw a monetary return on that campaign. And I didn’t see anyone actually spread awareness about the cause. Literally, all they did was change the profile picture. That is the epitome of slacktivism.

    As I mentioned in the post – Kony 2012 is different. It isn’t just slacktivism. The purpose of the video is actually to organize. There is an event they want people to come out for. And they do want people to donate. It is only slacktivism when people share it blindly just to show they shared it and that’s it. That’s the type of activism that people forget the next day.

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