The Power of Slacktivism?

Any discussion about the use of social media in the non-profit world is also a discussion about what impact it has when someone does nothing more than retweets a message or “likes” a post. Take Part has now published an infographic that aims to correct slacktivism’s bad name.

While I think that social media can drive change, I disagree with many of the examples that Take Part chose for their graphic. Here is why:

The Power of Slacktivism. Source: Take Part

Click to enlarge image. Source: Take Part

1. Kony 2012:

Yes, we have all see the video and yes, we have all heard that it was the most viral video ever (though I still would like to see statistics showing how many people saw the video to the end). However, let’s not forget that Invisible Children asked their supporters for a concrete action – to put up signs and posters etc on 20 April 2012.  While I agree that it is a huge success from a marketing point of view, I don’t think we can say anything about it’s impact until we have seen how many of their fans follow their call of action.

2. The Cove:

It is impressive to see close to 500,000 people sign a petition to stop the killing of dolphins in Japan. However, so far, to my knowledge this petition has not led to a the desired change. So I don’t think this serves as an example for the “power of slacktivism” either.

3. Free Rice:

While I think that Free Rice is a fun game to improve your SAT scores and work on your English vocabulary, I also consider it to be one of the really negative examples of slacktivism. You can argue that Free Rice creates awareness for hunger in the world, but I would argue that it creates a false sense of achievement. It suggests to people that they have done something meaningful even though that is not really the case. Let’s look at the numbers:  In total, close to 2,000 tonnes of rice were donated through the game so far. That is equal to 9.5 billion right answers that were given on the website – a substantial investment in time. And while 2,000 tonnes of rice is not nothing, it is close to nothing when compared to the 4.6 million tonnes of food that WFP distributed in 2010 alone. I think the energy and good will of the people playing Free Rice to help people could have been used better. But the real problem is that they might not look for an additional action because they feel they already did their part. So rather than showing the “power” of slacktivism, this is an example for it’s perils.

4. Donations:

It was a massive achievement for the American Red Cross to raise 38 million USD through text donations after the Haiti earthquake. But I don’t think of these donors as “slacktivists”. They are donors and the fact that they have chosen to donate through mobile phone doesn’t turn them into slacktivists any more than those who are donating by cheque or through a telethon. In my opinion, They simply don’t fit the criteria.

Slacktivism cannot change the world – money can

I’m not saying that online activism doesn’t have it’s place. I think social media is a fantastic tool to generate awareness. But we shouldn’t revel in a false sense of achievement when it is in the power of everyone to do much more than to click “Like”. If you really want to help an NGO or non-profit organization that you support, then donate money. Better yet, set up an automated, monthly bank transfer, even if it’s just a few dollars. That is the best, easiest and most efficient way to help. It might not be sexy, but it can make a real difference.

  • http://aviewfromthecave.com Tom

    Nice post. I would also add that protests are not slacktivism. Using social media at any point does not equal slacktivism. You made that point well with your refuting the SMS donation claim.

    • http://sm4good.com Timoluege

      If an action was mainly organized through social media, then I would say that slacktivism would deserve some credit for that since it can raise awareness. That wasn't the case with Haiti since the quake was all over the news. As for the example from Colombia quoted in the graphic: I simply don't know enough about this protest. The little I know about the context makes me guess that civil society groups did a lot of organizing offline to make this happen, rather than relying on Facebook.

  • http://developmentworks.blogspot.com Scott

    Change starts with raising awareness and provoking discussion. Think of the long term and not immediate actions and you might reconsider the potential of slacktivism.

  • http://twitter.com/Justin_Eugene @Justin_Eugene

    Interesting post, though we clearly disagree with your take on Freerice. Two thousand metric tons of food translates to several million meals which is nothing to scoff at. More importantly, Freerice has been a gateway to advocacy for millions of young people worldwide. It's given rise to a large and growing community of people who are reminded about the plight of the world's hungry every time they play. Activism begins with awareness, and that's where Freerice is most effective.

    • http://sm4good.com Timoluege

      Thanks for your feedback, Justin. Someone else commented on my Facebook page and likened slacktivism to digital bumper stickers. I think that is actually a pretty good analogy.

      What I'm wondering about is whether this kind of action then leads to a more tangible follow up action.

      Yesterday I read on Connection Cafe (http://www.connectioncafe.com/posts/2012/04-april/volunteers-give-10x-the.html) that 67 per cent of volunteers in a study said they also donate money. What I would like to know is whether there is a correlation between "liking", "retweeting" or playing a game online and donating money etc.

      Basically I would like to ask people
      1. if they knew the organization/cause they "liked" before the action (to distinguish preaching to the choir from reaching new people) and, if yes, if they have donated to that organization before
      2. if they are thinking about donating now
      3. if their donation will be in addition to other donations or whether they will then donate less to another cause/organization

      Has WFP done surveys like that with the Free Rice players? If yes, I'd love to see it! Thanks again for taking the time to comment.

  • http://developmentworks.blogspot.com Scott

    Timo you seem to be bundling some quite disparate issues here, from offline activities using social media for publicity, through to online awareness raising and discussion forums, and online petitions and money-raising. Each has tremendous potential to use social media, but not all in the same way and not all are bound by online activities.
    Slacktivism is a pejorative term used by people who think that commitment ends with a click. Perhaps sometimes it does, but liking something or signing a petition need not cease the relationship or commitment of supporters to a cause or a course of action. Clever campaigns start with a like button and involve follow up to draw in potential supporters, motivate them and obtain their future support in various ways. Having a million followers can be a demonstration of popularity that carries weight offline, and a simple click can confer much-need moral support to those engaged in physical activities.
    Advocacy and the mobilization of communities of interest can have distinct phases, from awareness to engagement to donation and participation. Critics need to better understand these nuances before their jibes carry any weight.

    • http://sm4good.com Timoluege

      Hi Scott, those are good points and I think we actually don't disagree with each other. Maybe I got too hung up on the term "slacktivism".

      Of course social media can and should be used to raise awareness and this can translate into other actions such as donations, voting or going out on the streets to protest. Any of these outcomes are valuable and desirable but in my opinion once you have taken that additional step, it isn't "slacktivism" any more, it's being a donor or a protester or an activist.

      However, in my opinion graphics like the one released by Take Part encourage the opposite of being active. For me the basic message of the graphic is: "It's ok to do nothing but sit at home and click a button. You are already making a difference." And I disagree with that. The message should be that an online action is only the first in a series of steps necessary to cause change.

  • http://developmentworks.blogspot.com Scott

    Timo, you are right: both the users of social media and their audiences need to be aware of the potential and limitations. Adding "thanks for clicking, now do X to help make it happen" is a good first step.

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