A nation of ‘slacktivists’

Renee James Contributor
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At this festive season of the year, it is more than usually desirable that we should make some slight provision for the poor and destitute…Many thousands are in want of common necessaries; hundreds of thousands are in want of common comforts.”

If Charles Dickens were writing today and had posted this on his Facebook page, I can practically guarantee someone would have found it and followed it up with: “Paste this in your status for the rest of the day if you agree.”

The diminishing effort we can now expend to address almost anything on the planet is limitless, if that makes sense. I’m just not sure how much less we can do, how little energy we can expend, how immobile we can remain on our sofas, and still have our “activity” counted as doing something. If this continues, our society of do-gooders will soon become the human equivalent of homeopathic medicine.

I thought about this the other day, during this annual season of giving and good will toward men, when I came across a new word. The Urban Dictionary defines slacktivism as “the search for the ultimate feel-good that derives from having come to society’s rescue without having had to actually get one’s hands dirty or open one’s wallet. One of those feel-good internet campaigns that doesn’t actually help anybody nor have a political impact. It’s your way of pretending to care while sitting on your butt in front of a computer.”

Thank God someone gave this (in)activity a name. Maybe now we’ll all recognize it for what it is: a way to justify all those hours we spend online. Confession: I kind of love Facebook and am just this side of obsessive about it. I enjoy talking with family and old friends and keeping in touch. I’ve also met people who seem delightful and engaging. I’m not leading some kind of secret life or anything but I’m on Facebook almost every day. Despite my tendency to check messages, notifications or friend requests from strangers, it’s rare that I cut and paste something into my status because someone enjoins me to do so.

You know exactly what I mean. Political causes, social issues, religious views: they all get addressed with some variations of “If you believe____, paste this is your status for ____.”

Let me make a few things clear: I’m Catholic. I’m a mom who loves her sons. I respect and am grateful for the commitment and sacrifices our armed forces make every day. I hate pedophiles and bullies. Ditto puppy mills, polluters and people with small, closed, obstinate minds, especially those who also belittle another’s beliefs or way of life.

But let’s think about this. Anyone can post anything, anytime as a status update and they can also ask a few hundred friends to support their view. Can’t we please acknowledge that the “post this if that” formulas are, as the Urban Dictionary kindly points out, the “ultimate feel-good” that cost us little more than a few keystrokes or a “copy and paste” swipe and click?

I don’t think we can. We all feel just a little better about ourselves; like what we’re doing will actually effect some change, when we comply with various requests and create some kind of faux-solidarity. [I think the only Facebook status campaign that resulted in a measurable and real outcome occurred when Betty White hosted Saturday Night Live. I’m so proud to be part of a new cyber-nation that makes significant change happen.]

Then again, if the goal is to befriend scores of strangers on Facebook, and share our beliefs, maybe posting these kinds of updates is exactly what’s required — nothing more. They offer shortcuts to who we are and what we hold dear. In the time it takes to read a status update, we can learn that someone supports a soup kitchen, listens to jazz, trains therapy dogs and drinks chai lattes. Or that someone grew up in Portland, loves camping, has read Confederacy of Dunces fourteen times and can’t abide Judd Apatow movies.

There is it. Facebook: the trifecta of 21st-century friendship, activism and narcissism.

Back to Dickens for a moment: “What shall I put you down for?”

Hmmm. How about one less status update; and one more real moment of connection. That might make abundance rejoice, right?

Renee James writes social commentary and keeps track of the things that mystify her on her blog: “It’s not me, it’s you,” found at reneeaj.blogspot.com. Her email address is raaj3@msn.com.