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Slacker activism: Slacktivism

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Getting involved in a social or environment issue these days is as easy as clicking your mouse. Some people think grassroots activism is just changing its face as technology changes, but other people think this is just too easy. Rebecca Williams explores whether we're a nation of slack-tivists.

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Transcript: Rebecca Williams, August 31, 2009

Getting involved in a social or environmental cause these days is as easy as clicking your mouse. Some people think grassroots activism is just changing its face as technology changes... but other people think we're becoming slackers. Rebecca Williams explores whether we're a nation of slack-tivists:

The other day I met this guy, Patrick Diehl. And I was trying to get him to describe himself.

"Uh, I'm a Pisces and I enjoy long walks on the beach and horseback riding; good sense of humor; still gets pimples."

Add to that: slack-tivist. That's a slacker activist. But he was telling me he wasn't always this way. For twenty years, he was one of those door knocking, envelope licking activists. He worked for a governor. He used to drag his little daughter to rallies. Now he's just burned out.

"I could get on the phone and call someone about an issue but I choose to sit down on Facebook and hit three mouse clicks and a return and feel good about myself."

And lately, his slacktivism has hit a brand new low.

(sound of mouse clicks)

"My little green patch is dry. That means I've been neglecting it."

If you're a Facebook virgin, the Lil' Green Patch is this application that lets you send plants to your friends' online gardens. The idea is, the more you play, the more money advertisers will give to save the rainforest.

"Rebecca: "So wait did you actually do this for a while?"

Patrick: "Yeah!"

Rebecca: "And you felt good about it."

Patrick: "Yes! I thought my spending time on here is leading to something bigger than myself." (laughs)

But then, Patrick got in trouble. His wife - Anita - said he was just spending way too much time online. Lil' Green Patch died. He'd rather play another online game, like Mafia Wars.

But you know, at least at one time Patrick was very active. Some people think clicking on a little green patch is their contribution to a better world.

"That's a trending topic, that's a trending term, slacktivist."

Apollo Gonzales works for one of those big environmental groups, the Natural Resources Defense Council. He's what's called a netroots manager. You might say it's his job to get slacktivists off their butts.

"If you measure the one click activism, or slacktivism, against someone who's visiting their representative on the Hill once a year, then yeah I think it's on the low end of what can be done. But you've got to start somewhere with a lot of these people."

So, Apollo blogs and tweets and uses online social media to get people talking. Because talking sometimes actually leads to doing something.

"We have a world where we are more connected than we ever have been, and a world where we can share our stories faster and more richly than we ever have been able to. And that's great for people who are fighting for a cause."

And there's actually some research to back this up.

Scott Campbell studies new media at the University of Michigan.

"There have been some studies recently that show when people use text messaging as reminders to go out and vote, we do see significant increases in voter turnout."

He says cell phones and the Internet are basically giving us more ways to communicate - and that's good for us as a society. But he says we do have to be a little careful - because if all our online friends think like we do, we can become little isolated e-communities.

Basically, the more Facebook friends you have, and the more new ideas you can share, the better.

So if you want to be a better slacktivist, you might have to make some choices. You could sign a million online petitions. I mean there are 15,000 environment causes on Facebook. And then there're all those other things, like Mafia Wars, and other distractions that people like Patrick have to deal with.

Patrick: "I've been kidnapped to Barcelona but I'm gonna ignore that."

Anita: "See you just say ignore, ignore it!"

Patrick: "Someone just sent me a slap on the rear end. I'm gonna ignore that. I probably wouldn't but my wife is right here so I'm going to ignore that." (both laugh)

With distractions like these... even slacktivism's getting to be hard work.

For The Environment Report, I'm Rebecca Williams. 

Copyright 2009. The Regents of the University Of Michigan. Used with permission.

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