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2011 January 10 - 12:00 am

TECHNOLOGY TODAY: ‘Slacktivism’ Is Becoming the New Activism

The Internet has ushered in considerable advances over the past decade. We’ve witnessed an explosion in Internet video and audio entertainment, mobile access, and multifaceted social networking, among other things.

One phenomenon that hasn’t been so positive, but that’s interesting social commentary, goes by the name of “slacktivism.” This recently coined word is a combination of apparent contradictions. A slacker is a person who shirks work or responsibility, while activism is the support of a cause.

Slacktivism, according to WordSpy: The Word Lover’s Guide to New Words (www.wordspy.com), is “activism that seeks projects and causes that require the least amount of effort.” The Urban Dictionary (www.urbandictionary.com) defines it as “the act of participating in obviously pointless activities as an expedient alternative to actually expending effort to fix a problem.”

One key aspect of any slacktivist effort is the absence of any real effort. Another is the absence of any real effect. Naturally, slacktivists take personal satisfaction in feeling that they’re helping others.

Examples include:

  • Changing your Facebook profile picture to that of a children’s cartoon character to show your support for efforts to prevent child abuse.
  • Using a green-colored Twitter avatar to demonstrate your appreciation for the pro-democracy movement in Iran.
  • “Signing” a Web-based petition about anything.
  • Forwarding emails to others in protest of government, corporate, or other actions about anything.

Another neologism sometimes used instead of “slacktivism” is “clicktivism,” which conveys the meaning that you’re doing little more than clicking your mouse.

“Slackervist” suggests “slacker,” and “slacker” suggests “Generation X,” the generation born after the post-World War II baby boom, with such people coming of age after the Vietnam War and generally without the social activism of the previous generation.

But slackers have always existed, and the word “slacker” dates back to the 19th century, according to Online Etymology Dictionary (www.etymonline.com).

Further, efforts to promote causes that take little effort and bear little fruit are neither new nor a strictly Internet phenomenon. Bumper stickers, tee shirts, and rubber wristbands also do little more than announcing your support, which can make you feel good without having to do anything.

Another means of promoting causes that has been around for a while shows the Internet world how announcing support can be the first step in doing good or creating change. Walkathons, jog-a-thons, and similar participatory efforts involve persuading people to pledge the donation of a specific dollar amount to a cause for each mile covered.

Walking may not directly lead to better cures for heart disease or cancer, notwithstanding the health benefits to the walkers, but people can be more willing to donate to research when you the willingness to put in a physical effort like this.

Similarly, what appear to be slacktivist efforts can lead to more substantive support for worthy nonprofit causes.

Pro football cheerleading alumni recently put up a video on YouTube (www.youtube.com/watch?v=cfRSDbV8Adw) showing them working out the kinks and performing some of their old moves. The kicker: The organizers found a sponsor willing to donate money to breast cancer research based on the number of times the video was viewed. Thus far, $100,000 has been raised.

In 2009, North Korea freed two journalists it had imprisoned after former President Bill Clinton traveled there. Before this, in addition to the media coverage, nearly 90,000 people signed online petitions on Care2 (www.care2.com). One of the journalists freed, Laura Ling, publicly thanked the Care2 petition signers.

There’s a method to such efforts. One good source of tips is a primer titled “HOW TO: Turn Slacktivists into Activists with Social Media” (www.mashable.com/2010/05/13/slacktivists-activists-social-media). It’s written by Geoff Livingston, co-founder of Zoetica (www.zoeticamedia.com), a communications and consulting firm that works with nonprofit organizations and socially conscious companies.

If you’re looking to help those in need or promote a cause, there’s lots of other help on the Internet as well. The Internet, as an informational medium, can be a good source in deciding where to direct your charitable contributions.

A number of watchdog groups with an Internet presence are set up to evaluate charities on how effectively they use donations based on, among other things, the percentage of contributions received that’s used for actual programs rather than staff salaries, perks, and overhead.

ConsumerReports.org recommends three such watchdog sites: American Institute of Philanthropy (www.charitywatch.org), Better Business Bureau’s Wise Giving Alliance (www.give.org), and Charity Navigator (www.charitynavigator.org).

Finally, Internet communications can be an invaluable support mechanism for those physically isolated or with a medical or other problem shared by relatively few others.

Reid Goldsborough is a syndicated columnist and author of the book “Straight Talk About the Information Superhighway”. He can be reached at reidgold@comcast.net or www.reidgoldsborough.com.


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