Slacktivism: Doing What You Can, Or The Lazy Man’s Way Out?

I learned a new word last week – slacktivism. It’s fitting I learned this word through Twitter since it, and other social media networks, are said to play a role in the phenomenon. So, what exactly is slacktivism?

The word itself is a combination of the terms slacker and activism. If those words sound like they’re the polar opposites of each other you’re right and probably already getting an idea of what slacktivism means. Most of us know what the word slacker means (especially if you were in college in the 1990s). Basically, someone who is a slacker lacks motivation, work ethic and a drive to get things done.

slackerIn my day, slackers wore flannel, smoked pot, were unemployed and lived in their parents’ basements. What distinguished them from the rest of the kids also wearing flannel and living with their parents were their lack of desire to change their circumstances. They were content to stay unemployed basement-dwellers for as long as possible. With the exception of flannel (which has long gone out of style), I’m pretty sure slackers of today have the same basic setup.

Activists on the other hand are, well, active. They see something they want to change and they take steps to make those changes. It may be social, political, economic, environmental, or another cause, but activists lobby for their causes in many ways. They may write their legislators, hold protest rallies or volunteer to make change happen. Women like Susan B. Anthony, whose work with the women’s suffrage movement helped win women the right to vote, were activists. Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King, Jr., and all those involved in the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s were activists. They held marches, rallies and boycotts to change laws and societal norms.

So that brings us to the idea of slacktivism. The term isn’t a positive one. It’s used to describe activities that require minimum effort and don’t have much impact on a cause but give the person doing them a sense of satisfaction. For example, signing an online petition, changing your Facebook profile photo to that of a cause or the “Retweet to fight cancer” genre of Tweets often get classified as slacktivism.

At first I thought that sounded pretty harsh. Some people don’t have the time or finances to put into a cause, right? What if all they can do is throw a few dollars into the Make-A-Wish collection container while they’re paying for their sandwich at Panera? Are they slacktivists? I think it depends on who you ask.

While trying to figure out the meaning of slacktivism, I stumbled on a New Yorker article, “Small Change,” by Malcolm Gladwell. He makes some interesting distinctions between traditional activism and activism via social media (which often gets called slacktivism). While many argue that had social media existed during the civil rights movement, organizing protests and boycotts would have been much easier, Gladwell argues that the connections we make through social media (think of those with 1,000 Facebook friends) aren’t strong enough to lead to actions like the Montgomery Bus Boycott. They can help with simple activities like getting people to sign-up for a donor registry, but when it comes to doing something I describe as “putting your butt-on-the-line” – something that may end up getting you arrested – social media can’t do that.

After reading the piece, I had more questions than answers. I’ve seen people rant about causes or politics on Facebook when I know they don’t participate in other ways. Once I asked a chronic ranting Facebook friend if he could name his his state’s U.S senators (he couldn’t). I’d call that a clear cut case of slacktivism. But I’ve also seen the way folks in the health IT community use social media to support change. They get the word out via social media about things like EHR adoption, Blue Button and patients’ rights.

So what’s the difference? What I have noticed is that while those in health IT use social media to share information and keep connected, they don’t stop there. They’re get involved in the real world through conferences like the HIMSS annual gathering, groups like Health 2.0, and a variety of work groups. They also contact organizations like HHS and the ONC during public comment periods to make their concerns about HIT regulation known. In short, they use social media to enhance, not replace, traditional means of activism.

Many of you are already familiar with Regina Holliday’s activism through her mural 73 Cents and her Walking Gallery. Regina was kind enough to speak with me about how she became an advocate for patients’ rights and health data accessibility, and I’ll be sharing some of her thoughts in upcoming posts. I believe her experiences, worldview and projects are truly amazing.

After talking with Regina, I thought a lot about activism and how many of us either complain to friends or just give up and do nothing when we see something that needs to be changed. She really made me think about how I participate in my community and society at large. I’ve begun to think about ideas and causes that are important to me and how I can get involved. I hope that you come back to hear Regina’s story and take away inspiration as well.

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Jennifer Thew, RN, MSJ

Jennifer Thew, RN, MSJ, is a registered nurse and journalist who has covered healthcare issues and how they relate to the nursing profession. She began her nursing career as a neuroscience nurse at Rush University Medical Center in Chicago and then transitioned to journalism after receiving a degree from Roosevelt University in Chicago. She has edited and written numerous articles on a wide range of nursing and healthcare topics like Accountable Care Organizations, evidence-based practice and telehealth.

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