New on SSIR: Are we addicted to Slacktivism?

by Amy Sample Ward on December 7, 2010

My latest contribution to the Stanford Social Innovation Review is now up – it’s reposted below, but you can find the original post and conversation on SSIR.

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If you’ve been on facebook at all in December this year, you may have seen something happening to all your friends – their pictures changing to their favorite cartoon characters! You may or may not have seen a message from those same friends encouraging you and everyone else to do it, too, as a way of increasing awareness of child abuse. It caught my eye and I couldn’t help but wonder what it was all about, what was the story behind the story.

According to ABC news:

According to the trend-tracking website Know Your Meme, the cartoon fad started with Facebook users in Greece and Cyprus in mid-November.
The site said the original message was in Greek and translated to “From the 16th to the 20th of November, we shall change our profile pictures to our favourite cartoon characters. The purpose of this game is to remove all photos of human for a few days from Facebook.”

What struck me about this original message was the lack of connection to a cause. According to Mashable,

The origins of this campaign remain a mystery, as it doesn’t seem to be affiliated with any official organization. And not that you need to limit child abuse awareness to a certain time of year, but, at least in the U.S., National Child Abuse Prevention Month isn’t until April. Some Facebook commenters have also pointed out the perhaps misdirected effort, posting messages skeptical of any tangible outcomes.

This is when I really started paying attention. There has to be something going on that’s getting everyone excited enough to search for a cartoon character and change their picture. I also started noticing that of my friends on facebook, it was a pretty even spread between people that worked in the nonprofit sector and those that didn’t. I posted in a facebook group for social media and nonprofit folks the following message:

I’ve been pretty perplexed by the cartooning of facebook and after seeing news posts about how it is not child abuse awareness month or week and so forth, and the posts about how the call to change profile pics to a cartoon started in greece made me wonder if perhaps for the meme to continue/catch fire in the english translation if people felt obligated to make up an advocacy-related reason for people to play along…

A fellow group member and colleague, Tom Watson, replied that, “I’ve seen perhaps two dozens links to child abuse organizations swapped in the last couple of days – and it was fun. Sure, it’s slacktivism but what the hey….it was fun.”

And another friend, Stacey Monk, noted, “I couldn’t resist an opportunity to swap my mug with the shmoo. And I got to learn why I love him so much – iturns out, according to wikipedia, he’s a “classic allegory of greed and corruption tarnishing all that’s good and innocent in the world” – so I studied up on shmoo which made it all worthwhile ;) http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Shmoo

So, I think I “get it” as far as what catches hold on facebook – something easily shareable, easy to accomplish, and fun/enjoyable. But, what still really stands out for me, is the addition of the cause-advocacy appeal once the meme hit the English translation.

Do we need slacktivism to justify fun behavior online? Are we so accustomed to easy-to-accomplish campaigns that we assume every “call to action” is/needs to be associated with a cause? What does this mean for the Child Abuse Awareness Month activities in April – when a specific organization or campaign tries to call on us “for real” this time?

What do you think? Did you change your picture – why or why not? What’s your reaction to campaigns like this?

  • http://www.EpicChange.org Stacey Monk

    Even when I donned my shmoo suit, I’d wished it was just for fun. I’m fairly certain I’d have done it anyway. My action had nothing to do with the cause. I’ll admit, I did it because Tom did it (and I think he’s pretty smart). And my friend Amanda. And it looked liked fun. In a sense, it was mindless. It definitely wasn’t heartful.

    Personally, I think the problem isn’t this campaign or those like it – I hope contagious fun runs rampant on the web & in the world. Instead, I think the problem is that it was conceivable that this campaign had originated from a legitimate nonprofit. By engineering nonprofit campaigns to be so mind-numbingly simple, to require so little investment of personal care, we’re creating an environment where people actually expect to do nothing & change the world. That’s the danger – because the truth is people need to invest the very best of themselves, their whole hearts, to bring about real change. imho, careless acts, and money given without care, will never yield substantive impact. the intentions behind our giving matter, yet many nonprofits are in a mad dash to engineer the least reflective, least intentional, giving process possible. If so many people participated thinking they were supporting a cause, it’s only because so many nonprofits have set up the expectation that doing nothing has some real impact.

    One other note: this does set a higher bar for nonprofit leaders & other influencers, in my opinion, too, for thoroughly checking out the cause-related memes in which we participate. We can easily, if accidentally, influence many others to walk down a path much more harmful than this one.

    • Anonymous

      Hey Stacey-

      Thank you so much for sharing your experience and perspective here!

      I totally agree about fun and also hope it is the dominant force at work :) What concerned or struck me, wasn’t that the cartooning of facebook was fun (by all means, people, have fun!), but that as the message moved into English-language areas, that people started adding the faux-cause clause and that made me worried that people needed a do-gooder association to justify “taking action” online, when it was just a fun exercise.

      I really appreciate your point that this is a great example of why influencers should respect the role the community has given them and do their homework! Great point!

  • Annamrichter

    I just can’t stop clicking. Help ;) I never changed my photo and I think it was largely because I didn’t see a clear line between the cause and the action requested. Sure it looked fun to see my friends as cartoons but I didn’t understand how that was going to anything for the cause. Does that just say I’m no fun if I didn’t change my photo?

    I totally agree with Stacy that let the fun continue! If you are going to engage supporters in fun way, don’t let them think they are changing the world and I’m not sure that National Abuse Prevention Month tried to claim anything of the sorts. But why not think of it as an entry point to the org? But did the National Child Abuse Prevention FB page get more likes? Not that I can tell. Maybe if they had, it would have some value to their campaign in April.

    • Anonymous

      Anna – you are totally still fun in my book even though you did not change your picture! I didn’t change mine, and I hope I’m still fun :) Though to me, obviously I wrote this post about how I was feeling and why I didn’t participate – but even on a more basic level, I don’t think I really had cartoons that I watched and loved enough to put a picture up about!

      I completely agree with your point that when the community is excited, having fun, and clearly influencing large numbers, that’s a huge opportunity and open door for organizations to join in – note that I said “join in” and not “take over” too. Will be watching for the next example of this to see if organizations start joining or continue standing by.

  • http://www.care2.com/causes/trailblazers/ Sue Anne Reed

    I did not change my picture. I did post a couple of times with my status update that I hope people were doing more than just changing their picture, and that sparked a couple of good discussions. I do think that some organization should have taken advantage of what was going on and tried to encourage donation or some other additional action.

    • Anonymous

      Sue Anna- I couldn’t agree with you more, and just replied to Jon echoing your point. I think there was definitely opportunity for organizations working on child abuse prevention to join in; they didn’t need to stop the fun or even redirect it, but offer additional actions or awareness for those looking to take it to the next level.

      Thanks for joining the discussion!

  • http://netsquared.org Claire Sale

    This got me thinking: What’s the difference between “Slacktivisim” and “Awareness Building”?

    • Anonymous

      Great question, Claire – what is your answer?

      To me, I guess the cartooning example is one of “slacktivism” and not awareness building as the work of organizations fighting childhood abuse, which organizations are working in that space, and how to take real action to support their work were not messages attached to the cartooning message. As Anna points out, not a lot of action on the facebook page for NAPM etc. I think awareness building should be campaigns or messages that enable participants and the community to know or take action because of increased awareness of what is happening and how to contribute.

  • http://twitter.com/jon_bedford Jonathan Waddingham

    Great post Amy, my first impression was along the lines of “this is great, but what does it do”. Interestingly, it seems that a few people in the UK also thought that and then actually did something about it. So we’ve seen a few people start fundraising pages on JG related to this campaign to show that something *can* happen as a consequence of a seemingly innocuous meme.

    We’ve blogged about this at http://blog.justgiving.com/community/is-cartoon-awareness-enough/ as it shows that there are people who can change slacktivism into activism.

    • Anonymous

      Hey Jon-

      Thanks for adding in here and sharing the link to the JG blog! Really appreciate it.

      Maybe the lesson for organizations from this is that people will have fun, let them have it – but watch for opportunities to jump in to elevate the slacktivism into activism. Just as we tell organizations to listen online (find conversations, monitor what community members are focused on, etc.), so should organizations listen/watch for opportunities to be the ones moving people ready to act towards an action with impact.

      Thanks so much!

      • http://twitter.com/mokuska Alexandra Goldstein

        ” but watch for opportunities to jump in to elevate the slacktivism into activism”

        That’s exactly how I feel about it. A lot of friends have been saying things like “this has nothing to do with the NSPCC”. Well, they didn’t start it, but do they have to? JG and other sites like it have proved time and time again that the supporters do an incredible job on their own, even without a specific campaign to work to. The NSPCC rightly recognised the effort being made in its name and the recognition factor the name has. What the team there now knows is that there is a dedicated group of passionate people who think their cause is important. Now if they can just harness that in an interesting way they can get funds / volunteers / specific awareness (whatever it is they decide is important and best gained through social media). Of course they have to do it before this kind of thing becomes old hat and people want to show their support a different way…

        Even slacktivists get bored with the same old, same old!

  • http://twitter.com/damienclarkson Damien Clarkson

    Hi Amy,

    I didn’t change my picture although alot of my friends did. I think it was more due the current cultural obsession with the 1980’s from people of my generation in the UK rather than to raise awareness about child abuse.

    I do consider myself a slacktivist but maybe I need a clear call to action whereby I can see how my action can make a difference. Or perhaps I have become a Facebook grump only supporting non mainstream campaigns, I am which one made me not change my picture but I am pretty sure it is one of them reasons.

    @damienclarkson

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for joining in, Damien! I doubt that you are a “facebook grump” but am curious about your point that you want to see a bit more clearly how participation will make an impact. Do you have a good example of “slacktivism” on facebook or elsewhere that you thought did this well and you participated in?

  • http://twitter.com/vrhinesmith Vanessa Rhinesmith

    I’m all for play on the web, but I’m also for purpose (especially when it’s connected with the support of a cause or promoting awareness of an issue).

    These don’t have to be mutually exclusive, but when being used to complement one another they should work together to achieve a shared objective. In addition, there should be defined ownership and clear messaging that can help to further inform anyone who chooses to participate – or join in the fun. Honestly, I originally thought that the cartoon avatar was simply a purposeless meme until I did some additional digging.

    There were many people participating without knowledge of the issue. Does that mean enhanced awareness or even “slacktivism”? It might have been fun, but did we also miss the chance to cultivate commitment or support of the bigger cause?

    Play can be powerful – it can help to make scary issues less scary and offer context that makes the issues more tangible to more people, but it should also be relevant.

    I’m really left with more questions, than answers or insight: How do we migrate from awareness online to real action and support offline? Are we seeking validation through participation and enjoyment of the meme not the cause. It’s ‘cute’, but where is the action or measurable outcome to support that it was worth it? Maybe most importantly, is this the type of campaign behavior we want other NPOs modeling?

    I enjoyed and really appreciated Tom Watson’s post and opinion, “If Scooby Doo or Top Cat or Stimpy can bring even a sliver of new activists to this cause, I’m for it.”

    Awareness is important, but I struggle with whether or not this type of participation made any real impact and what the cause could of achieved if executed differently. Did the act of showing off our new avatars distract from what they were supposed to represent? I felt like there was more conversations about cartoons from the past and finding new avatar photos for Facebook, than about the issue of child abuse.

    Perhaps the primary question is what do we want the take away to be from this situation? I think an opportunity is being missed and potentially a poor precedent being set for both potential supporters of a cause and the organizations looking to promote them. Are we addicted to ‘slacktivism’? Personally, I hope not.

  • snowflakes4me

    all i know is that education/awareness increases activism; slacktivism is better than ignorance; humanity evolves extremely slowly as one can always see examples of ‘hostory repeating itself’. hence, i changed my profile pic is to show my awareness of this cause.

    • snowflakes4me

      sorry typo error; i mean ‘”history repeating itself'”

  • Carol Steinfeld

    Totally. Search engines and phone plans that claim to donate to causes when you use them only further folks’ notions that they can sit on the couch, eat pizza, and help change the world for the better at the same time. I really feel the problem is we don’t know how to organize solutions. Also, there’s a lack of democractic literacy. People don’t know how to do it.

    • Anonymous

      Thanks for sharing your ideas, Carol! You raise an excellent point: people
      aren’t simply saying all they want to do is click a button and think they’ve
      made change; instead, organizations and campaigns that only ask for that
      much action are telling the participants that it’s all that’s needed to make
      real change! We are communicating and supporting slacktivism ourselves.

      I love your statement that, “we don’t know hot to organize solutions.” I’m
      going to reflect on that and see if I can’t come up with some approaches to
      talk about!

      Thanks again,
      a