April 9, 2013

Pull up an armchair

Disdain for ‘slacktivism’ distracts from potential of social media to raise awareness and compassion for key issues.

Did you change your Facebook profile picture to the Human Rights Campaign (HRC)’s pink-on-red equals sign two weeks ago? If you did—and judging anecdotally by the sea of red avatars that flooded my News Feed on Tuesday morning, you probably did—you also probably understand that the nearly three million-strong campaign coincided with the Supreme Court’s hearing of oral arguments about the legality of same-sex marriage. Or perhaps you refrained from posting anything because, as one of my friends put it, “Posting a picture won’t change the Supreme Court’s ruling.”

He wasn’t the first to make this argument. In 2010, Blink author Malcolm Gladwell raised a similar point in a New Yorker op-ed, writing that “the evangelists of social media” seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend” and see social media–based activism—slacktivism, as it is called today—as “activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960.”

But to evaluate a social media-based movement by such a grandiose rubric is to completely miss the point. If used correctly, today’s slacktivism can act as an irreplaceable catalyst for political activism, providing a simple, safe, social, and—above all—nonbinding channel for people’s political energy. It can allow passionate newcomers to ‘test the waters’ of any given issue or social-political movement. It is, by far, the best way to begin getting involved.

The term “slacktivism” was first coined in 2002 by New York Times writer Barnaby Feder to describe “the desire people have to do something good without getting out of their chair.” But a lot has changed since 2002. Ninety-nine percent of college students now use Facebook and 99.8 percent have a cell phone (four out of every five of which are smartphones). In 2002, just 86 percent of college students even went online; Facebook didn’t yet exist.

In the decade since Feder first thought it up, the notion of “slacktivism” has also come to encompass any sort of activism rooted in email or social media. But raising quick and widespread awareness no longer requires us to get out of our chairs—and, at least for the purposes of social and political activism, that’s a very good thing.

No one changed his profile picture with the expectation that doing so would affect the Supreme Court’s ruling, just as no one in 2010 (with perhaps the exception of Gladwell himself) would have even thought to compare an online-only movement with the violent sit-ins of the civil rights era. This doesn’t mean that either of these modern, slacktivist movements was doomed from the beginning; it simply means that each had different goals.

HRC’s avatar campaign did not pursue the sort of radical, risk-taking change of the civil rights era primarily because it wasn’t an actual, physical protest. It was an attempt to raise awareness—not only about the marriage equality cases being argued before the Supreme Court, but also about encouraging people to gauge their communities’ opinions and contribute to those opinions’ formations. This is especially important for controversial issues like same-sex marriage that may seem awkward to simply bring up in day-to-day conversation.

Equal rights may start with abstract legal concepts, but they are made very real through local implementation (or lack thereof). In this way, slacktivism plays the fundamental role of signaling to our peers our stances on a given issue. It forms and reinforces our understanding of the beliefs and priorities of the world immediately around us. For closeted members of the LGBTQ community, for example, the knowledge of their peers’ support could prove decisive by lessening fears of ostracization if they were to come out.

It’s true that most Facebook users with pink-on-red avatars probably won’t end up doing much else for LGBTQ rights. But that didn’t make their show of solidarity with the LGBT community any less important, and shouldn’t negate the importance of the few who were inspired to get involved.

Nonetheless, no one likes to be labeled a slacker, especially not a student at the workaholic haven that is the University of Chicago. But the problem with slacktivism is not the activity itself—it’s the attitude that virtual engagement cannot be translated into real-world involvement and change. In assuming that the Internet and the real world operate as separate spheres, pessimists like Gladwell fail to appreciate the paramount importance of the two acting in unison. Whether through the declaration of public opinion, the demonstration of community solidarity, or the dissemination of information and the rallying of support, slacktivism can and does serve as the ultimate sidekick to contemporary activism. The Arab Spring revolutions were all organized and documented through social media, as were Russia’s electoral fraud protests, which, at their height, drew an unprecedented crowd of nearly 100,000 to Moscow’s Red Square. Live-tweeting didn’t make these movements any less significant; on the contrary, it brought the movements the sort of global attention that the world (and particularly the United States) does not typically lend them.

Instead of criticizing each other, let’s start seeing slacktivism as a springboard for real activism. Let’s stop underestimating the power of dialogue and sharing. But let’s not allow “I passed it on” to become our excuse for passing something by.

Anastasia Golovashkina is a second-year in the College majoring in economics.