Slacktivism

There was an earthquake in Haiti a while ago. The relative wellbeing Haiti had gained dissipated in the violent tremors, and a nation found itself on the brink of anarchy, with rampant casualties and homelessness. Back home, people went “Haiti? I don’t think I can point that out on a map”. They saw footage of what the earthquake brought to the victims, and listened to interviews of aid workers and so on. They of course sympathized with the plight of the Haitians, and were fairly open towards donations helping them.

A while ago, I was invited to a Facebook group. Apparently the founders had set up a bank account of some sort, and for every member they would donate 2 SEK. For Americans, that’s like a quarter. Of money I didn’t even have. I thought “Feh, why the hell not” and joined the group. Shortly thereafter, my aunt commented on that activity with a “like”. That “like” sort of bothered me. What had I actually done? Couldn’t they simply have given the money without bothering with ridiculous Facebook groups? Another group I’ve joined at some point, I notice as I plow through my Facebook group list, is a group supporting cancer research, where every new member means… 0.5 SEK. Seriously. And I was also invited to a Facebook group for people who had given some sort of donation per cell phone, but which I obviously declined since I had done nothing of that sort.

Another fairly good example is Hoongle. Operating from Fall 2008 to Spring 2009 until they were shut down, they were a custom Google site, in which 20 grains of rice were donated for every click. A grain of rice weighs about 0.65 milligrams of rice, which means 1.3 grams of rice are donated every time you search. It’s about 175 dollars per ton of rice on the world market. A quick calculation brings that to one Hoongle search yielding about 0.0002275 dollars. Which means you would have to search about 1100 times on Hoongle to donate the equivalent of the nonexistant 2 SEK I donated through the Facebook group. Way to go, everybody who used Hoongle.

What we witness here is Slacktivism. These are efforts which have almost no practical effect on things, but which makes the one who does it feel better about themselves. They wear the ribbons, they join the Facebook causes and they play word games on Freerice.com. When they see the destruction taking place on the TV screens, they feel great sympathy. But they can’t actually do anything directly, since it is taking place on the other side of the globe. Imagine encountering a way to actually do something while sitting in front of the computer/TV screen. “Oh hey, I did at least something, now I can feel more comfortable about myself.” Yes, I am not doing much of an effort myself either, but at least I have no illusions about it.

You might have heard of the saying “Give a man a fish, and you’ll feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you’ll feed him for a life time”. I sense that’s what many charities perpetuate today, giving the man a fish without teaching him how to fish. I am not denying that they are making a great effort in the world. Sometimes, giving the man a damn fish is better than giving him nothing at all. But what is imperative is to make an effort towards sustainability. Not just the weekly UN package, but a concentrated effort towards stability and a better economical base in the places around the world which lack it. A hope for the future. Sadly, I’m not sure if that’s going to come easily. Many people have after all built their careers on relief work, and are probably none too keen on making it stop. And, to continue on the fish metaphor, the fish you give many times pass through the hands of corrupted relief workers and dictators, leaving only the fish skeleton to the man. Not to mention the many charity schemes.

I recall being in an online conversation once. The topic was carrying money while walking downtown. I said that I tried to keep as little money as possible to help steer away from consumerism. Somebody else argued that they did always did keep money on them, in case they saw an opportunity to give it to charities. I somewhat cynically replied that it would end up in the pockets of a corrupt third world dictator or something like that. The person when mentioned directly giving money to poor chums. It startled me a bit. While Eskilstuna isn’t the best of cities in Sweden (I win “Understatement of the Month”!), it’s a city of 100 000 or so peeps where everybody somehow knows everybody. Maybe I am just very unobservant, but I have never encountered anyone actually asking me for money. There is the occasional street musician yes, but that is another thing alltogether. Perhaps it is the somewhat egalitarian values Sweden has had. I don’t doubt the charitability of the Eskilstunians, either. I once tried to buy some books, and found that I didn’t have enough money to buy them while at the counter, and left the store. Somebody in the store who had witnessed this a short while later offered me some money to pay for it (though which I respectfully declined). The bottom line is that I don’t have anyone to actually directly do goodwill towards.

As a final note, I came to think of Buddhism. In many countries in South-East Asia, Buddhism and society are intertwined. There are the Buddhist monks. They wear orange clothes, and have very few possessions. Every day, the townspeople would give stuff to the monks. To which one might suspect they are basically glorified beggars. But here is the twist: The monks claim that they actually give something to the commoners. They enable the non-initiated person to do something good, gain better karma basically. What does that remind you of? Slacktivism, that’s what. Imagine if they’d tell these Buddhist monks to get a job and a haircut.

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