Friday, December 17, 2010

On Slacktivism

Given my lack of followers, an 8 month hiatus from blogging probably wouldn’t have been noticed that much (laziness, got addicted to Mass Effect 2 and Fallout: New Vegas). I actually have had a few things to write about, but just didn’t get around to putting them down.  This starts now as I’m now down for 2-3 weeks with a knee injury (level 1 LCL sprain), which means most of my evenings are free for the next bit.

Slacktivism (derived from the words “slacker” and “activism”) describes the practice of supporting causes with minimal effort. Wikipedia’s page includes examples such as Livestrong bracelets, signing online petitions, and e-mail chain letters (eg: send this e-mail on and Canadian Cancer Society will donate $1 to research for each person that sends it).  I remember one in particular involving an online trivia game which donated rice to developing countries the more you played.

While some campaigns do give portion of proceeds to specific beneficiaries (portions of proceeds from Livestrong bracelets go to cancer research), others have questionable (or at least difficult to measure) effectiveness, and will even have certain organizations actually attempting to distance themselves from such campaigns.

With Facebook, awareness campaigns have a lot more potential to go viral, especially with the vast worldwide user base and the ease at which one can change their status and profile picture. When memes go viral, they become harder to ignore regardless of the size of your friends list, as a larger percentage of your FB contacts will be participating.  The most recent one had FB users changing their profile picture to an image from a cartoon show and changing your FB status to read, “Change your FB picture to a cartoon from your childhood. The goal is not to see a human face on FB until Monday (Dec 6th) Join the fight against child abuse & copy and paste to your status!”

There are two other FB awareness campaigns that come to mind, in which women posted the colour of their bras with no context whatsoever (eg: “Jane Doe: black”; “Ellen Wong: beige”; etc.), the other in which women posted where they like to leave their purses (eg: “Jane Doe: I like it on the floor”; “Ellen Wong: I like it on the couch”).  These were organized without any direct ties to any non-profit organization, and without context, were generally confounding to those that had idea what was going on.  And, if you were a guy who just thought everyone was posting their favourite colours and it that might be fun to join in, pretty embarrassing too.

This is reminiscent of those commercials for birth control pills where young women identified themselves with the product (“I’m Alesse!”), and then some clueless young male gets pointed and laughed at when he asks, “What’s Alesse?” Canadian advertising standards for prescription drugs aside (notice that Canadian drug ads will never say what it does or what it is used for), for a birth control pill ad, it’s probably okay, given the extremely low probability that a man would purchase it for himself.  And yes, men generally aren’t directly affected by breast cancer, but to completely alienate a potential source of support is short-sighted and counterproductive.

The “I like it on the…” campaign also raised questions the overall effectiveness of such campaigns. While they are generally harmless, there are drawbacks.  One common criticism about such low-effort campaigns is that they instill the sense that the participant is accomplishing far more than they actually are.  Worse yet, there is a possibility that performing such acts will be offset by living less charitably.  This has been seen in studies of individuals that feel environmentally lifestyles (recycling, reducing car use) justify more polluting lifestyle choices (taking long-haul flights).

Given the fact that the level of impact of FB status updates is extremely difficult (if not impossible) to measure, on the surface, these campaigns will have negligible impact compared something requiring continuous and sustained action, such as Movember or CIBC’s Run for the Cure.  As it is, the argument has also been made that donating to charities also has less impact than we believe, given the percentage of money spent on promotion and administration (but that’s a discussion for another time).

I’m probably just as guilty as most.  I participated in Movember by growing my mustache to raise awareness and funds for prostate cancer research.  Since this was done as part of an organized effort (complete with corporate sponsorship, advertising, and association with charitable organizations), the impact was at least somewhat measurable (the campaign has had its most successful year to date), but all in all, what did I really do? I conveniently forgot to shave for about a month and somehow got people to contribute $255 to prostate cancer research. 

This brings us back to cartoon characters on Facebook.  Obviously, a child abuser won’t see the error of their ways once they see a picture of a cartoon character, and given its lack of ties to any organization, any positive impact will be very difficult (if not impossible) to measure.  And out of the dozens of people I know who participated, only a few actually questioned whether or not they were doing anything to prevent violence against children.

However, one standout actually took the opportunity to call attention to a specific charity that benefited child abuse victims, and indicated that she got some support out of it.  Not to be outdone, as a mini-social experiment, I joined the bandwagon and posted a challenge to my FB contacts, offering to match donations to anyone who donated to Boost for Kids, so that anyone participating in the FB meme could actually say then did something to prevent child abuse. 

Out of about a hundred or so FB contacts who were participating in the meme, I got two responses (one who donated to Children’s Help Line, the other who donated to Boost for Kids and is still waiting for her donation to be accepted), which largely confirms my suspicions.  But, on the other hand, some children’s charities did report an increase in donations, which some media outlets attributed to the FB meme.

As a whole, the FB community as a whole has probably accomplished something positive, and that probably is something to feel good about. That is, until you find out that by participating, you may have actually contributed to exploitation of minors, given that metals that make up the electronic components in your computer (tantalum, tungsten, tin, gold) may have been sourced from the Democratic Republic of Congo, where the sale of minerals directly funds violent armed conflict.  This results in coerced labour, sexual violence, and death by famine, all inflicted on children.

But let me qualify this by saying that my intent is not to criticize anyone who participates in FB awareness memes or to minimize the positive impacts of such actions.  Given the complexities of life in modern industrialized society, it is impossible to live everyday life without causing suffering or pain.  As it is, we start causing suffering and pain very soon after we’re conceived. 

It is important that we actively question the world we live in and at least think about why we do the things we do.  Is it enough to change the world on its own?  Probably not. But active participation on a viral scale is always infinitely more effective than slacktivism.

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