Facebook “slacktivism” and identity

This post was written as part of a research blogging assignment for Stanford’s Networked Rhetorics class.  For more about this assignment, click here.

We’ve all seen cause-oriented groups on Facebook – groups like “Clean up the Great Pacific Garbage Patch”, “End Poverty in America”, or even “9,999,999 fans and I will empty my bank account to help Haiti”. We may even belong to some of them. But what does it truly mean to join an activist Facebook group?

This is the question I’ve been asking myself while conducting research for my writing and rhetoric class (focused on social networking) here at Stanford. My research topic is internet “slacktivism”, or, lazy online forms of activism – anything from signing internet petitions to linking non-profits in Facebook statuses to playing a few rounds at freerice.com. There are a lot of different aspects of the topic I’m considering, but lately I’ve been spending my time thinking about what these slacktivist efforts do for identity. Is slacktivism’s primary goal to flaunt one’s social awareness, gain do-gooder street cred and win admiration from peers?

The source that really got me considering this was this one, which cites a fascinating study by Danish psychologist Anders Colding-Jørgensen. In his study, Jørgensen created a Facebook group insinuating that landmark Stork Fountain in Copenhagen would soon be torn down. He invited 125 friends to join, and let the fun begin – after 3 days in existence, the group was growing by 3 members/minute during daytime hours. In the end, nearly 28,000 people had joined, despite the fact that Stork Fountain was never in danger.

How should these results be interpreted? The article goes on to suggest that none of the group members really cared much about Stork Fountain (if they had, they would have done enough research to recognize the hoax). Instead, by joining the group, they were seeking more to portray a certain identity: “The kind of campaigns and groups [Facebook users] join reveals more about who they are than their dull ‘about me’ pages.”Jørgensen agrees, stating that Facebook groups act as “cultural objects” that compose “a version of me that I would like to present to the public.”

The study is fascinating, but disappointing – I’d like to believe there are some non-egotistical benefits to these types of Facebook communities. However, I’m glad I read it, as it’s raised some major research questions for me: Why do people really choose Facebook as a venue for activism? And how much is online slacktivism tied to egotism and identity-building? I’m hoping that by gaining insight into the motivations behind internet slacktivism, I’ll start to get a clearer picture of how useful and effective it truly is.

Emily Harris

Class of 2012

This entry was posted in CCR exchange: Student Research, Stanford Networked Rhetorics class. Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Facebook “slacktivism” and identity

  1. Zach Galant says:

    That’s a really interesting study about the Stork Foundation. I wonder if you looked at it a different way though, you would arrive with slightly different answers. I’m not really sure about other people, but I often feel pressured to accept friends’ page suggestions and group invitations. I sometimes feel like even if I don’t really care about the group, I should join because my friend cares, and they would notice if I didn’t join. Similarly, I don’t like to show up in the not attending category of an event my friend invites me to, especially if it’s some sort of charity event. You could investigate if the social norms have changed for sorts of things like this. Do you feel obligated to participate online in charity events even if you don’t care? Is this a good thing?

  2. ccrvisitor says:

    I think you can also relate this to the whole phenomenon surrounding volunteer work in real life as well. Every now and then you certainly get people who really care about a cause and volunteer for it for that purpose. But how often do people volunteer for that reason versus the fact that by doing so, they look better to future colleges or employers (in the specific case of young adults). And how many volunteer hours are put in because people are required to by organizations? I know at my high school, we weren’t allowed to graduate unless we had contributed at least 40 hours of community service during our four years there. Many of these were completed solely because they needed to be, and the cause was somewhat irrelevant. How does this play in? Do people feel obligated to give back, but not necessarily to a cause they feel strongly about? Slacktivism isn’t prone to being required so far as I know, but does this mindset of volunteering because that is what you need to do to look good still apply to online volunteering? And what about those who use things like CauseWorld or The Extraordinaries on their iDevices without telling people or advertising it all over Twitter and Facebook? Is it a distraction that makes people feel good about themselves? Can anyone really care about helping out some group by tagging pictures of their last event? And why do said applications give you the option of posting your last contribution to Facebook? Is that because they want advertising, or because they know that this is how people operate, volunteering for an image rather than a cause?

    –Luisa Russell

  3. Charles says:

    I just wanted to let you know about an event I will be hosting on Monday that I think is relevant to your topic. Causes, the people who make the Facebook Causes app, will be coming to speak at Old Union room 216 on April 26th from 7pm to 8pm. They will be talking about how they started their app and some of the obstacles they have had to overcome. It will be a good way to ask any questions you have and get a contact for a possible interview.

  4. christinealfano says:

    Wow – I’m glad that Charles left you that comment about the Causes event. That will be an amazing resource for your research! I’m intrigued by the focus on identity that you mention above — it definitely seems that people use causes at least to a certain extent to construct a public persona, one that maybe is a lot more complimentary than their unmediated persona. Part of me wonders if this is a bifactor of the new Obama-ification of America, with his emphasis in his campaign about giving back to the community … is this an easy way to be a better person?

    I have to say that Zach’s point about peer pressure is well taken. I myself have felt that pressure to click even when I don’t really have much interest in a cause. I wonder if people will notice if I don’t. And, honestly, even “fanning” a site leaves me conflicted. I originally became a fan of the Breast Cancer page (or one of them; I’m sure there are lots), but the constant posts about merchandise you can buy annoys the heck out of me. And yet, I feel guilty even thinking about hiding it — much less de-fanning myself — because what would that say about me as a person?

  5. I think the topic sounds interesting but do have a couple thoughts. When it comes to saving the Stork Fountain, I don’t think that the fact that people joined the group indicates that they are doing it to portray themselves as an activist or a caring person. I would argue that people do it because they actually do want the Stork Fountain to stick around, but are too lazy or apathetic to go out and be a real activist. In other words, the fact that people joined a false cause like that is more of an indication of laziness and apathy rather than a desire to portray oneself as something they are not.

    Does one really check out the pages another individual is a fan of that often? If you could find a survey or do your own survey to establish this, I think it could help you evaluate people’s motives more effectively. I know I don’t scrutinize the pages my friend is a fan (or not a fan) of, and if most people are like me, then I think that would be evidence that people don’t join the group to craft their own appearance.


  6. Hi Emily, this is Lalini from UTexas 🙂 I found your topic particularly interesting, especially since I was thinking about deleting/leaving all of my fairly useless Facebook groups this morning. (I was a member of many causes and cause-related groups, and was wondering why I even had so many when they really don’t do much.) I personally feel that this ‘slacktivism’ is an easy way out for people to voice their opinions on global causes. It surprises me that in a society in which freedom of speech is so highly regarded, (such as through active participation in an organization, charitable donations, or public demonstrations) countless Facebook members (including me, sadly) choose simply to ‘join this cause’ or ‘join this group’. I feel that ‘slacktivism’ is a growing problem in our world, especially amongst the people of our generation, who appear to demonstrate a trend of passivity, even apathy, when it comes to global causes. It seems that these ‘Groups’ and ‘Causes’ detract from the causes themselves, and as the evidence you provided supports, it may even be detrimental to the spread of global awareness, as many people join a group/cause without background information or research to know what is really going on. I hope to change my personal method of speaking out for causes that I feel strongly about, and I hope that people become more proactive about impacting our world, instead of ‘Waiting on the World to Change’. Good luck with your assignment! 🙂

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