This is far from a new phenomenon. Hundreds of years ago there were holier-than-thou people standing in the village square, wringing their hands, ringing their bells and talking about how urgent a problem was. They did little more than wring their hands, even then.
In our connected world, though, there are two sides to social media's power in spreading the word about a charitable cause.
According to recent data about the ice bucket challenge making the rounds, more than 90% of the people mentioning it (posting themselves being doused or passing on the word) didn't make a donation to support actual research on an actual disease. Sounds sad, no?
But I think these slacktivists have accomplished two important things at scale, things that slacktivists have worked to do through the ages:
- They've spread the word. The fact is that most charities have no chance at all to reach the typical citizen, and if their fundraising strategy is small donations from many people, this message barrier is a real issue. Peer-to-peer messaging, even if largely ego-driven, is far better than nothing. In a sideways media world, the only way to reach big numbers is for a large number of people to click a few times, probably in response to a request from a friend.
- Even more important, I think, is that they normalize charitable behavior. It's easy to find glowing stories and infinite media impressions about people who win sporting events, become famous or make a lot of money. The more often our peers talk about a different kind of heroism, one that's based on caring about people we don't know, the more likely we are to see this as the sort of thing that people like us do as a matter of course.
Spreading the word and normalizing the behavior. Bravo.
The paradox? As this media strategy becomes more effective and more common (as it becomes a strategy, not just something that occurs from the ground up as it did in this case), two things are likely to happen, both of which we need to guard against:
- Good causes in need of support are going to focus on adding the sizzle and ego and zing that gets an idea to spread, instead of focusing on the work. One thing we know about online virality is that what worked yesterday rarely works tomorrow. A new arms race begins, and in this case, it's not one that benefits many. We end up developing, "an unprecedented website with a video walkthrough and internationally recognized infographics..." (actual email pitch I got while writing this post).
- We might, instead of normalizing the actual effective giving of grants and donations, normalize slacktivism. It could easily turn out that we start to emotionally associate a click or a like or a mention as an actual form of causing change, not merely a way of amplifying a message that might lead to that action happening.
The best model I've seen for a cause that's figured out how to walk this line between awareness and action is charity: water. My friend Bernadette and I are thrilled to be supporting their latest campaign. It would be great if you'd contribute or even better, start a similar one.
I think the goal needs to be that activism and action are not merely the right thing to do, but the expected, normal thing to do.