Over the past year, numerous news outlets and political figures have discussed, censured, or applauded activists and their methods. While activism itself is not new, its forms have certainly changed. In recent years, these changes can be attributed to the ever-expanding worlds of technology and social media. As part of this change, a derogatory term has emerged to describe people who are seen as too lazy or ambivalent to commit to more than a simple gesture for an important cause.
“Slacktivism’s” Origin Story “Slacktivism” was coined in 1995 by Dwight Ozard and Fred Clark, who used it to describe people who made small changes, such as planting a tree to help with larger global issues. At the time of its inception, slacktivism was seen in a positive light. As we moved into the early 2000s, however, the term’s connotations shifted towards the negative. Today, being accused of “slacktivism” are people who are seen as impostors, or those who might sign a petition online, post it to social media, then taking personal credit for having made a difference.
The controversy often boils down to a conversation about the efficacy of online activism, including signing petitions, organizing events, and having heated Facebook discussions. However, some activists caution against this response, encouraging people to not think in terms of who is or is not doing “enough.” Instead, they suggest changing the conversation toward more productive topics, such as how to encourage more participation.
Corvallis Activists on “Slacktivism” One of the leaders of the Our Revolution Corvallis Allies is Ron Gibbons, who has been involved in activism since 1965 and has spent time on all sides of the aisle. Gibbons defines activism as “a wide range of activities focused on effecting change.” He elaborated that those activities could include “protests in the street, letter writing, tabling, etc.”
For Gibbons, “activism today is based on the understanding that ‘we are all in this together’ and that ‘we’ are the only solution there is to the multitude of immediate problems we face. Groups are many and widespread, but they’re also diverse in approach.”
Some of slacktivism’s critics in popular media argue that the millennial generation is lazy, and that current activist efforts reflect that lack of work ethic, but not everyone agrees.
When asked if he thought people were becoming more or less engaged in their communities, Gibbons responded that “I’ve never [before] seen such volume and broad variety of people come together over so many issues.”
Oregon State University student and activist, Andrea Haverkamp is of a similar mind. She explains that as a PhD student, “much of my activism is largely written on social media.” Haverkamp is one among many activists who have awakened to the stranglehold that social media has on everyone’s time and attention. According to marketing agency MediaKix, the average person in the U.S. Spends 50 minutes a day on Facebook-related portals alone.
Haverkamp and Gibbons both described activism as a fluid term that can be implemented in many ways, so it may come as little surprise that they both found use the term “slacktivism” to be more harmful than beneficial.
“When I first heard the term, it was used as a way to diminish online activism, which I think there are fair critiques of,” Haverkamp said. She used online petitions and the women’s march as examples of activism that did not contribute to the movement’s goals.
“Not a single thing happened from that march, but a lot of people got rich off of t-shirts,” she added.
But in other cases, she explained that online avenues like GoFundMe generate “donations [that] keep LGBTQ+ activist elders housed and countless other vulnerable people safe.”
Haverkamp encourages a nuanced understanding of activism, one that does not rely solely on an activists’ action and its results, but the intention.
As Gibbons states, “Put downs of others who are doing all they can or want to do is counterproductive. Every bit of an activist’s positive efforts count. Big or small.”
Ableism and Negativity One of Haverkamp’s biggest critiques of the term “slacktivism” is the note of able-ism that it enforces – the idea that those who participate as they can, when they can, particularly those who are disabled or impaired, are not making the same impact as those doing “real” activism like standing and marching.
As Haverkamp described in the comparison of online petitions and the women’s march, different initiatives will have different outcomes, sometimes regardless of the method or its prevalence. Gibbons emphasized that the Our Revolution group “has a Facebook page just for petitions and has found it to be a useful way for the handicapped and others to be involved.”
Instead of arguing about whether or not people should be judged for how they participate, Haverkamp encourages people to take a step back and “question why one is called slacktivism and the other is activism. Where was this difference constructed and who does it benefit?”
Both Gibbons and Haverkamp encourage a wider perspective, one that respects different experiences and abilities, especially in the context of making a positive difference. Instead of tearing people down for what they are not doing, instead of judging their lack of good enough intentions, Gibbons and Haverkamp hope to inspire a shift of focus. One that considers how to get people educated, involved, and active in their communities.