Slacktivism, or: Elisa feels bad about saying that philanthropy might not always be awesome

This New York Times 2010 article, which I think ends rather too optimistically, discusses two instances of the Red Cross’ use of Twitter to help raise funds from the US after a typhoon in the Philippines and the following earthquake in Haiti a few months later. After the typhoon, the Red Cross’ toll-free donation number was a trending topic on Twitter; the article says that thousands of people were posting it and asking their followers to donate – but, in spite of all of the Twitter attention, there wasn’t any noticeable change in donations. After the Haiti earthquakes, the Red Cross launched a similar Twitter campaign, but instead of having to call a number, people could just text a single word to a certain number to donate $10. The Red Cross raised 3 million dollars in 48 hours.

Beyond the moral and ethical questions about slacktivism, simple practical issues interest me: how much people’s altruism increases in relation to its ease, if distanced giving lets us avoid the overwhelming sense of incompleteness and unending need that often comes from volunteering or working for charities in RL…

And yeah, social networking has done wonders for people who otherwise wouldn’t be able to communicate or have a way to organize themselves – the election protests in Iran, for example. But I’m talking about things like the hunger site, where you go to their adful page and click a button to give “the value of 1.1 cups of food” to feed the hungry (also, now, to support education, veterans, abandoned pets, mammograms, the rainforest…), or, which has a similar “click once to give” thing as well as a “Petition Site” which literally has a “Today’s Hottest Petitions” link on their home page.

It seems like each separate out-of-borders emergency or consistently-in-need-of-funding-issue has a random YouTube video’s chance at viraldom to make it in to the public’s consciousness long enough for us to donate to it.

Yeah, every dollar that’s made via slacktivism, either the free advertiser-supported kind or the donate-easily-via-texting kind, does work. But the satisfied well-that’s-my-good-deed-for-the-week feeling that such distanced altruism gives is worrisome, because it instills a conclusive, complacent feeling that will ultimately be the death of any culture’s drive towards public service and philanthropy.

2 responses to “Slacktivism, or: Elisa feels bad about saying that philanthropy might not always be awesome

  1. Last year you said something smart about the chapels where they ask us for money for all sorts of stuff, but I forget what it was. But it was smart.

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