Ah, slacktivism. The juxtaposition of two conflicting actions—being an activist and, well… slacking. You might be wondering what exactly it is and how it makes a difference in the world. Luckily, we’ve researched those questions so you don’t have to.
What is slacktivism?
The United Nations has defined slacktivism as when people “support a cause by performing simple measures” but “are not truly engaged or devoted to making a change.” Slacktivism typically means taking to social media and encompasses things like retweeting words of hope after a national disaster or liking a charity’s Facebook page—as the study implies—but can also include non-digital actions like wearing a ribbon on your shirt to bring awareness.
Slacktivism was born after the creation of social media and is often synonymous with viral movements. Since it is low-cost, low-risk and noncommittal, slacktivism makes engagement easy for the public.
The prime example of slacktivism gone right is the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge campaign. People joined in because they like the feeling of being a part of something. Everyone’s timeline was full of people sharing their videos on social media and challenging their friends to do the same, which resulted in tons of social media interaction and millions of dollars for ALS research.
The number of people dumping ice cold buckets of water might have exceeded the number of donations, but since the movement caught on like wildfire, the campaign was still wildly successful and has even inspired several other similar movements. The cool thing about the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is that it made the most of slacktivism on social media while encouraging actual action—either dumping the bucket or donating to the ALS Foundation.
If your friend Sue shares an article on Twitter about helping kids in your community who are on reduced lunches, your inclination might be to ask Sue how she got connected and what you can do to help. Say what you will about slacktivism, but even with a very small cost (sharing a post), Sue is still inviting her friends into a conversation about how to help kids on reduced lunches.
Facebook also has a Temporary Profile Picture feature, which has been popular in bringing awareness, showing solidarity and supporting causes. We saw it in 2015 after the Paris attacks, we see it every year in support of marriage equality and we see it during just about every professional sports tournament. It’s a simple way to show support and bring awareness, and often times sparks a meaningful conversation about why your profile picture has a colored filter on it.
Slacktivism in the real world
A bit of a different example, offline, is wearing a ribbon on your shirt or a specific color on a certain day in support of a cause. Though it may be a form of slacktivism according to the UN definition, it still gets people asking, “what’s this all about?” and gives the wearer an opportunity to talk more about the cause they care about. Supporters are inviting others into a real conversation about why they’re wearing it, and why the cause is important, as opposed to liking a Facebook page.
While slacktivism has its place, it’s not exactly the silver bullet to making a big change in the world. It’s so easy to passively like a Facebook page, retweet an article to bring awareness or change your profile picture, and never actually engage.
Lack of skin in the game
A University of British Columbia study showed that “when consumers gave public support, they were no more likely to provide more meaningful support for the cause than if someone was just randomly asked for the larger request.” In other words, the factor in what level a person engages in with a cause is if their actions are private or public. Public actions would be social media posts, while private actions would be things like donating or volunteering.
Though slacktivism may inspire, according to a study done by researchers at Michigan State University, it normally only reaches to other low-cost, low-risk solutions like signing an online petition but not contributing any money.
If someone donates, they’re more likely to stay engaged or even increase engagement. But the problem arises with public actions. Your friendly neighborhood Facebook poster is less likely to deepen or continue engagement because, from their perspective, they’ve already “done their part” with the share or retweet. It’s great if a cause is just looking for more awareness, but if it needs real support, then the cause doesn’t get what it need and the supporter on social media hasn’t actually made the difference they thought they did.
The inverse effect
Another problem that has been argued is that slacktivism may actually hurt a person’s propensity to protest for change or volunteer for an organization because slacktivism is easy and used as a substitute. With 2014’s #BringBackOurGirls campaign to save the 200 Nigerian girls who were kidnapped by Boko Haram, millions of people (even celebrities) participated in posts using the hashtag. It sounds like a recipe for big change, but a year later, the girls were still missing and use of the hashtag had dwindled. So though millions contributed to the campaign on social media, little actual effort was taken by the same supporters.
Slacktivism can be an opportunity for causes to garner more awareness, and in some cases, it can even create so much awareness that it increases donations. Creating tribes that are willing to show public support for a cause, online or offline, is never a bad thing. The problem arises when your organization gains 10,000 followers on Twitter and gets 25 shares per Facebook post, but never reaches their bottom line financially or can’t get volunteers to help out where capacity is lacking—and the reason is they feel they’ve “done their part” by engaging on social media.
It’s safe to say that slacktivism isn’t enough, but it is a start. If nothing else, it’s the lesser of two evils between posts click bait and sharing something that brings light to an issue that needs to be solved. The solution towards real change is two-fold: nonprofits need to tell their story in a compelling enough way that the community wants to get involved in—more than just liking or sharing—and the public has to be willing to put some real effort in to make real change in the world.
What are your thoughts on slacktivism? Does it help or hurt? Let us know in the comments below or shoot us a Tweet @nphub