Anne Frank + Balloon Boy = Slacktivism

The amount of energy that had been exerted by the Twitterati to save the now infamous "balloon boy" would probably be enough to prevent at least a few dozen African genocides. They even started their own campaign with its own hashtag: #savetheballoonboy, which for a while was a trending topic on Twitter. That is, it was a trending topic before it turned out that the boy was hiding in his house and had not had any relationship with that balloon.

I cannot help but note the similarity to an earlier (and somewhat longer) Facebook campaign in Denmark which purported to save a city landmark that nobody was actually threatening. What a better way to mark Blog Action Day (celebrated today, October 15th) than to organize a meaningless "slacktivist" campaign on Twitter? I think I need to start conceptualizing what celebrations for a Blog Inaction Day might look like: we have many more occasions to celebrate those.

Well, that's all in agreement with the first rule of "slacktivism": tweet first, act second. When tools are available and bandwidth is cheap, activism goes into a 24/7 always-on mode, where slacktivists organize campaigns not because they need to, but because they can. After all, when all your friends are tweeting about some cause, you should too - because if you don't, your friends may ask questions. "Slacktivism" thrives in the digital panopticon that our "networked public sphere" is: we engage in causes not because we care about them but because it's "cool" and it's guaranteed that all our friends will see the badge of honor.

What is often overlooked is the fact that "slacktivists" abandon their causes as easily and frivolously as they take them on. They have very little intellectual or emotional stake in them and this is natural. The problem is that it fosters a very cynical attitude to activism and social change, where every campaign - no matter how serious and noble - can essentially be viewed as yet another Internet joke, perhaps, not as funny as those that deal with funny pictures of cats but pretty close. When people use Facebook and Twitter to campaign on 25 different causes, chances are they don't seriously care about any one of them.

And this all-pervasive cynicism with which members of the slacktivist generation treat extremely serious social problems is very off-putting and disturbing. What was the reaction to the #ballonboy story after the boy's whereabouts were disclosed? Humor. Some of it the jokes were mildly funny; most of it them were in bad taste. For example, the most popular joke - which also became a trending topic on Twitter - was making fun of Anne Frank, of all people (implying that she had a much better hide-out space in the attic - all phrased to sound as it was coming from Kanye West).

Well, if a tasteless joke about one of the most dramatic symbols of the Holocaust becomes the most popular topic on Twitter, there is something fundamentally wrong with the taste and norms of that community. This cynicism is not going to have any positive impact on the nature of civic engagement in the age that is heavily mediated by Twitter and Facebook.