A week or two ago, a meme went around facebook where people would change their picture to that of a cartoon character and set their status to something urging others to do the same. This was supposed to be some sort of campaign against child abuse. But not once in any of the statuses that I saw was there any explanation of exactly how changing your facebook picture would have the slightest impact on this problem. Is some scumbag out there going to see all these pictures of cartoon characters on facebook and decide not to beat their child that evening because of it? Call me pessimistic, but I don’t think so. Some may say that it was to “raise awareness”. Who doesn’t already know about child abuse? Other than the abusers themselves, who doesn’t already think it’s a terrible thing? Whose awareness are you trying to raise?
I’m not trying to be negative here and say that this is a problem that we can’t solve so let’s just do nothing. I’m not saying that people who do this are idiots. And there’s certainly no harm in changing your facebook picture. But anyone who believes that this type of “campaign” will have any effect on anything is delusional. This is just another form of slacktivism, where people think they can cause real change in the world without actually doing any work.
This has come up on both facebook and twitter many times over the last few years: Copy this line to your facebook status if you know anyone who’s died from cancer. Black out your twitter picture to protest a proposed copyright law in New Zealand. Join this group to protest . Sign this internet petition to protest high taxes. Could the government look at an internet petition with several thousand “signatures” on it and rethink their budget because of it? Not bloody likely, but I guess it’s theoretically possible. But how is changing your facebook status to “I know someone who died of cancer” going to change anything? And quite frankly, who doesn’t know someone who’s died of cancer?
Every couple of years there’s the “gas-out” where everyone is supposed to not buy gas on a particular day (sometimes from a particular gas company) to protest high gas prices. This is not quite the same thing, in that people are doing something real, but nobody considers the fact that if Wednesday is the gas-out day and you were going to buy gas that day, then you’d have to buy it on Tuesday or Thursday instead. Even if they sold no gas on the gas-out day, the total demand over the course of the week would be the same as usual, and so there might be some momentary blip in gas prices but nothing long-term. This is proven by the past few gas-outs, where gas prices drop by a few cents on the day of, only to rise back to normal a day or two later.
Another form of slacktivism is the “ribbon” magnets people put on their cars. Many of them are for some medical condition or another (again, “let’s raise awareness for cancer” – who doesn’t know about cancer?), but some simply say “support the troops”. These ones confuse me too. Originally I assumed they meant that the person was in favour of the fighting in Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, etc., i.e. they support the war and agree with those who decided to send the soldiers overseas. But later I heard that even if you don’t support the reason the American and Canadian troops are fighting, you should display these magnets to say you support the soldiers themselves. This makes no sense. Saying that you support the war is a political statement that many agree with and many do not, and some may feel strongly enough about their position that they want to broadcast it to the world. But agree or disagree with the war itself, who doesn’t support the soldiers? What’s the alternative – hope they die? Why do you need to put something on your car that says “I hope the soldiers overseas are not killed!”
Now as I talk about ribbon magnets, I should say for the record that I do have a magnet on my car. It’s shaped like a banner and it says “Transplants save lives”. I’ve written before about a little girl we know who had four organs transplanted in 1997 at the age of six months. This surgery saved her life, and she will be 14 years old in a couple of months. This magnet could be considered slacktivism as well, but I argue that it’s not. In order to do something real to help cure cancer, you’d have to be a doctor or scientist or both. You can certainly give money to the Cancer Society (or the CNIB or the Diabetes Association or whatever); I do it myself and I will never argue that it’s a bad thing. But all you need to do to support organ donation is sign your organ donor card, which takes almost no effort and costs nothing. I’ve done it, my wife has done it, many of my friends have done it, and if something terrible should happen to one of us and the organs are needed, just signing the card has saved someone’s life. Not to take anything away from donating money, but donating organs can have a much more direct impact. If the magnet on my car reminds someone to sign their organ donor card, it will have served its purpose.
If you want to effect real change, get off your ass and get out there and do something real, or at least donate money to someone else who’s doing something real. There are lots of charity walks, runs, and bike races, not to mention car washes, barbecues, and even 50-50 draws and raffles. Hell, I grew a moustache in Movember, which took almost no effort on my part, but it raised a coupla hundred bucks for prostate cancer research. That’s about as close as you can get to doing something good with no work and no cost. Though come to think of it, I did change my facebook picture as part of it.