fbsuSome have criticized the new slacker-activism, or slacktivism, on Facebook, Twitter and other sites. Slacktivism encompasses activities where people post about issues they care just enough about to spend one minute constructing a status update or tweet about them [some early examples]. This came into the news again because of a viral campaign where women reveal their bra color in order to raise awareness about breast cancer. The critiques against slacktivism predictably followed [here, I am putting aside the important issue of the sexualization of illness that is specific to the bra-color campaign].

These critiques are justified to some degree. It is certainly annoying when you see friends whose support for various causes never goes beyond an incessant stream of awareness-oriented status updates.

However, what is implicit in much of the anti-slacktivism writing is a critique of digital social media. Specifically, that efforts spent on Facebook, MySpace or Twitter must mean less effort is spent in the material world. Opposed to this zero-sum perspective, research on social media has shown just the opposite to be true [this hearkens back to the old Hegelian idealism versus Marxian materialism debate].

Further, anti-slacktivism often falls into the ever-popular trap of criticizing that which is on social media as unimportant or trivial. What fuels this knee-jerk reaction is rooted in the tendency to see the digital realm as separate from material reality. Instead, as I have argued elsewhere, we should view the material and digital as enmeshed and in conversation with eachother. The extent to which social media awareness campaigns are actually enmeshed with material-world activism is an open question.

The point is that if you see status updates and tweets on their own, removed from the user’s everyday lives, they do seem trivial. However, acknowledging that these updates are part of a stream of sociality that bridge one’s digital and material lives allow these updates to be seen for what they are. As danah boyd points out, most of what we say in our everyday lives is trivial, and Facebook, MySpace and Twitter are no exception.

Thus, those who post their bra color or partake in other viral awareness campaigns may indeed care about the issue and be doing more to help. To label them “slaktivists” serves to downplay the overlap that these campaigns have with “real” activism (however the slacktivist-haters actually define this).

Last, it should also be recognized that the anti-slacktivists are writing blog posts, creating facebook groups and updating their Twitter feeds and status updates to fight slacktivism, using just the strategies the slacktivists are being criticized for. So much for the argument that creating memes instead of marching in the streets is ineffectual and irresponsible. ~nathan

Facebook bra color question: Real breast cancer awareness effort, or slacktivism at its finest?