Are We "Worthless College Slacktivists"?

01/13/2011 11:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I suspect that most posts around this time of year will be themed around the "Christmas spirit," and I suppose that, in many ways, mine is not much different in that respect (though I am Jewish, I'm writing this post by the light of my interfaith family Christmas tree and while listening to holiday music). But where this post will differ is that rather than calling on people to contribute charity or think of others, I am calling on people to contribute better charity, and to do more than think of others -- do for others.

In my opening post for this website, I wrote about the concern of many about the increasing use of Facebook and social networking tools. Many of our peers believe that such websites are making our relationships cheaper and less meaningful. But I contended against this sentiment. I argued:

But those using the internet as a political tool are not simply sitting in their basement expecting others to go vote, attend the rallies, or register voters. Rather, we have used it to spread the word about events and make American politics more accessible than it has ever been before. At no point before in American history has it been so easy to raise awareness of protests, clubs or their events, or other social, civic, and political activities.

I wrote this with the success of the Obama campaign in mind -- with millions of young people like myself not only contributing to his (and others') campaigns online, but actually turning out to vote in record numbers on election day too. We've used Facebook to organize protests and vigils, as was the case in the wake of the reporting of suicides among gay teens (I say "reported" because the suicides continue, yet the media no longer cares).

I write now to express my concern that we may have allowed Facebook to allow us to be morally lazy. The Internet now allows us access to vast amounts of information -- greater than ever before in human history! -- and because of the way it is structured, it allows us to select bits of information that we want to send along to others. In the past, when young Americans learned of tragedy, we would contribute to charities or put pressure on our representatives in government to do something or even take to the streets. What do we do now?

Around the end of Fall semester this year, there was a trend among people on Facebook to "raise awareness" of child abuse by changing their Facebook profile picture to a favorite childhood cartoon character. I would estimate that about half of my friends did this. It is, however, difficult to estimate how effective the campaign was, or even what it would have accomplished even if it had been successful. My boyfriend was among those who changed his profile picture (to a Pokemon character, actually), but when someone brought up the campaign in a Facebook status later, he expressed surprise, saying that he had thought it was only a reprise of a prior event in which millions of Facebook users had changed their profile pictures solely out of a sense of nostalgia. I, and no doubt many others, participated for the same or similar reasons. But no doubt people already are, if nothing else, aware of the problem of child abuse in this country. What did the campaign accomplish? I would argue: very little.

Earlier in the semester I noticed a similar bizarre Facebook-based PR stunt. In October, my friends began posting Facebook statuses such as, "I like it behind my desk" and "I like it on the door." These occasioned many snickers at imagined sexual innuendo, but were not apparently related to anything in particular. Later, it was revealed that, as an article from the Huffington Post explained, "October is Breast Cancer Awareness month, and the 'I like it on' trend is an attempt for women to unite around that cause in a top secret way. The idea is figuratively to leave men in the dark." How does this accomplish anything? What do purses have to do with breast cancer at all? How does "leav[ing] men in the dark" accomplish any conceivable goal?

These Facebook charity strategies (what a friend calls "worthless college slacktivism") have one purpose -- and one purpose only: to make us feel good about ourselves. As I pointed out earlier, access to the Internet opens us up to a nearly infinite amount of data. Often the data is information we regret hearing, or is comprised of heartwrenching stories that we wish we could make better. And almost always, we cannot do anything to change the problems from which those stories arose. And every time, that knowledge and feeling of helplessness hurts us more than the knowledge that such awful things are going on around us.

But we have to be honest with ourselves. Updating our Facebook status or changing our Facebook profile (or posting a blog post on a website!), alone, will do nothing besides make us feel better and perhaps make us think that we have accomplished something. It is important to remember that we have accomplished nothing in doing so. Rather, we must use our frustration, hope, and desire to do good and put it into practice. If you want to make things better for someone, donate to a charity (and make sure it's a good one!), volunteer your time, organize a vigil or protest, write a letter to the Editor or to someone with power, or even work for a non-profit. These are the things which make life better.