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Photo: ydhsu

Back when I was working on my degree in social work, I learned a lot about the long tradition of social activism.


The common attribute of the people we studied
–including Jane Addams and Sara A. Collins Fernandis –was that they all saw a social problem, wanted to fix it, and got off their ass, brought people together, and did something about it.

The not-so-subtle message for students in the social work program was that we were expected to pick up the banner of social change and run with it. What I’m saying is that until recently, my model of activism has very much been rooted in, well, activity.

But after reading a recent article in Fast Company magazine about “slacktivism,” I’m beginning to think that passive forms of activism might not be as contradictory as they seem at first glance.

“Slacktivism” is the term that has been coined to describe quick actions, like texting to make a donation or “signing” an online petition. One of the entries in Urban Dictionary conveys obvious disdain for slacktivism, defining the word as “[t]he act of participating in obviously pointless activities as an expedient alternative to actually expending effort to fix a problem.”

I don’t know about “obviously pointless.”

If you take a look at how much money was raised for Haiti via text messages (more than $16 million by Wyclef Jean’s Yele Haiti as of May 11, for instance), you’ll be inclined to at least think twice about “slacktivists.” And though you can find plenty of naysayers about the futility of online petitions, organizations like Change.org and MoveOn rely on them to demonstrate support and pressure the government and other interest groups to take action on issues as diverse as gay rights and the oil spill.

Slacktivism does have limitations; the collection of money and signatures is only useful, for example, if they’re directed to legitimate causes and are managed/implemented properly. And critics complain that “slacktivists” never have to get their hands dirty… just check out this group… on Facebook no less (Hey! Click to join our group “Slacktivism is an OUTRAGE!”).

But I think slacktivism is a valid form of activism. At the very least, it gets people interested in an issue that they might not have been aware of before… even if they don’t roll up their sleeves and get their hands dirty.

Is slacktivism a valid form of activism?

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About The Author

Julie Schwietert

Julie Schwietert Collazo is a writer, editor, researcher, and translator currently in New York, formerly of Mexico City and San Juan.

  • http://joelrunyon.com/two3 Joel | Blog Of Impossible Things

    I think slacktivism is a valid form, but I’m just curious as to how much of an effort is being put into it. It’s much easier to write a text message than it is to actually do something that requires you to make a significant change in your life.

    Don Miller [great author] talked about this on his blog a few weeks back. http://donmilleris.com/2010/05/06/are-you-a-slacktivist/
    He has some good things to say.

    • Julie Schwietert

      Joel- I agree with you. It’s definitely easier to text message than to do something physically active or to make a behavioral change. But if the choice is between someone taking no action at all and “slacktivism”, I definitely want the latter. Thanks for that link- going to check it out.

      • http://joelrunyon.com/two3 Joel | Blog Of Impossible Things

        Definitely agree with you Julie. Something is always better than nothing =)

  • http://www.twitter.com/gabimgarcia Gabriela Garcia

    Great post, Julie! I don’t think that activism in the form of “got off their ass, brought people together, and did something about it” is necessarily an enemy of things like online petitions, calls for quick donations, social media campaigns, etc. Many organizations and movements complement their work in the physical world (whether it’s demonstrations, lobbying, community organizing, etc) with these non-physical actions. And while it may seem that clicking on a petition or sending $5 to a cause is meaningless, it’s been proven in many instances to effect concrete action. At Change.org, where I blog, everytime someone signs a petition it sends an individual email to the recipient. Thousands of emails flooding their inbox later, many recipients have felt obligated to take action. Both change.org and moveon have seen many victories that way. And I think it’s a great way to get people who may focus in the “real world” on one particular cause to be able to contribute to other things that they may care about, but don’t have additional time to pursue.

  • joshua johnson

    slacktivism is valid but is no replacement for feet on the ground action. it is a useful tool and lets people possibly engage quickly and easily.

  • jj

    But – successful slactivism requires legitimate activism to get organized and to be effective.

  • http://www.godschild.org Luke Armstrong

    Put me down as agreeing with you guys. Boots on the ground = AWESOME. Still helping out in whatever way you can = still admirable. Our world is huge, but now we have informational access to all parts of it. From Chile to Haiti to Guatemala to China everyone everywhere is asking for our help. We can’t be and help everywhere, but we can give a boost to people who are in different places that need our help.

    When in our history have people been able to in less than a minute help disaster relief in Haiti, and Chile, and Guatemala and help with micro finance in Africa, and support inner city education in the US? Never. Only in the last dedicate has such a global reach in help been possible. But now with a few clicks and a few bucks it is possible.

    A $10 donation here and there in addition to helping, keeps us connected to those other parts of the world. It gives us a tangible stake in things.

    And I tend to suspect that the people donating here and there tend to be the people who put their boots on the ground when the opportunity presents itself.

  • Matt

    Doing anything is better than nothing, but I do suspect that some people use this as a way to ease their consious without ever putting thier heart into a ‘real’ project. I agree with JJ, if the organisations are not legit then it’s just a waste.

  • http://www.whatsupstreetkids.org Caitlin

    This is a very interesting post. Not just because this is alwas something I’ve thougth about but also because I am currently doing web / social media stuff for a Canadian NGO. Right now it seems paramount that NGOs harness the potential of the internet and social media to keep afloat, and in many instances this means tapping in to “slacktivism.” (New word for me, I love it.)

    I have mixed feelings on this. I guess I feel that there is not much immediate benefit to slacktivism, and that it is not real activism. However, over the long run, I think there is the chance that the popularity of slacktivism could lead to real change. If people are constantly engaging in supposedly “pointless” social change-related activities, eventually a lot of the messages will become instilled and ingrained, so more people will change their behavior and/or become “real” activists at some point.

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