Social media can do a lot of good. It can connect people, spawn romance, spread news before even major outlets have it, or contribute to the overthrow of dictators. And depending upon your point of view, have a serious financial impact for non-profit fundraising (see Ice Bucket Challenge, although while sometimes annoying, has received $94.3 million in donations compared to $2.7 million during the same time period last year (July 29 to August 27).
But I have become increasingly dismayed by what I view to be the damage that irresponsible use of social media has caused over the last couple of weeks, principally the situation in Ferguson, Missouri. In my mind, people have increasingly made their social media properties billboards for the latest poorly-Photoshopped picture of a candle that make you feel like you’re a total jerk if you don’t JOIN the cause and pass on the aforementioned picture of the candle.
For those of you unfamiliar with the term, “slactivism” is a combination of the words “slacker” and “activist.” Wikipedia defines slactivism as:
The word is usually considered a pejorative term that describes “feel-good” measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it take satisfaction from the feeling they have contributed.
So picture someone sitting on their couch, perusing Facebook or Twitter, Liking, Sharing a picture of a sick child on Facebook, or re-tweeting something just because, for example, it has a hashtag that describes a situation that they feel passionate about – like #Ferguson. And doing nothing else, but reveling in that self-congratulatory glow that can come only from having make yourself feel good about being an activist without even leaving your couch. Oh – and pass the Fritos, please.
The slactivists have taken over the interwebs over the last several weeks. And it’s not helping.
Over the last few weeks, #Ferguson has been a trending topic on Twitter and Facebook and has dominated the national news. It’s a terrible situation and one that has yet to play out fully.
Why is slactivism a problem regarding Ferguson?
In order to make the situation better, what we need is information, not uninformed opinion. #Ferguson became a political statement. “Hey, I hate the police/don’t hate the police, so I’m going to use #Ferguson in my tweet.”
Resolution in Ferguson will come from research, understanding, compassion and grasping the other person’s point of view, and right now, that ain’t happening. Why?
— Tony Haile (@arctictony) February 2, 2014
Tony Haile is CEO of Chartbeat, a company that “…measure[s] what matters so you can take action when it matters.” They gather data. So I take Tony at his word on this.
In case you don’t want to investigate, trust me that most people don’t actually READ the articles or blog posts contained in the links that they share. They read the headline, and whammo bammo, re-tweet done. Slactivist pat on the back administered. Back to the Fritos. People are fanning the flames and passing along information based upon a hashtag or a few words in a tweet, and not on the more detailed information that often accompanies the link.
And in the process, this sort of slactivism can create a a trending topic on Twitter – making it possible for others to see the link and do the same. And the situation becomes self-perpetuating.
Passing on #Ferguson without reading – and thinking about – the corresponding information is the offline equivalent of recommending a chiropractor to a friend based upon the name of the practice, without ever actually having visited the chiropractor. But with much more serious consequences.
When people see a popular (or incendiary) hashtag, read a few words of a description in Twitter and then endorse the underlying content by re-tweeting it – this is slactivism accomplished. And yes, “endorse.” That’s why so many people like me are required by our employers to state that re-tweets do not equal endorsement. Because that’s what people perceive.
Has there been some very good, compassionate discourse surrounding the situation in Ferguson? Absolutely. And I have read quite a bit of it. And I have also been flamed on my Facebook page for expressing my views. But where social media harms us is that it makes it so easy – SO TEMPTING – to hit that “re-tweet,” Like or Share without even taking the time to even know the point of view or judging the credibility of the information that they are passing on.
At some point in this social media chain, people will read the information passed on via social media. What will this be? What point of view will it present? How will it help make things better (real activism), than clicking on something then moving on to see what’s new on Netflix (slactivism)?
The answer is that I sure don’t know. But what I do know is that the noise to signal ratio around a topic like Ferguson can helped by people providing real-time, on the ground information using social media, but this can barely be one percent of instances. The other 99% of the people are NOT there, and information that is being endorsed, shared and spread is not likely even be read by the person who is sharing it.
That’s sad. That’s harmful. And that is how social media is hurting – not helping – the situation in Ferguson.
Wanna feel good about yourself? Be an activist. Start a petition drive. Volunteer in a homeless shelter. Want to be a couch potato, endorse information that you haven’t even read, let alone considered?
Welcome to the wonderful world of slactivism.
Image: Peters Gadgets