Tuesday, February 8, 2011

In defence of slacktivism

Today, my colleagues and I are wearing purple. It's part of a local day of awareness for mental illness called "Purple Pledge Day". (You can read all about it on the Acart Blog, and see all our pictures at the Acart Facebook Page).

The call went out last week to put on purple to remember the tragic suicide of Ottawa Senators assistant coach Luke Richardson’s 14-year-daughter, Daron, as well as all other victims of mental illness.

Another day, another colour, another way to feel good about yourself for doing next to nothing, right?

Well, no.

While slacktivism is often criticized as ineffective in creating meaningful change, awareness can make a difference. Mashable has a great article about why the term itself is the worst thing about these micro-movements:

“It irritates me that we have invented this term as a pejorative way to describe what should be viewed as the first steps to being involved in a cause in 2010,” said Katya Andresen, Chief Operating Officer of Network for Good. “Let’s not whine that people want to do easy things that make them feel they’ve somehow made a difference. It’s okay if someone’s initial commitment is modest -– and it’s truly an opportunity that it’s easier than ever to spread information, create new initiatives for social good, and take action.”

“What the world needs now is far more engagement by individual citizens, not less, and simple steps such as signing petitions or even sharing opinions/tweeting are steps in the right direction,” said Randy Paynter, CEO and Founder of Care2. “As Edmund Burke once said, ‘Nobody made a greater mistake than he who did nothing because he could do only a little.’ Because small steps can lead to bigger steps, being critical of small steps serves no good. It simply disenfranchises folks.”
We are overwhelmed with things to think and care about these days. Giving important social issues their own day, with a simple action that jogs the memory and incites conversation, is actually quite useful.

This is especially important for the issue of mental illness, because there is still so much stigma attached to physical diseases and conditions that express themselves through changes to mood and personality. The mental world is very much an undiscovered country for all but a few researchers, and things that happen in our heads carry the mythological fear of the unknown.

However, it not an issue that anyone can ignore. One source estimates that one in five people in Ontario will experience a mental illness at some point in his or her lifetime. (Having worked in advertising for 20 years, I am not joking when I say that I am convinced that way more than 20% of us are mentally ill — whether diagnosed or not!)

So it matters that we're talking a little more about mental illness today, and that we were able to take some small action to feel a tiny bit more personal involvement in, and control over, a seemingly overwhelming issue.

If you'd like to do even more, you can donate to the Daron Richardson Fund through the Sens Foundation or the Royal Ottawa Foundation for Mental Health


  1. Great post, Tom. I love it.

    Not all mentally ill people are "crazies". This stigma needs to change. The Royal Ottawa Hospital needs to become a place of trust, comfort and help - not fear and embarassment.

    I'm wearing purple today to show that I'm putting the stigma behind me, and encouraging those who need help to seek it. I don't need to use words or tell a personal story today. I just need to simply wear purple to show someone who's thinking of seeking help that they have nothing to be embarassed about, and I support them.


  2. Well said, Tom and Kyla.

  3. Full support for the Daron Richards cause.

    On the more general question, my biggest concern about so-called slacktivism is the same concern I have about activism -- it glamourizes and reinforces the kind of herd thinking that's the root of many of the problems people are trying to fight in the first place. Everyone wearing the same colour, or everyone marching in a circle shouting "Hey hey, ho ho, ..." is still mindless herd behaviour. I'm cool with that at a baseball game, but it scares me in real life.

    I oppose racial discrimination; I'd like to reduce carbon emissions; I support same-sex marriage. Big deal: almost all of my acquaintances hold the same beliefs, so I'm not exactly going out on a limb. To effect change, you have to be willing to promote a view or take a stand that your friends and family might disapprove of, or even shun you for, like supporting same-sex marriage in 1980, or standing up for a mixed-race couple in 1950. You can't learn that through activism or slacktivism.

  4. That should be "Daron Richardson", of course.

  5. While I agree with you on the proven dangers of "herd thinking", I disagree that it is something that is only appropriate for sporting events.

    I am convinced that tribalism, and a need for group identity, are hard-wired into human nature. That's why movements that take advantage of them — from the home team to the homefront — are so damn powerful.

    But if we can't get rid of our social instincts, why not exaptate them for good and not evil.

    That's actually one of the big theories behind social marketing. If you're going to use the advertising methods to persuade people to think or do certain things, why not make them good things.

    I realize that you and I do not see eye-to-eye on this issue, as you are more of a believer in rational, individualistic behaviour. But I agree with Mashable on this one. At least, it's harmless. At best, it got people talking for a day about something more important than Jersey Shore.

    See Kyla's comment above. That's what makes even a a small-scale movement like this worthwhile.


    - T