Crap-tivism: a new baby for slacktivism?

a logo with the word slack

“0 (or 1, 2, 3 etc) and I am proud of it”.

A few days ago, messages just like the one above started to pop up on Facebook. They all looked nearly the same, except for the first figure. Suddenly dozens of people – who apparently had nothing to do with each other – had the same idea to post the same type of mysterious sentence, nearly at the same time. Then, a private message I received by mistake shed light on the sense of this initiative: namely raising awareness for breast cancer.

Deja vu anyone?

Yes, it was another cryptic message initiative. The idea behind it is to titillate people’s attention, and then, when the (alleged) curiosity reaches its (alleged) climax, explain the story behind it, thus increasing the (alleged) communication effect. As said, this enterprise not something new in the fight against breast cancer. At first (around 2010) we had the bra colour meme. Then things slipped towards deliberate, sexual ambiguity, such as “X inches and Y minutes” (referring to shoe size and time spent combing one’s hair) or “I like it on the floor/chair/bed etc” (i.e. where someone prefers to leave her bag). The origins of this initiative fairly unknown, although some sources (like this) say the that bra colour initiative started in a women group in Detroit. I couldn’t find any trace of paternity (or maternity) claims for later activities, though the above mentioned private message in Italian I have received hinted that it could be a very bad translation, possibly from English.

This type of campaign could be labelled as slacktivism (also known as clicktivism). According to IT writer Reid Goldsborough, slacktivism is characterised by the absence of a real effort or a real effect, despite giving the slacktivists the sensation they are helping someone in need. Professor Mark Drumbl from Washington and Lee University also underlines the “short attention spans and limited shelf life” of clicktivism.

Goldsborough states that this phenomenon isn’t new. He lists the examples of good, ol’ offline slacktivism, such as bumper stickers, t shirts and rubber bands. These activities, though, bear a fundamental difference: the ‘effort’ to buy a sticker or a band is much higher than clicking on a banner or changing one’s status. Moreover by buying something you can give valuable funds to the cause – something which does only very rarely happens online.

Some people, though, say there is a silver lining in slacktivism as well. University of York Professor Lars Waldorf indicates how clicktivism “shortens the gap between knowing and acting”, by not leaving enough time for second thoughts. The challenge, he maintains, is transforming “cheap participation” into something sustainable. This is something Geoff Livingston, founder of a communication consulting company, tries to do in a post on Mashable. He suggests to consider slacktivists as potential activists and to find new modes and times, by postponing the call for action. While these ideas may work for organized entities towards their fans/friends, it looks more difficult to use apparently spontaneous initiatives like the ones we are focusing on, except maybe by exploiting the virtual ‘squares’ and listen to what people communicate. This could be the technique used in Susan G. Kamen Foundation, which during the bra colour meme, has seen a huge increase of Facebook fans, as explained by Anne Mai Bertelsen, a marketing and digital strategist.

Anyway this new, I-am-proud-of-it initiative looks quite different from exploitable clicktivism and slacktivism. Unlike the bra initiative, it has no reference – even tenuous – to breast cancer. Moreover it hasn’t got the freshness of the first campaign – but it also avoids the equivocal meaning of the following ones. It retains the don’t-tell-to-men aspect, which makes the latter as the target of this operation. And – to date – I still haven’t seen any posts explaining the sense of those cryptic status updates, thus losing the supposed sense of expectation this campaign might – after all – have arisen.

Besides not doing any good, this initiative seems actually harm, beyond supporting men/women opposition. Some Italian women who underwent breast surgery have highlighted the “bad taste and absurdity of this game”. They feel “exploited and that they have been made fun of. They don’t like that their dramatic event is being used to fuel what is nothing more than a chain letter like the other ones. We don’t know its origins, but it will not get to the goal it pretends to reach. In other words, it will help no one”. (full article in Italian, here). Another online initiative, #nobraday, supposedly linked to Breast Cancer Awareness Month, has caused even bitterer reactions, as Laura Saxer in her blog post illustrates.

To sum it up, the I-am-proud-of-it meme looks like a nonsense game in a nice, solidarity-like fake suit. Unlike typical slacktivism, the link to a cause is virtually non existent, the effort is lower (with most people limiting it to the ‘fun’ part), and it has effects – unintended and noxious… This new, different phenomenon needs a new, different name.

Shall we call it crap-tivism?

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4 Responses to Crap-tivism: a new baby for slacktivism?

  1. Claire Sharples says:

    The Mashable ‘How to’ was an interesting read. On the one hand I’d have to agree with Katya Andrese, Network for Good “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,” …. (that is ‘Slacktivism’ – not pejorative enough eh!)

    BUT on the other, when the end goal and message becomes so convoluted, so obscure that we miss it, over-claims and under-delivers or offends the presumed beneficiary, then we should be asking questions. There does seem to have been an increase in these meme campaigns that variously claim fund/awareness(/hair!)-raising solutions by simply substituting the issue at hand with an unrelated fun.

    This brings to mind the concern around intertextuality and palimpsest expressed by Dogra in ‘Representations of Global Poverty: Aid, Development and International NGOs’ (2012), when the methods employed for achieving a short-term goal simply (repeat – simply – repeat,) replicate and reinforce existing paradigms, then we run the risk of damaging understanding and genuine longer-term engagement in favour of easy ‘solutions’.

  2. Eleni Maria Rozali says:

    Indeed, Adriano and I second that. I don’t need a heart posted on my Facebook page to show solidarity for women fighting breast cancer. There are more effective ways: like campaigning for preventive medicine in the form of annual check ups etc.
    On the other hand, though because some individuals are not committed to a cause and use social media to express views and so on, “it doesn’t mean that committed actors do not use social media effectively” 1

    [1] The Political Power of Social Media: Technology, the Public Sphere, and Political Change Shirky, Clay Foreign Affairs90.1 (Jan/Feb 2011): 28-I.

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