Changing Facebook profile pictures and statuses in support of various activist causes has grown in popularity among students across the country and at Penn.

This idea has evolved from a new trend called online “slacktivism,” a fusion of the word “slacker” and “activism.”

Slacktivist actions in the past have included changing Facebook profile pictures to that of a cartoon character to protest child abuse, and women posting the colors of their bra to support breast cancer treatment.

The trend has received mixed reviews.

Professor Nathan Ensmenger, who teaches technology and ethics courses, wrote in an e-mail that slacktivism is often “an empty gesture” that “does nothing practical.”

Slacktivism creates trends on the internet that “are distractions,” Ensmenger wrote. “They trivialize the issue and make it more difficult for serious, organized, productive efforts to raise money and mobilize awareness.”

Ensmenger believes that the main tenets of slacktivism are flawed in their ethics. It “suggests a faith in the ability of the collective wisdom to determine (and define) what is right,” he wrote, adding that “it also suggests, on a practical level, a decline in other forms of activism.”

For Ensmenger, slacktivism actually has a negative impact on activist causes because it diverts attention from the true causes.

Some activists at Penn believe otherwise. College junior and Executive Co-Director of Penn Leads the Vote Kelly Higgins wrote in an e-mail that “changing your status or profile picture may not be the most effective tactic,” but it “gets the word out to more people.”

Higgins and PLTV rely on some aspects of slacktivism to reach a broader audience but then utilize other sources to engage individuals in activism.

College junior Rosie Brown — who is the president of MEChA, Penn’s Chicano cultural group — shares Higgins’ outlook on using slacktivist ideas for activist ends. In her work to raise awareness regarding the Development, Relief and Education for Alien Minors Act and labor rights abuses, Brown found that slacktivism was “awareness building” because it persuaded people to change Facebook profile pictures nationwide

Similarly, slacktivist tools such as status updates and blogging can change perceptions by affecting an issue’s representation on the internet. According to Brown, many companies use search engines to assess their reception, and if faced with enough negative press through personal profiles, could be convinced to change.

Higgins is hopeful that slacktivism could be the first step that many individuals take toward activism. “Most people have grand ideas and want to do amazing things, but it is important to start small,” Higgins wrote. “The best way to get involved is to jump in and do whatever is needed because there are many ways to be an activist.”

The danger, he believes, is to neglect the foundations of communication that truly impact people: physical, face-to-face discussions and commitment — rather than slacking — toward goals.

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