|Interesting article from today's Newsday|
On the Net, "Slacktivism' Do-gooders flood in-boxes
by Monty Phan
In 1995, two students at the University of Northern Colorado circulated by e-mail a petition to rally people to protest
government cutbacks in PBS, National Public Radio and the arts. In order to ensure it reached as many people as
possible, it included the words, "Forward this to everyone you know." The idea was that the e-mail would then
periodically make its way back to the students, who would forward it to the proper authorities as an indication of public
interest in the issue.
Right idea. Wrong approach.
Six years later, that e-mail - in various forms - is still circulating on the Internet. People still "sign" it by adding a name
and hometown, and people still forward it to everyone they know (or a close approximation). It matters not that the
information it contains is outdated, or that the addresses for returning it to the two students no longer exist.
The addresses are gone because the response overwhelmed the two students' in boxes and the university's mail servers,
forcing officials to cancel the accounts and reprimand the students. But despite repeated attempts to inform people that
the e-mail is no longer valid, including posting a note about it on its Web site, the school still gets inquiries about it
through other e-mail addresses and phone calls.
"They had no idea what they were starting," Gary Hatch, the school's assistant vice president for information
technology, said of the students.
"Once it's out there, it doesn't die." Those who wage the seemingly futile war to rid the Internet of such e-mails have
given a name to the practice of keeping such e-mails alive: They call it "slacker activism," or "slacktivism" (the term
preferred by slacker typists).
It's not that these e-mails don't intend to do good, the experts say. It's that they go about it in a way that can too easily
become utterly meaningless.
"People feel they've satisfied their need to do a good thing, when in reality they haven't done a darned thing," said
Barbara Mikkelson, who lives in Agoura, Calif., and runs the Urban Legends Reference Pages at www.snopes.com, a
site that documents the various chain e-mails in circulation.
"My mom always said something about the road to hell, and best intentions." Often some of the most fervent activists
have been students, so perhaps it's not surprising that many of these petitions seem to come from within the academic
community, said Patricia James, director of the Eugene M. Lang Center for Social Responsibility at Swarthmore College
The problem, James said, is that the informality of the Net can make rallying cries ineffective. "It's a good reminder, I
think, to activists everywhere," she said, "that activism requires relationship building, and e-mail is not relationship
building." The University of Colorado's NPR/PBS e-mail has been around so long that it's crossed the border into the
land of urban legend, joining a host of others. In one such case, the e-mail suggested that for every new person who
forwards the petition, the American Cancer Society would donate 3 cents toward fighting the type of cancer from which
one little girl was dying.
Never mind that the organization's primary function is to direct funds to cancer research, or that it's impossible to
perform such tracking.
Meanwhile, the organization's workers must spend time answering questions about a phony e-mail rather than more
important work. Online activists, while quick to denounce such e-mails, say they fall into the category of hoaxes more
than a legitimate attempt to raise awareness.
Joann Schellenback, who works out of Manhattan and serves as national spokeswoman for the Atlanta-based
organization, said the group still gets calls about the e-mail, though it's down from a few years ago when the Society
was bombarded with questions every day for months.
She said she fears that if people believe that forwarding an e-mail is a form of donation, they won't make legitimate
donations. Or, worse, upon discovering the e-mail is false, they may conclude that the group is somehow behind it.
"They were moved and manipulated, and our name is attached to that particular manipulation," Schellenback said. "They
might be angry. They may think it's tacky." Meanwhile, many critics question the effectiveness of these types of
e-mails, even when they're legitimate and timely.
"It's easy to get people to sign a petition," said Rep. Peter King (R-Seaford). But the best way to get King's attention, he
said, is "to sit down and compose a handwritten letter-that's still the most effective way." During a recent weekend,
King's office received 675 e-mails, a third of which were form e-mails, which King says are just a person's signature
over someone else's words.
But while King is critical, Baltej Kochar of San Diego argues that the great number of people accessible through the
Internet can be a strong tool in getting a particular message across.
To that end, Kochar has created a site intended to ensure signatures are collected and put to good use.
His Web site, www.BetterTomorrow.org, provides background information on current issues and allows people to sign
petitions by entering a name, state, e-mail address and ZIP code. But instead of forwarding them by e-mail, Kochar plans
to add names and home states to a print-out of the petition that will be sent to Washington, D.C., via the Postal Service.
While some petitions may seem to float around the Net aimlessly, Kochar, 30, said the information it holds may still
provide a public service. Besides, he said, who's to say it won't end up in the in-box of, say, the secretary of state?
"Ideally, a petition will both educate and result in a particular action," he said.
Kochar does acknowledge, however, that while the Internet is a powerful communication tool, a petition printed on
paper carries more weight than one submitted electronically. While writing a letter may be ideal, most people don't have
the time, he said, and his site allows people to quickly sign a petition in a centralized location with the assurance it will
end up on a desk in Washington.
And he and others argue that for every misguided e-petition or hoax, there are countless other ways the Internet has
furthered various causes.
Many involve merely visiting a Web page and clicking an icon. For example, one of the most well-known is The Hunger
Site (www.thehungersite.com), which helps feed the hungry by donating a cup of food for every person who clicks on
the "donate free food" button. Donations are paid for by the site's sponsors, and it attracts more than 220,000 people
daily, according to the site.
(Seattle-based www.GreaterGood.com, which owns the site, was co-founded by Kochar.) Other sites use the same
"click to donate" approach. On Oct. 25, Manhattan-based www.NFL.com said that, for every person who visits the
"NFL For Her" section of the site, the league would donate $5 per visit, up to $50,000, to a foundation supporting breast
Although only 10,000 page views were needed to trigger the maximum donation, NFL.com had 1.75 million unique users
on that day and 3 million "NFL For Her" page views.
More recently, United Way Canada, on its "Click For United Way!" page (www.ClickForUnitedWay.com), arranged for
sponsors to donate $1.25 per click from Feb. 12-14. In all, 232,975 people participated, and although the maximum
donation was reached, clickers were thanked and told, "By continuing to click, you are...[d]emonstrating the power and
attraction of this online event which will help us to leverage even more commitments from sponsors for our next Click
promotion." The question some have raised is whether people use these "click to donate" sites to replace charitable acts
they would otherwise do, or to supplement them. Perhaps it doesn't matter.
"If it is legitimate," said Theresa Lowe, who works at PR21, a Manhattan public relations firm, "so what if it promotes
laziness if it gets more people aware of the cause."