Slacktivism, Facebook and the Color of Your Bra

A post on an NPR blog got me thinking about a recent meme on Facebook and connecting it with the term "slacktivism." The blogger asks (as I did) about "Bra Color Status Update on FB:What does your bra color have to do with breast cancer?" It seems that notes went out on Facebook the first week of this month telling women to change their status message to reflect the color of the bra they were wearing. Just the color. No explanation. The reason was supposed to be raise breast cancer awareness.

I admit that the odd posts of colors did pique my curiosity enough to ask what was going on. My next question was how that had any positive effect on breast cancer awareness. There wasn't an accompanying link for information or a place to contribute to research.

Slacktivism is a portmanteau formed out of the words slacker and activism. It's a kind of virtual activism with no real results. The connotation is negative because these are "feel-good" acts in support of an issue or social cause, but they have little or no practical effect. (Unless you feel better that you did "something.")

I would put in this category many of the social media posts and retweets about causes, signing some Internet petitions, "awareness bracelets" with messages, bumper stickers, joining a cause's Facebook group, changing the color of your avatar on Twitter, "Buy Nothing Day" "Earth Hour" and other events of that sort.

It's not that the causes are scams or are something you need to check on for authenticity. They generally do no harm. They also do no good.

However, it's not that these slackivist memes couldn't do some good.

It's debatable whether or not changing your Twitter avatar to a green color and making your location Iran during the last Iranian elections had any political effect, but it did draw attention to many posts, and the popular media ran with the story. If wearing a bracelet for a cause causes someone to ask you what it's about and you can inform them, that has value. If the bra color posts had a followup posting that led you to information, that might serve a purpose. But, without that next step, it was no more useful than changing your Facebook profile picture for "Retro Week" to a picture of you as a kid.

I did a bit of searching on the etymology of the term slacktivism and it's not really clear where it first emerged. (Not so unusual for etymologies.) But the general agreement is that it is "the ideal type of activism for a lazy generation." Perhaps, that is the feeling of older people who remember an activism in their youth that flirted with arrest, police brutality, and more in-your-face shows of support or discontent.

On the positive side, the Net has certainly made it easier and far cheaper to organize activist campaigns so that more participants and issues have a chance to be seen and heard. If you can somehow have your video go viral on YouTube, it certainly can bring attention to a legitimate cause - or to a stupid meme.

The Facebook bra campaign was true slacktivism. Too bad some group like  wasn't able to capitalize on it. I found that they do have a Facebook "fan" page, so it was possible.

I'm not sure the color of a women's bra would be the best approach. (Two friends of mine said they felt like guys in their workplace who had read their status looked at them oddly the rest of the day - with "pink" or "black" in mind.)

From the educational side of all this, this might be a good topic to address with students in talking about effective and worthwhile ways to use social media for fund or awareness raising. Certainly, for-profit companies have jumped into social media to use it.

I have a page on a poetry website that I do with links to causes that require you to make a few mouse clicks and thereby make small contributions (at no actual cost to you) to worthwhile groups. That page has been up for almost ten years with changing organizations listed and, though I can't track the "donations" made through my links, I can track the page hits and they are significant. One link to is actually a word game. If a teacher had students play during a class in a lab, you could actually discuss and calculate your aggregated contributions for the activity. There seem to be several good lessons in that.

Perhaps, we need to educate students about the dangers of a slacktivist society, and find ways to take those weak efforts and turn them into something positive.


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