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A Meditation on Slacktivism

It’s so easy to be a slacktivist.

When you see something on Facebook or Twitter that moves you or interest you, you can re-post, like a status, type a hashtag within seconds. Maybe you don’t consider it activism; the term “slacktivist” seems irrelevant. Your re-post was simply a characteristic of our generation’s impulse to share information as frequently and quickly as possible. It’s completely understandable.

The reason “slacktivism” draws so much criticism, and a slick pejorative term to boot, is that we can just as easily re-post, like statuses, or type hashtags with regard to the Hunger Games, Jeremy Lin, or cute videos of baby elephants. Wedging in a link to an article about the bombings in Syria amidst all of our daily output can, well, trivialize it.

This is, of course, a pretty simplistic outline of the conflict. One of the reasons I can’t quit Facebook is because all of the interesting tidbits I receive daily on my newsfeed that I probably wouldn’t encounter otherwise. (Also, because of all the cute baby elephant videos that come up). I accept the rapid-fire, sound-bite oriented reality of information sharing today, and I don’t think it’s going to go away soon, but inherently something is lost when we choose to receive information this way.

That’s the basic premise of Clay A. Johnson’s “The Information Diet.” Johnson advocates regarding the information we take in much the same way we should regard food, that is, mindfully and selectively. Modern life is saturated with information-cheetos, if you will — appealing and easy to consume in bulk. According to Johnson, a diet too high in information-cheetos leads to ignorance. They’re empty calories, as my mother would say. Your brain needs and should have information with more sustenance.

Which brings me back to slacktivism. I contend that slacktivism is the result of a modern diet high in information-cheetos. We’re bombarded with so much pre-packaged, processed information that we can’t decide what to care about. Instead, we make an unconscious decision to avoid truly engaging with anything. We share these tidbits, letting them pass briefly through our system, soon to be forgotten.

So how do we fight this natural inclination toward slacktivism? I say we take to heart a lesson from a modern classic, Lizzie McGuire. Whenever I’m feeling stressed out, I recall an episode where Lizzie, awakened to all of the problems plaguing our environment, tries to live her life an obsessively environmentally conscious manner, sparing neither her time nor personal relationships. When it looks like she’s about to implode with anxiety, Lizzie’s dad drops an important lesson: Choose a few things to care about. Pursue them fully. You’ll be a more effective activist that way.

I’m completely serious. I think this is a really valuable insight. As such, I challenge everyone (myself included) to do some research. Find one or two issues that really speak to you. Read about the issue every day. Post an article you think is really important to Facebook — I don’t think that’s a bad thing to do, if your choice of article is carefully considered. And the more you learn, the more you might find yourself inclined to engage in activism, in whatever form, that is meaningful to you.

We saw a slacktivism of sorts in full force this fall, as the Occupy Wall Street movement expanded rapidly and became inseparable from the hashtag #OWS. There were the thousands of people camping in urban spaces, but what about the millions online? Occupy is a movement indebted to and defined by the Internet. Organizers tweet about every two seconds. It was impossible to be online last fall and not see something Occupy-related at the top of your newsfeed. In recent months, the movement, both in terms of physical and internet presence, has undeniably faded. And you have to wonder: What happened to all of that energy? How much of it was slacktivism?

I don’t believe our response to Occupy was all slacktivism; I think it touched something very real in the American conscious. But as Occupy or other mass movements evolve, we’re going to have to seriously confront the role slacktivism plays.

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