Remember that episode of Friends, where Joey points out that all of Phoebe’s ‘good deeds’ aren’t actually selfless because she feels good about doing them? Well, fast forward a few years, and this is now known as ‘slacktivism’ (which has a specific focus on charity and action for change). According to Wikipedia, slacktivism ‘describes ‘feel-good measures’, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little physical or practical effect, other than to make the person doing it feel satisfied that they have contributed’.
This portmanteau covers quite a few elements. It’s one thing to say that a ‘slacktivist’ reaps ‘good vibes’ from taking action, and something completely different to say that what they’ve done will provide no real benefit to the cause, and that their ‘good vibes’ somehow contribute to that.
Today, clicks and shares equal people power. Social media might not be the traditional way to help free a prisoner of war or fight poverty, but its omnipotence make it both the most logical and effective choice. After all, we know when we send a tweet to Sainsbury’s complaining about a missing doughnut, we’re really sending our tweet to the online world. This means that it’s more than likely Sainsbury’s will publicly apologise, thanks to a mixture of embarrassment, good customer service and their own interest to keep up with and utilise technology for their brand. Using social media to affect change makes sense.
As for being effective, hashtag movements alone spread like wildfire because people like to be a part of something special. Yes, they might be persuaded by the thought of having a bucket of ice water thrown over them in a hilarious home video that will garner tons of ‘likes’, rather than the understanding that ALS is desperate for funds. But in a way, it doesn’t matter. They donated the money, supported ALS, and, despite my initial cynicism, I, and the rest of the world, came to learn that these videos did affect change. Not only did the challenge raise awareness, it also raised a huge $115 million. With some of this money, scientists were able to identify a protein that fails in the cells of most ALS patients but can heal if it’s repaired – a huge breakthrough for both doctors and sufferers. The challenge has also now become an annual event.
Of course, it’d be much better if everyone was devoted to a cause, and fully understood what they were getting involved in and why, but help, no matter how small or selfie-centric, is help.
Alongside social media activism, people have also expressed disdain for online petitions (sometimes dubbed ‘clicktivism’). When an organisation or charity asks you to sign a petition on their website to call for an end to slave labour in Africa, their main aim is to educate you about this issue, and hope that you feel moved and shocked enough, as they are, to be a part of the change. They know, from past experience, that this very simple measure can change lives. I see it this way: as long as the content is factual and the approach appropriate, it doesn’t matter how over-marketed or tech-tastic it may seem; the bottom line remains the same.
Earlier this year, Global Citizen encouraged people to ask the Swedish government, via social media and petition, to help provide clean water to the 2.5 billion people (37 per cent of the global population) living with poor sanitation. Following over 40,000 emails and thousands of tweets, the Prime Minister made an official promise to reach 60 million people with water and sanitation programmes in the next 15 years. This action also prompted the World Bank President to share an update on his 2014 commitment of putting $15 billion towards safe sanitation, announcing that change, enabled by this money, has almost reached 150 million people.
So, does slacktivism really exist? To start believing that seemingly meagre measures (even ones that make you feel good) won’t have an effect is a slippery slope. For example, there will be some people who believe that racism is set in stone and we can’t possibly eradicate it. This belief then confirms in their minds that buying and wearing an anti-racism wristband isn’t going to change anything. But history tells us this simply isn’t true. If that was the case, if everyone felt this same way, we wouldn’t have freedom, support, or the ability to live our lives the way we do, with some semblance of equality, especially here in the UK. No wristbands ultimately means no people, no petitions, no protests and, most importantly, no progress. Life in this world, with all of its injustices and violations of human rights, would be unrecognisable, unimaginable.
Many of us still believe that an activist is a pioneer who calls for help in under-developed countries, or takes on the authorities in mass protests. These people areactivists. But you, reading the short blurb about equal rights, which both touches and alarms you and makes you want to add your voice and your vote, even if just through this online petition or a set of tweets, are an activist, too. You aren’t just having an opinion, you are using your opinion to bring about change. That’s activism.
[Graphic: Lena Yang]