Image by Anonymous9000 on Flickr

Slacktivism and the web

There’s a lot of protesting going on at the moment.

Students railing against higher fees, sit downs in Topshop and BHS to complain about Philip Green’s alleged tax evasion.

Wikileaks and Julian Assange have dominated much of the news over the past month, something that could be seen as Assange’s own protest against the US government.

Lately a lot of us are being defined by how we feel about schismatic causes. What side of the fence we’re on with big issues and whether we choose to take action. Student protests were marshalled via Twitter, letting people know where and when the next demonstration was going to occur, as well as using hashtags to keep people updated on the situation. The example of web activism that’s endlessly cited is the Iran Election “Twitter Revolution”, and although arguments can be made about the validity, power and relevance of that movement, it’s undeniably still a strong argument for the power of online connected communities.

With that in mind, let me take you back to a fortnight ago, when Facebook users decided to latch onto a campaign to change their profile pictures to that of a cartoon. The premise was as follows:

The online campaign was rumoured to be linked to the NSPCC for obvious reasons. While they denied direct involvement, the charity were said to “welcome the attention it has brought to the work we do”. Raising awareness is always a good thing. There are innumerable good causes that slip in and out of vogue based on a multitude of factors; what the media are talking about, what politicians are talking about, what African country Angelina Jolie is visiting, etc.

Highlighting issues that need to be dealt with and haven’t gone away are always a good thing, and for that the campaign worked. But the scope was seriously limited and its structure may set a dangerous precedent for future campaigns.

Child abuse is almost universally acknowledged as being contemptible, horrifying and abhorrent. Ever since the media’s obsession with paedophilia gripped the public consciousness just before the turn of the millenium, the idea that child abuse needs to be stamped out has become a societal norm.

So why do I have a problem with this campaign? For a few days, Facebook became a collage of well known childhood characters; Spiderman, the Rugrats and Hey Arnold all bumped shoulders and wrote on each others’ Facebook walls. But the extent to which further action was taken was negligible.

It’s likely that some people were spurred into donating money to the NSPCC, or putting on an event of their own to raise awareness. But the central concept underpinning all of this is that several hundred people (in my friends list) sat at their computers, changing their photos and then doing nothing else. The idea of being seen to be doing something is a very dangerous and potentially destructive path for an online community to go down. I was chastised by a number of people when I responded with:

Forgive the subtle festive name change, tis the season etc...

What does this mean, and why do I have a problem with it? Campaigns are based on existing problems, on perceptions that need to be challenged and altered. A movement is then built around attempting to fix and solve that problem through various means; raising awareness, demonstrating and setting up a cohesive body of activists.

This campaign had identified its problem: child abuse. Did it raise awareness? Arguably, yes. Did everyone who “took part” then continue to actively engage in solving the problem, even if that was only to make a token initial donation before putting it out of mind? No.

If we start to reduce “doing our bit” by gestures like changing a photo, ticking a box and filling out a survey then web activism is potentially in dire straits. It convinces people that doing something close to nothing is actually better than doing nothing at all. In the field of online oneupsmanship, it tells us that doing almost nothing is sufficient to demonstrate to others that we really care.

It’s bizarre really, especially because charities and the voluntary sector lend themselves so well to getting stuck in and identifying problems and solutions. What spurred me into this post wasn’t actually the campaign itself, but something I’ve been using for the last few days called Chrome For a Cause (which ended yesterday).

It was an extension that could be downloaded onto your Chrome Browser which logged the amount of tabs you opened over the course of a day, Google then converting those tabs into donations on your behalf. More tabs meant more provisions for charity. I’ve “donated” new trees to be planted, books and vaccinations to be bought and shelter to be built simply by opening new tabs on my browser.

Whoever masterminded this campaign at Google is fiendishly clever. In essence, it’s no different from the Facebook campaign. I’m still here, sitting at my computer with the smell of coffee wafting over from the table and the sense of regret from neglecting my work is still hanging in the air. But even though I’m passively browsing the web, I’m actively giving to charity.

Google have tapped into the slactivist mindset, adding philanthropic value to something that you’d do regardless. That doesn’t mean that opening a couple of tabs will solve all the wrongdoing in the world, but it’s a start, and for once it actually has an impact.