A click to save the world?

Last Updated 21 March 2014, 16:00 IST

“Look mummy, we’re changing the world one tweet at a time,” will be the slogan of every child in this digital age. A single link gets several hits and a single tweet gets retweeted umpteen number of times. It  indicates a strong conviction that people are willing to make an effort, albeit a  minimal one.

The world is a global village today. Internet has ushered in many advances on the technological front, one of them being social networking. Social media has given rise to a phenomenon called slacktivism. You can “like” and “share” a picture to let your “FB friends” know you care about a cause. Twitter has a hashtag for every cause. But what is the actual effect of these actions?

Sure, to induce change, a small first step is necessary. It can then be taken to the next level that may be more time-consuming or resource-intensive. Social networks certainly allow the easy spread of information.

But the problem arises when the only support for a cause is a photo with a few thousand shares. Are you one of those people who would get on the ground and participate in a protest for a positive change? Or would you rather “fix the issue” using social media, say by joining a Facebook group for environmental enthusiasts?

Vasudev Balasubramanian, a software consultant, says, “The effectiveness of online petitions is something I’ve always been skeptical about. Given how signatures are gathered with no verification of the person’s identity, I don’t know how seriously those in power are likely to take these petitions. However, I too participate in slacktivism sometimes. Why not? If it does some good, it’s worth it. If not, that’s just a minute of my life wasted. It’s worth the chance. I guess the point is that we care about these causes. But we just don’t care enough to do anything ourselves. Honestly, this may just be for a feel-good factor about oneself.”

Online activities are sometimes elusive or short-lived and so, may not effectively reach the authorities in time to influence any formal decision-making. Shilpa Kalyan, a media studies professor, believes, “Slacktivism is like a fashion trend. You start your own group and get people to like it. It makes you feel like a crusader and it’s more to do with instant gratification of having done something.

Though in reality, sitting in front of the computer and just clicking on the ‘like’ button or joining a dedicated cause online hardly makes any difference. It allows users an easy way to associate with nonprofit missions      without helping to provide the essential resources to keep them afloat.” 

Don’t call it activismActivism is a well-known term and it  includes any effort to support and direct a change or a societal cause. Slacktivism is comparatively a new idea, said to be coined in the 1990s by Dwight Ozard and Fred Clark. It initially had a positive connotation, but of late, there are quite a few critics giving it a dubious undertone. Malcolm Gladwell, the famous New Yorker    journalist, had once berated those who compare social media ‘revolutions’ with actual activism that challenges the status quo ante.

Slacktivism is a   portmanteau word combining slacker and activism. It refers to simple measures used to support an issue or a social cause, which involves virtually no effort on behalf of the participants. Habitually synonymous with actions such as signing online petitions, copying social network statuses and joining cause-related social networking groups, these actions could be merely for participant gratification as they lack engagement and commitment. They may or may not produce any tangible effect in terms of promoting a cause. So, anytime you endorse a cause on social media without taking any corollary action outside the digital world (like donating money or volunteering), you’re guilty of slacktivism.

Slacktivism underratedIt may not be able to affect any major social change on its own, but considering the discourse that slacktivism inspires on various issues, it can become the gateway into more direct, informative and effective forms of activism. After all, creating awareness and making people opinionated is slacktivism’s forte. Without awareness, no one can actually solve an issue.

Avaaz.org is a website for connecting citizens and decision-makers around the world. Anyone can start a worthwhile petition and the site mobilises users offline as well. What the world needs is better engagement from individual citizens, and such sites help in this regard. Even simple measures such as signing petitions, tweeting and sharing opinions on matters of import are small, yet critical steps in the right direction.

For 20 years, the Tanzanian government had been trying to evict a Maasai community from its traditional lands to make room for a big game hunting company to bring in tourists to shoot wildlife. 1.7 million people signed a petition on Avaaz along with the Maasai group and rallied the international media, getting CNN and Al Jazeera to visit the area and break the story to the world. Due to the pressure built on the government, Tanzanian PM finally told the Maasai that they won’t be evicted.

Back home, a case in point is the 2011 Anna Hazare India Against Corruption campaign. Lakhs of people pledged support for Anna’s cause by “liking” the initiative, tweeting their endorsement, and participating in phone campaigns. It        created a new wave of citizen participation, even if on a slackerly note.

Passive, but not uselessThey get a bad name for lacking real commitment, for caring only about self-satisfaction, and for not contributing actively. They are labelled as lightweight social activists. But sometimes, what appears to be slacker efforts lead to more substantive support for worthy social causes. A football cheerleading alumni team of Philadelphia uploaded a YouTube video showing them performing their old moves. The organisers found a sponsor willing to donate    money to breast cancer research based on the number of times the video gets viewed. They raised around $1,00,000!

“There is no golden rule that one who signs online petitions for one cause, won’t donate for another. Sometimes what starts off as a casual contribution gives a beacon of hope for bigger changes in the world. Online petition is not an end in itself, of course. But it definitely educates the public about issues of concern,” maintains Vivek Kannan, a student.

When everything is just a click away, it’s only natural, perhaps, to feel that we can change the world, armed with a smartphone or tablet. It isn’t that awful, is it?As Edmund Burke, the 18th century Irish philosopher, had rightly said, “Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.” For it’s little drops of rain that make a mighty ocean.

(Published 21 March 2014, 15:59 IST)

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