Digital Slacktivism

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by Ian Tingen

The past few days, Facebook and Twitter have seen a tide of red versions of the Human Rights Campaign’s logo replace profile photos. Though I don’t have any numbers on the number of photos changed, it’s safe to say that the phenomenon was viral. The impetus behind the reddening is a set of two referenda on gay rights currently on SCOTUS’ docket – Hollingsworth v. Perry (in re: CA Prop 8) and Windsor v. United States (in re: the Defense of Marriage Act). The red equals signs were a social media method of showing solidarity with the gay and lesbian population.

Yesterday, as I watched a number of people change their profile photos over, my media feeds were populated with intense back-and-forth about the nature of human rights in the US today. I don’t think I’ve seen so many people become mini-experts on Loving v. Virginia in one day, ever.

Today, the discussion about rights was still active, but another topic joined it: slacktivism. The idea, a portmanteau of the words “slack” and “activism” is derogatorily thrown at activities like the mass changing of profile photos in support of a cause. Essentially, the charge of the naysayers is that there’s no inherent value in such mass triviality.

I disagree. Not only with the negative outlook, but with the scathing nature that many have approached the topic with. I think there’s a great deal of value in such mass action, and more importantly there is potential for behavior change that the haters stomp out with their tirades.

The essence of my critique of the critique: people need to get a grip on the scope of what internet action means.

Recently, I had a birthday. I even made the world’s least-surprising Wordle out of all the tidings I received on Facebook. Making that picture took me a good while, and each note made me smile, despite seeing “Happy birthday, Ian!” repeated umpteen times. The support last Thursday was palpable, and hell if I didn’t check FB a few times to get an additional smile a few times since.

If I took the anti-slacktivist approach, I could have written a post wondering why more people didn’t send cards, or gifts, or what have you. I mean, sure, Mom should have sent me SOMETHING, but that’s a conversation for another time. But such critique would be asinine – I have no right to expect that anyone be at my beck and call in that way. In the same way (even though it galls me to say it), nobody has to support change.

Which brings me to my second point: if you’re going to criticize something, anti-slacktivists, think about what you’re actually criticizing. A common theme I saw was a number of different versions of “I do X in the struggle for gay rights, you out there changing your profile pictures need to get off of your butts.” Holier-than-thouness aside, I couldn’t help but wonder how the haters figured that a pic change was the only thing people were doing.

Even if it was, why take that approach? Consider what happened, here: a great number of people on social media sites cared enough about an issue to make a change to their online brand – even if temporary. That screams opportunity to me. It seems like it would be a good time to post a link to donate to the Human Rights Campaign, perhaps. Or maybe you could link to the oral arguments, in an attempt to raise people’s awareness of what was being debated.

Ask anyone who does behavior change in the lab or in industry – it’s hard, but much easier if you have a cause or a behavior where people have already generated a little internal inertia. Telling people that their behavior was bad will kill that inertia, and maybe even push back the likelihood that it will happen again.

Do I think people should do as much as they can in the struggle for equal rights? Absolutely. But that doesn’t mean that I’ll discourage them from doing what they can, when they can, especially when they do it without being told to. In closing, I would like to leave a post from my friend Andrew:

“Listen y’all. Ten years ago I was a scared high school kid who thought coming out would mean I’d have to go through life without any friends. Today, seeing so many of you go out of your way to affirm your support for equality… It means more than you’ll ever know. Thank you.”

You’re welcome, sir.

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