The dangers of slackervism

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This week's Podium article originally appeared at Jayne's blog and is reprinted with permission.

Back in January of this year, those of you on Facebook probably saw lots of female friends, family and colleagues posting a colour in their status updates — just one word, or a group of words, like "pink" or "blue" or "nude" or "white with black trim." It was the color of the bra the person was wearing. Some people claimed it was an effort to raise awareness about breast cancer.

Yet there is no data whatsoever showing this "what-color-is-your-bra" campaign increased the number of women getting medical checkups regarding their breast health, doing self-examinations regularly, etc. There's no data whatsoever that says someone knows something about breast cancer now and how it impacts women that they didn't already know before the campaign. Yes, Susan G. Komen for the Cure said they got some donations they think are because some people followed up their bra colour status with a link to its web site. But others reported no donations at all.

Lately, people are changing their Facebook profile photos to a cartoon character. They say this is to raise awareness about child abuse. Yet, there is no information offered on child abuse, no information offered on how to prevent such abuse, etc. And there's no data whatsoever that says people now know something about child abuse that they didn?t already know before this "campaign." No one is discussing child abuse; they are discussing cartoon characters.

I think it is yet another example of slackervism, where people clicked something online, or did something equally simple online, and walked away thinking, "Wow, I really made a difference!? But they didn't.

My fear is that these people then do not do what's really needed — like volunteer or make a donation to an organization related to preventing or responding to child abuse or even know how to report suspected child abuse, because they think what they've done on Facebook has real impact, that that's enough to make a difference.

And it's interesting to note that when I challenged friends and colleagues about this — when they would post the cartoon photo and say, "This is to raise awareness about child abuse" and I would post a comment asking "how", people became very defensive, claiming I didn't care about child abuse or was "spoiling the fun."

Yes, it's a lot of fun to change your profile to something silly — I do it often on my personal Facebook page. But creating this false sense of activism is dangerous. Here's what so many people are thinking as a result of campaigns like this: Why make time to volunteer or why reserve any money to help others when just clicking helps someone somehow? I can change the world just by clicking something or changing my Facebook status, right? Have a look at the Community Service section of Yahoo! Answers or similar online fora to see how often people ask for ideas for "just click and help" websites, because they "love helping without having to really do anything" (do a search on FreeRice if you doubt me).

I made recommendations regarding the bra colour-to-raise-cancer-awareness last year, detailing what would have taken this from slackervism to real activism. So, what would have made this cartoon-charater-as-a-profile-pic a true social marketing/health marketing campaign, with real impact (changed behaviour, new awareness, etc.) regarding child abuse?

  • Encouraging people to not only change their profile picture, and not just say it's to prevent child abuse, but to also link to a website for more information about child abuse, including specific aspects: child neglect, shaken baby syndrome, child sexual abuse, etc., and information on what to do if you suspect child abuse.
  • Having a banner on the home page of your child abuse-prevention or information site saying, "Did you change your Facebook status photo to a cartoon character?" Then link to a page focused on educating people about child abuse and encouraging people to participate in the campaign.
  • Having a Facebook fan page specifically associated with this campaign, and using it not only to educate about child abuse, but also to survey fans about the impact of the campaign regarding their actions. Did they have a discussion this week with friends about child abuse, or just cartoon characters?

Online volunteering / virtual volunteering is not slackervism. To see what online activism really looks like, see the Women of Uganda Network (WOUGNET) status updates on Facebook from Nov. 25 - Dec. 2, 2010. Here's an example of an EFFECTIVE online awareness campaign using Facebook to prevent and respond to abuse of women.

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