Tweeting 'slacktivists' could create true social change

April 20, 2011

By SATOSHI HAMANO / Special to the Asahi Shimbun

"Slacktivism" appears to be gaining traction among Japanese Internet users. The coined word, a mix of the English words "slacker" and "activism," means to casually engage in social activism at little cost or effort.

It is typically used in a pejorative sense. Since the Great East Japan Earthquake struck on March 11, the word has been used flippantly to refer to "leisurely philanthropic activities."

Twitter offers one example in the spread of the "Yashima Sakusen" (Operation Yashima) movement, which derives its title from the anime series "Neon Genesis Evangelion." Using the social networking service, Twitter users urge others to conserve energy.

All that "tweeps" have to do is retweet the phrase, spreading the word to their own followers. The ease of participating in a charitable cause with a simple click has caused Yashima Sakusen to spread like wildfire around the Japanese Twitterverse.

However, critics say its convenient nature makes it a glaring example of slacktivism.

They point out that the simplicity of a single click creates in the user a sense of self-satisfaction, allowing them to believe they have done something good for humankind.

I don't particularly subscribe to this criticism. Rather, I think that by allowing people to join in social activities easily and without pressure, such slacktivism is capable of creating new possibilities.

For example, take the "#denkimeter" energy conservation game that is spreading on Twitter.

Developed by game researcher Akito Inoue, the game has just one simple rule: "Players" form teams and then tweet reports of their home electricity meter readings within a certain time period.

If they can show consistent reductions in the amount of energy they use at home, players are awarded "battle power" points.

The object is to beat the other contestants in reducing electricity consumption both day and night.

This game could probably be dismissed as pure slacktivism. Some may even argue that treating conservation as a game is immoral.

The beauty of all this, however, is that while each individual player is having fun, collectively, the group's reduced energy consumption adds up to effective conservation.

Instead of each individual simply calling for conservation, the multiplier effect means that the group as a whole can create greater benefits for society.

I can't help but feel that this could be a harbinger of a new "solidarity of goodwill" in the Internet age.

Online game-inspired social activism neither preaches nor pleads. The onus is on individuals to participate, and each small act of goodwill by a single person effectively combines with those of others to create a larger contribution.

This game could be applied not only to energy conservation, but to other areas as well.

One idea could be a game where players compete to reduce waste by not hoarding products in short supply. That could help prevent shortages of items that are much needed in the disaster area and whose production is still behind the demand.

In that sense, this is our chance to create a completely new kind of social solidarity.

* * *

Satoshi Hamano is a social critic who specializes in information sociology. A researcher at Internet design agency Nihon Gigei Inc., Hamano gained notice for his analysis of the Internet's impact on social change in his book, "Architecture no Seitaikei" (The ecosystem of architecture, NTT Publishing Co.). The #denkimeter electricity conservation game can be accessed at www.denkimeter.com

By SATOSHI HAMANO / Special to the Asahi Shimbun
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Evacuees were given free Internet access at this shelter in Sendai. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

Evacuees were given free Internet access at this shelter in Sendai. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)

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  • Evacuees were given free Internet access at this shelter in Sendai. (Asahi Shimbun file photo)
  • Satoshi Hamano

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