A buzzword in the nonprofit community that has received a lot of attention in recent years is “slacktivism.” The words “slacker” and “activism” combine to form the term, and people originally used it to describe a charitable activity with a comparatively lower level of impact—micro-activism might be a more illustrative title. In this framework, donating a dollar to a charity at the grocery store checkout would classify as an act of slacktivism. Activism, in contrast, might include running a marathon for an education foundation or attending a daylong fundraising rally.
Somewhere between the 1990s and the present, the concept of slacktivism came under greater scrutiny. Social media played a key role in the process, as Facebook, Twitter, and other channels serve as the main platforms for slacktivism. Opinions abound from all sides on the values and merits of slacktivism, and researchers have added empirical data to the conversation. Here is an overview of the concept, along with a few ideas for maximizing its function in the pursuit of social change.
What is slacktivism?
In a 2013 paper, two Michigan State University researchers defined slacktivism as a “low-risk, low-cost activity via social media whose purpose is to raise awareness, produce change, or grant satisfaction to the person engaged in the activity.” Slacktivism, therefore, is a digital approach, and because posting videos, sharing hashtags, and other actions online involve a few mouse clicks, the companion term “clicktivism” is also used.
What are the benefits of slacktivism?
Creates awareness – Posting, sharing, and liking comments, pictures, and videos on social media may be low-risk and low-cost, but these actions make it possible for important issues to reach the eyes and ears of millions. Critics say that awareness is not enough, and proponents agree, but they point out that activism needs a starting point and that a like or a retweet can get the ball rolling.
Yields participation – Slacktivism is available to anyone with a Facebook profile, a Twitter handle, or any other social media account—so basically everyone. Because of this ubiquity, people who are unable or less likely to participate in traditional activism can now support social movements and charitable causes. For example, people with physical disabilities, those who must work multiple jobs, and others may be unable to find the time, energy, or means to join a protest, attend a fundraising event, or volunteer. Slacktivism is inclusive and allows for the creation of an activist community that may have never come together through traditional channels.
Gathers resources – Through online activism, participants can create a network of resources for supporting various causes. Skilled writers can pair up with talented video creators, for example, and as they collaborate, they end up helping one another in the process of serving others. Slacktivism, therefore, is a great way to bring volunteers and their skillsets together.
Offers speed and ease – For organizations and social movements, the most cited benefits of slacktivism are also the most scrutinized: the ability to reach large audiences quickly and easily. The simplicity with which groups can disseminate information across the web outperforms most, if not all other modern modes of communication. Organization in real time is a valuable result of this fact.
Generates support – Each of the previous points lead to the fact that slacktivism, by design, supports and encourages broader activism. In fact, a study in the Journal of Consumer Research showed that people who participate in slacktivism on Facebook will often subsequently engage in offline activities.
What do others say?
The main objection to slacktivism that people often mention is that the practice, they say, leads to very limited results. Put differently, where activism advocates see the sky as the limit, they view slacktivism as an approach with a very low ceiling. Critics of slacktivism therefore encourage people to look beyond social media to address important issues in the real world. Some organizations, such as UNICEF, have directly asked people to forego Facebook likes and donate money to causes, like paying for polio vaccines.
Another example of slacktivism that has received scrutiny is the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge from 2014. Naysayers recognize that the campaign raised $115 million in just eight weeks toward a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS or Lou Gehrig’s disease), but they quickly point out that many people spent more money on ice than they donated to research. In the eyes of some, the Ice Bucket Challenge ultimately pushed the focus away from the disease.
Slacktivism and activism united
People approach issues that they care about in different ways, and slacktivism and activism are just two ways to engage. One individual might post the details of an upcoming volunteer event and then log out. Her friend might log on five minutes later, see the post, and end up attending the event. Arguments could be made that both of these friends took the easy route, but the important thing is that they both took an action—they supported a cause and helped it become more visible.
Individual posts and likes may not bear a lot of intrinsic value, but they add up like volunteer hours. Together, online and offline activism are powerful tools that can help advance charitable causes and social movements.