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Mónica Guzmán

Stories at the intersection of tech and life from a boldly connected city.

May 18, 2013 at 11:41 PM

You’re not a slacktivist, are you? GiveBig and a new social media debate

Jenn Dean of Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest makes her pitch in a video posted on the organization's Facebook page Thursday.

Jenn Dean of Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest makes her pitch in a video posted on the organization’s Facebook page Thursday.

Some people will do anything for your support. Even sit in a pool of condoms.

“Did you know that condoms are great at preventing pregnancy and sexually transmitted infections?” said Jenn Dean, development officer at Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest. “But they make lousy water balloons,” she added as she sat in an inflatable pool of the (mostly packaged) things in a video posted Thursday on the organization’s Facebook page.

The organization did something right. Thursday was GiveBig day in Seattle, when the Seattle Foundation stretches the day’s donations to 1,300 participating nonprofits. Planned Parenthood came out on top — raising $220,120 in 24 hours.

The GiveBig campaign raised a record $11 million in total contributions Thursday, 50 percent more than last year. Now in its third year, it’s become a true Seattle social-media event. If you didn’t get a trickle or flood of emails about it from nonprofits you support, you probably saw the pleas on Facebook and Twitter.

A day when so many try so hard to raise so much was inevitably a day to wonder if all the mechanisms are in working order. Social media, the latest and greatest set of tools in the toolbox, have introduced new concerns, and even a catchy word to describe them: slacktivism.

Slacktivism refers to all those low-cost, low-risk actions people take on social media to express support for an issue that don’t give campaigns what they need most: money. The fear is that small actions like “liking” a page on Facebook or signing an online petition satisfy people’s desire to do good, keeping them from taking more meaningful steps.

If those fears were realized on GiveBig day, it didn’t show in the bottom line. A quarter of 1,300 GiveBig donors surveyed said they gave money to a nonprofit they had never supported before. Almost 30 percent of donors said they heard about GiveBig through a social-media channel, with Facebook being the biggest billboard. By the Seattle Foundation’s count, a total of 7,266 pieces of social-media content about GiveBig were posted online.

Converting interest into action remains a challenge for nonprofits on social media.

Converting interest into action remains a challenge for nonprofits on social media.

“GiveBig, without a doubt, is designed to be an online social-media-driven fundraising campaign,” said Seattle Foundation Senior Vice President Jared Watson. “I think we wouldn’t be worrying that people are just liking on Facebook without taking action.”

But the success of campaigns that have a presence on social media hasn’t disproved the notion that slacktivism hurts. Last month, UNICEF Sweden released a series of ads that treat the perception very much as reality.

“Sometimes I worry that I will get sick, like my mom got sick. Then who will look after my brother?” a young boy in a dark hut says in one of the ads. “But I think everything will be all right. Today UNICEF Sweden has 177,000 likes on Facebook. Maybe they will reach 200,000 by summer. Then we should be all right.”

“Likes don’t save lives,” reads the title at the end of the ad. “Money does.”

But is the slacktivist effect even real?

Gary Hsieh, a researcher at Michigan State University, is joining the University of Washington’s Department of Human Centered Design and Engineering this summer. To him, fears that slacktivist activities might prevent more substantial support boil down to a behavioral dynamic called moral licensing. That’s when doing one good deed makes you feel less guilty about not doing the next one. If people leave things at a Facebook like, moral licensing could explain why.

But moral licensing contradicts another key behavioral dynamic — consistency. People are driven to keep their attitudes, beliefs and behaviors consistent. When something doesn’t line up, we want to resolve the incongruence. So even a small commitment, like a retweet, could translate into future action.

Hsieh conducted an experiment to learn more about when each dynamic applies. Subjects were asked to sign a quick online petition corresponding with their stance on gun control and then asked if they would donate a $5 bonus to charity for participating in the study. Some were asked to donate to a gun-control charity, others to an unrelated educational organization.

The results? Subjects who signed the petitions were more likely to donate to the corresponding gun-control charity, demonstrating consistency, while subjects who didn’t sign the petition were more likely to donate more money to the unrelated charity, demonstrating a moral balancing effect.

More work needs to be done to understand all sides of the equation, Hsieh said, but he believes small actions can be beneficial as long as organizations know how to leverage them to promote bigger actions.

And that’s where a seemingly new problem is ages old. Turning interest into action has always been a challenge for any cause. Social media haven’t made conversion easier so much as they’ve made interest more visible. There’s a big gap between the 8,920 people who like Planned Parenthood of the Great Northwest on Facebook, say, and the almost 1,000 donors who supported them on GiveBig, now that we can see it. But is there laziness in that gap, or just what there’s always been — unconverted support?

“Just as with sex, with GiveBig, size doesn’t matter, but quantity does. And we’ve had a lot of love today.” Jenn Dean said Thursday from the condom pool.

That’s at least a start.

Mónica Guzmán’s column appears in Sunday’s Seattle Times. Got a story about living with technology in the Northwest — or know someone she should meet? Send her an email, follow her on Twitter @moniguzman or send her a message on Facebook.

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