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The problem with slacktivism

| Monday, February 17, 2014

Lots of words can be used to describe the members of our generation — busy, distracted, stressed, what have you. Of all of those, “connected” seems to be the most ubiquitous. Information regarding the world around us is more available than ever before. News reports from across the globe are available almost immediately on Twitter timelines and Facebook newsfeeds everywhere, and the news diffuses through social networks at a breakneck speed, with the popularity of certain tidbits of information growing exponentially in a snowball effect as they are shared and retweeted. Truthfully, we are members of the most well-informed generation of young people to date.

The connectivity of the modern age and this social media information translation has subtly crept its way into how young people involve themselves in social causes. One needs to look no further than the viral sensation that was Kony 2012 (throwback, right?) to get an understanding of how powerful and pervasive internet-catalyzed social movements can become. Aside from the fact that by early 2012, Kony’s followers were estimated to number only a few hundred at best and the video erroneously pinpointed Kony to be in Uganda as opposed to the Central African Republic, the indisputable fact remains that within the span of a week, 100 million viewers were more educated about the man and his injustices where very few even knew who he was before. It’s obvious social media has drastically changed the number of people who are aware of obscure social, political and economic issues across the world and there is nothing inherently objectionable to that.

As we should probably know by now, knowing is just half the battle — this type of viral marketing can only do so much to work past that goal. Some people are frightfully willing to throw their support behind certain campaigns and it makes sense why — doing so makes us feel good, and we are supposedly doing our part to help others become more aware of the issue at hand. The problem with this line of thinking is it encourages quantity of engagement over quality of said engagement. When our Facebook profiles are chock-full of likes for certain charitable organizations and causes, one cannot help but wonder the amount of time and effort — if any — that person put behind said cause in the real world. This type of “slacktivism” can have deleterious effects when people are too caught up in the touchy-feely, lovey-dovey pathos of the campaign that they become numb to what — or who — they’re even supporting in the first place. A recent study from by Sara H. Konrath of the University of Michigan found empathy — the feeling of “genuinely caring about other people’s emotional experiences” — has steadily decreased over the past several years, a trend magnified by the unavoidable narcissism inherent with social media. This trend bleeds over to and hurts social causes whose main support comes from the online realm — people are more than happy to support a cause by clicking a button, but when it comes to actually going out and volunteering? That’s a much harder sell. It goes without saying that if we struggle to feel the daily struggles of those with whom we actually interact, it is exceedingly difficult to feel a genuine sense of solidarity with a cause on a Facebook page.

All of this is not to say that getting information about social issues on social media is inherently disingenuous — it just means we as consumers of that information have to be more active in sifting through the vast amounts of information we have available at our fingertips to become active advocates for change in the real world. We must never lose sight of the physical value of getting out there and, as clichéd as it sounds, making a difference. Marching for a cause in Washington, D.C. or South Bend, Ind., requires a physical presence (and in the case for March for Life, braving negative 20-degree weather) that forces you to feel a tangible connection to the cause you are supporting. Standing in the elevator lobby of LaFun handing out fliers or selling an item for charity, or garnering support for a cause forges an intimate connection between you and said cause that an Upworthy video simply cannot foster. Ultimately, we must come to realize that while social media can act as the conduit of information that can ignite the spark within, the only way to make that flame into a true fire is to get out in the world and kindle it yourself.


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