It sounds like a contradictio in terminis, like ‘sound of silence’ or ‘sensible Twitter debate’. But ‘slacktivism’, a contraction of ‘activism’ and uh, ‘slacking’, has become a widespread phenomenon that urges us to reflect on the nature of activism and participation.
Slacktivism: A Formal Introduction
The United Nations defines slacktivism as when people “support a cause by performing simple measures” but are not necessarily “engaged or devoted to making a change.” Other frequently used terms are ‘clicktivism’ or ‘arm-chair activism’.
Basically, slacktivism is a way to voice your opinion about a certain cause without taking to the streets or risking your neck. It’s the viral hashtag you’re retweeting. The pink ribbon on your shirt. The rainbow-coloured frame on your Facebook picture. The ‘anti-plastic’-petition you signed last week.
Of course, we do those things with the best intentions. But is this a valid type of activism? Or is it just a way to appease our conscience without truly having to engage?
The Good, The Bad and The Ugly
Generally, slacktivism has a questionable reputation. Critics argue that it doesn’t lead to actual, foot-on-the-ground change, and that it oversimplifies complex global problems. Sharing a link or signing a petition is easy, and so is disengaging from the cause 10 seconds later.
Is the realm of social media, where everything seems fleeting, the right place for activism? Micah White, co-creator of the Occupy Wall Street movement, thinks not. He even draws parallel between slacktivism and food from McDonald’s:
“Gone is faith in the power of ideas, or the poetry of deeds, to enact social change. Instead, subject lines are A/B tested and messages vetted for widest appeal. (…) Political engagement becomes a matter of clicking a few links. In promoting the illusion that surfing the web can change the world, clicktivism is to activism as McDonalds is to a slow-cooked meal. It may look like food, but the life-giving nutrients are long gone.”Micah White
We know that our Facebook like won’t actually feed a hungry child. And that chronic diseases don’t take into account how many viral hashtags condemn their existence. In the end, we still have to put our money where our mouth is.
But that doesn’t mean that slacktivism can’t make a difference. Let’s zoom in on two of the most successful cases of the last few years.
Slacktivist success stories: ALS & #BLM
The ALS-challenge, urging people to empty a bucket of ice water over their heads or donate a sum to the cause, took the internet by storm in 2014. Everyone, from famous soccer players and actors to your neighbour’s hairdresser’s cousin was joining the ice bucket challenge. And in the end, the fad didn’t only raise awareness about the disease, it also gathered thousands of dollars that could ultimately make a real-life difference.
Similarly, the #BlackLivesMatter-movement was born as a viral hashtag, but the uproar quickly catalysed into offline reality. People took to the streets for popular protests, and soon after, the topic dominated the national conversation in the US. It seems that this blend of the online realm with everyday reality is the most important precondition for slacktivism to make an impact.
“If it’s just on social media, then very little will follow from that. But if by seeing things, people are impelled to take action themselves, and they are helped to find out how to take that action themselves, then change can result.”Prof. Nicholas Mirzoeff, New York University
In order to inspire true change, we’ll have to drop the ‘slack’ eventually. But that doesn’t mean that slacktivism in itself has no value. Instead of viewing it as a replacement for more straightforward types of action, we should see it as a first step.
It’s an easy, shareable way for people to talk about a cause they are passionate about, or to get educated on new topics. After all, isn’t every voice addressing an urgent topic inherently a good thing? Is limited action not always better than no action at all?
“Dismissing weak ties because they’re not strong would be about as stupid for us as turning down a kid wanting to empty his piggy bank to donate to us because we need more money than he can give. That would be insulting, callous, irresponsible and frankly counterproductive.”Greenpeace activist JulietteH
Besides, slacktivism arguably serves as some kind of ‘gateway drug’ for people who are less inclined to participate in politics or public debate. And the more voices resound on a certain topic, the more solid its democratic value, right?
Is CitizenLab a ‘slacktivist’ platform?
So how does the concept of slacktivism relate to the CitizenLab e-democracy platform? Most of the actions we support could arguably fall under the ‘slacktivism’ category. Signing petitions, voting or sharing ideas are easy and safe actions that are performed online in a couple of clicks.
Still, not all kinds of online participation are created equal.
First of all, both the relevant community and the topics at hand are clearly outlined. Common slacktivism often aims to influence enormous, overarching problems like famine, war or global warming with seemingly futile actions. In comparison, the conversations held through CitizenLab are much more tangible.
Communities raise their voices about topics that directly affect them (ref. our 2018 statistics showed that platform users were most likely to talk about mobility and public planning). When the results are clearer and closer to home, it increases the likelihood of online engagement spiralling into real-life action.
Besides, we stimulate a productive interaction between local governments and citizens. Instead of screaming ideas into the void that is the internet, we inspire dialogue between different groups of change-makers on a platform built for that specific purpose. With different parties involved, it’s much easier to achieve and track real-life progress.
But that progress has to start somewhere. And if that’s on social media, there’s nothing very wrong with that.