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.
A version of this article appeared in the May 2010 issue of Fast Company magazine.