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From Slactivism to Activism

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How does social change happen - with marches or clicks?

To anyone who grew up in the 60's this seems like an absurd, if not offensive question. But to someone growing up in today's digital age, the answer may not seem as clear.

In the last few weeks, separate campaigns with the intention of "doing good" have come under intense scrutiny - much of it justified. But at the same time, they raise a fundamental question of what is required to "get involved" in a cause today.

The phenomenon of the KONY2012 video has been much discussed with over 100 million views and an exponential amount of debate in the news, online and over kitchen tables.

With less fanfare but similar uproar was the now infamous "Homeless Hotspots" promotion at South by Southwest, where a marketer attempted to promote their hotspot capabilities while also claiming to draw attention to the issue of homelessness by actually making the homeless men and women around the conference walking hotspots.

At first blush, these two may seem to have little in common. But upon further examination, both may suffer from good intentions, questionable design.

KONY2012 and Homeless Hotspots placed a premium on getting attention. Both did in spades and seem to have put the adage "there's no such thing as bad publicity" to the test.

And both have engendered criticism that, in different ways, they represent yet another example of Slactivism.

Slactivism suggests that because too little is required of you, your effort and its impact are by nature less consequential and meaningful. In the case of Homeless Hotspots the slacking is in the creation of the concept, which used homeless people in a callous way that only further marginalized their plight. It has become too easy to co-opt a cause for commercial benefit (even in this case where it may have backfired). In the case of KONY2012, slacking comes in the involvement from both the creator (oversimplifying the story, potentially misleading facts) and the recipient (if you click a button, share something on Facebook, sign an online petition, change can and will happen).

This ruffles more than a few feathers for those in the traditional activism community who have experienced the dynamics of change on the ground and, in many cases, dedicated countless hours if not their entire lives to a cause bigger than themselves -- people who have participated in marches, done their due diligence, written letters to their congressmen, volunteered for a cause, or organized their community to get involved in an issue.

Both slactivism and activism have their merits and limitations. But they are a means to an end. Both strive for impact. The world is changing and so too is how to change the world.

So in this new age, when it is indeed easier to push a button than lift a hand. Easier to build a website than build a movement. More convenient to share a link on Facebook than share a story face-to-face. Quicker to churn out a short blog than research a long book. And more likely that one will surf the net versus go on a march. How do we truly engage people in a cause?

Our response to date has been of two extremes. When a new campaign or tactic is introduced, some either 1) Envy & Clone. "The response to KONY2012 was incredible. If we can just do what KONY2012 did we too can catch the proverbial genie in a bottle and go viral like they did!" or 2) Undermine & Move On. "If we discredit any one aspect of this, we can dismiss it and continue doing what we've always done."

Ultimately we end up either building unsound bridges or burning them entirely. Moreover, we look foolish when we blindly copy the new kid on the block and petulant when we ignore him.

There is a tidal wave of "new age" social change programs and campaigns coming. We will be awash in infographics, apps, videos, online communities and petitions clamoring for our attention to support their important cause. And surely, there will be new media and technologies that we are not yet aware of or haven't even imagined.

More companies will look to leverage causes their customers care about. More people will become content creators. We will be more exposed to all of it and asked to act.

What will we do with all of this?

There is a bubble of social change coming. And we better be sure we invest in the "googles" of social change and not the "pets.com."

How can we make this happen?

First, we need to think more critically about the change we're trying to create and design accordingly.

Take for example Ethan Zuckerman's blog, Unpacking KONY2012. It avoids quick judgments and bromides and opts instead for a carefully considered analysis of this phenomenon. He asks important questions not just about KONY2012 but also for us all to consider when we set out to communicate about social change.

Second, we need to educate designers and social change advocates alike about leveraging the power of these media while maintaining integrity to their cause and its message.

Fortunately, programs are springing up around the country to bring this discipline to students of all ages and backgrounds. Universities like Stanford and Harvard have seen incredible interest in their social innovation courses and programs. More informal, but no less powerful, groups like Unreasonable Institute and The Feast are bringing people together to better understand social innovation and how to get people involved in their issues. And finally design schools like the School of Visual Arts (SVA) are creating new programs to bring these sensibilities to new waves of designers interested in designing for good.

I have been fortunate to be an instructor in one such program, SVA Impact: Design for Social Change, founded by Mark Randall and Steven Heller. In this program, I've seen students ranging in age from 18 to 60 and hailing from places as diverse as New Jersey to New Zealand. They all bring a passion for design and making a difference. What they don't have (and the program looks to provide) are the tools to responsibly design a program that has a chance of creating lasting change.

Entering just our third year, the impact of Impact is instructive for how we can leverage the tools of "slactivism" to create deeper engagement. So far students have:
• Launched programs like Foodstalk that reconnects us to our food and Kaflab that is trying to address the stigma and confusion around Arab identity
• Pursued careers at firms, foundations and non-profits where they are designing change vs. designing things
• In the spirit of teaching the teachers, several students were instructors who now share what they've learned in colleges ranging from Virginia Commonwealth to Missouri State to the University of Cincinnati
• Started their own social change incubators to help others
• Led social change movements in cities ranging from Mexico City to Montreal, and from Sao Paulo to Portland.

If we want to see better-designed social change programs; if we want to move beyond slack to impact, then we need to not just create and invest in better widgets and apps, but invest in understanding better how change happens in the first place.

That understanding can comes from the formal programs listed above or by making more informal connections with people whose perspective could provide value to your cause upfront in the design process.

I can't speak to the intentions of the people behind KONY2012 or Homeless Hotspots. I suspect that they had honorable goals and the sheer fact that they tried to make a difference should be respected.

Nicholas Kristof in a recent column in reference to the swarm of criticism to KONY2012, wrote "...nobody fights more wickedly than humanitarians." He says what any of us who work in social change know but seldom say. In a field where collaboration is needed most, it too often does not come easily. As the saying goes, "We eat our young."

Instead of debating merit after the fact, I wonder about the potential if the team at Invisible Children had the opportunity to talk to Ethan Zuckerman before the KONY2012 video was launched. Or if the agency behind Homeless Hotspots had been able to have an honest conversation with homeless advocates before their program was designed. What would they have looked like then? Would they still have captured our attention? Would they have had more of a real impact?

Similarly, let's consider "slactivists." Just because millions can now get involved by "lifting a finger" shouldn't mean that we dismiss their actions because it was an easy end, but instead suggests that we harness their interest because it at least represents a start.

In fact a study out of Georgetown University found that "slactivists" were twice as like as others to get involved in a whole host of socially-minded activities (like volunteering, donating, recruiting others to a cause).

There are better bridges waiting to be built between established activists and their organizations and newer technologies and their designers. And between curious slactivists dipping their toes in the water of social change and organizations who have reservoirs of good information and needed actors. To date the results have been mixed on both fronts. But the future is promising.

It begins by recognizing that these are not mutually exclusive ways to create impact, but just tools along a continuum that can be used in concert to the same desired end.

Just this week, slactivists and activists each did their part in the case of seeking justice in the killing of Trayvon Martin. In a petition on change.org, his parents have collected 1.2 million signatures calling for prosecution of his killer and in cities across the country hundreds, if not thousands, took to the streets as part of protest marches.

Every movement begins with being moved. Whether we are moved first to lace up our shoes or click our mouse shouldn't be the focus of debate. It should be what happens next as a result.

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