Fast Company

Slacktivism: Helping Humanity With a Click of the Mouse

Sending a text or clicking to vote may be the trendy way to help humankind. The question, says Nancy Lublin, is whether such so-called slacktivism really works.

Name-calling is never nice -- that much most of us learned in kindergarten. Go ahead and criticize the substance of an action or the content of a speech, but just calling a person a nasty name is like pulling hair. Unfortunately, a lot of it happens in the do-gooder sector--and lately, much of it has been directed at projects that could fall under the umbrella of a newish movement called "slacktivism."

It's not hard to see where the word comes from (slacker + activism = slacktivism), and obviously, it's usually not meant as a compliment. Basically, it refers to doing good without having to do much at all. It's inch-deep activism that you can do from the comfort of your own couch, whether that's clicking for good or texting to save the world. One of the earliest forms of slacktivism was wearing one of those rubber wristbands that, for a while, were so ubiquitous -- doesn't cost much money and takes even less effort. I'll even give you extra points if you're still wearing a Livestrong bracelet five years after it was last fashionable, though if it's just inertia that kept it on your wrist, you have really earned your slacktivist cred.

The problem that many people have with slacktivism is that low input frequently means low impact. I recently got a press release heralding the arrival of the "MASSIVEGOOD movement." (The organizers insist on the all caps, which is totally obnoxious and unwarranted.) When you buy a plane ticket, reserve a hotel room, or rent a car via Web sites such as Travelocity, the travel industry will ask you to make a $2 contribution toward major global health causes. Calling an automated request for $2 contributions a "movement" seems a bit rich -- basically, it's a marketing campaign.

At least you will theoretically be able to track the effectiveness of Massivegood by counting up the dollars contributed. (I couldn't bring myself to type the all caps again. Sorry.) Many slacktivist efforts have no perceptible value, monetary or otherwise. For instance, how does announcing your bra color in your Facebook status update -- as thousands of women did earlier this year -- actually affect the ongoing fight against breast cancer? I confess it did make me giggle to see that one of my old friends from high school was rocking a purple bra, but it did not make me get a mammogram.

Here's the thing: All of this does matter. It's easy to rag on people trying to make the world a better place, even if they expend no more energy than it takes to point and click. I know, because I sort of just did it. But now I want to raise my voice in praise of slacktivism and defend those lazy zealots. (If nothing else, slacktivism has done society the service of encouraging us to think of more fun oxymorons.)

First, some of these campaigns are having a real offline impact. The FreeRice game, a slacktivist pioneer, has added up to real value. Begun in October 2007 by Web developer John Breen, the game (freerice.com) asks you to answer questions -- you get smarter! -- and for every correct answer, 10 grains of rice are donated to the UN World Food Program. As of March 15, 76 billion grains of rice -- roughly 22 million bowls -- have gone to feed the hungry, thanks to FreeRice.

Second, there's a certain genius to the slacktivist less-is-more calculation. Which would I rather have--an underpaid college student standing on a street corner, clipboard in hand, trying to collect petition signatures from passersby, or a free online version that relies on potentially millions of unpaid friends who help me out with viral clicking? You say slacktivism, I say economies of scale.

Third, I think some of the protests are really led by Luddites. The only difference between campaigning then and now is the technology. At its worst and least effective, slacktivism isn't much different from a poetry reading or a bra burning. At its best, it can deliver results far more quickly; forget the phone tree or your small-town gossip. After the Haiti earthquake in January, for instance, U.S. phone companies were receiving up to 10,000 "Haiti" texts per second. So far, those $10 pledges by text have amounted to $38 million for the American Red Cross alone. As a not-for-profit leader whose organization depends on donations, I say, If that is slacktivism, I'll have some of that.

The bottom line, really, is the bottom line. We shouldn't judge any activism -- online or off, old-fashioned or newfangled -- by its medium or by how much it requires of us. Instead, it should be the results that matter. If we really could save the world with a few clicks of the mouse, then only a fool would protest.

Nancy Lublin is CEO of Do Something.

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7 Comments

  • Ben Buie

    I must admit, I didn't like the start of your article that much. I don't
    want people to think that they don't make a difference with their clicks.
    That is because I am the owner of MyNiceTie.com where we give away 20% of
    our revenue to entrepreneurs in third world countries through KIVA.org. We
    have helped 42 people in poverty so far. Our customers do make a difference, even if they don't realize it. I'm glad you are spreading the word about how easy it is to help someone in need. Thanks for the great article.

  • Ben Rigby

    Although I am biased, I think that the most important evolution in online action will be from fundraising to actually doing something valuable for a good cause. Most of the example above involve giving a few bucks. Imagine if you could actually give some of your skills and expertise in a few minutes... if you could give of yourself without giving money... and if all of those little chunks of expertise added up to something significant. I am biased, because this is what we've been trying to do for the last year over at The Extraordinaries... where you can micro-volunteer in a few minutes of your spare time. So far, micro-volunteers have cataloged tens of thousands of images for The Smithsonian and many other museums and libraries. Micro-volunteers have mapped playgrounds all over the world for Kaboom. And Micro-volunteers have written hundreds of letters of encouragement to underprivileged students across the world. In short, there's a heck of a lot that you can accomplish in a few minutes... especially if thousands of other micro-volunteers are doing it with you.

    -ben rigby @benrigby
    CTO, The Extraordinaries
    http://www.beextra.org

  • William Barrell

    In the near future, a guy will be at his home video terminal, in control of a lethal flying machine, executing a mission of real-time importance in some conflict somewhere in the world. Like it or not, cyberparticipation is only going to grow, and become the norm of tomorrow. Who knows, maybe you already know the Daniel Boone or Lewis n Clark of the new frontier. To term participation as "Slacktivism" is such a dip---- concept, and may go down as the N-Word of the next generation. Poo Poo on anyone that embraces such a negative concept. $2 times a million gets action in any circle. So what if it is generated with one click of the mouse, or by one check of the box on a mail in card? - Next topic.

  • Jason Parry

    your last sentence=priceless! i read 'slacktivisim' as activism even a slacker can behind. Slacktivism is better than no activism at all!

  • Kevin Leonardi

    Interesting article...I'm taking a capstone entrepreneurship course for my undergrad degree, and my team's mock business concept is a social networking site that incorporates this so-called "slacktivism." In doing our market research, we've found that such micro-donation platforms are great for younger adults since they are all over social networks and lack disposable income to make actual donations. As a college student myself, it's nice to see that small individual efforts can help make a difference. It'll be interesting to see how these platforms evolve in the future.

  • Dan Kan

    Hurray for Nancy. Creative article, gives all sides and encourages people to get involved. In my experience the least productive use of time and involvement is credited to all of the people who feel obliged to denegrate others who respond to articles in media by putting down others who have a different view and end up just continuing to denegrate others or the author without doing anything productive like actually getting involved with their tiem and/or money instead of just their mouth. I admit to being "lactivistic" times but I also get into the act with my time, my mouth and my money.

  • Matthew DiGirolamo

    Slacktivism is a ridiculous term that misses the overall point of online social engagement, which is to provide a gateway to future activism. I agree with your points above and it's clear that great social value can be achieved through those countless clicks for causes. More importantly, those text messages, tweets and clicks represent an important first stage of social activism. These campaigns provide people with an easy first step, a low barrier for entry. Everybody has to start somewhere. For activism to be cultivated, it needs to be a step by step process with one easy action leading to the next with ascending levels of understanding and engagement. So I say, connect them online with click campaigns and then engage them later with offline letter writing campaigns, volunteer opportunities, street marches and other calls to action.

    - Matthew DiGirolamo | @mattdigirolamo
    Cause Catalysts | http://causecatalysts.com/