Are You A Tweeter Or A Slacker?

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Evgeny Morozov is author of an eye-catching article for Foreign Policy Magazine, titled "Anne Frank + Balloon Boy = Slacktivism." The piece explores the recent public fascination with a Colorado boy who was thought to have floated away in a balloon, only to later be discovered safe at home by local authorities (who now say the entire event was staged). Morozov tells Host Michel Martin why he thinks the social networking frenzy that followed, specifically on the Web site Twitter, is a troubling. He cites it as an example of how the desire to instantly connect with others online poses a threat to more productive uses of time, such as brainstorming solutions to the world's problems. Morozov describes it as slacktivism.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Coming up, social media refuseniks, young people who are just saying no to Facebook and Twitter. It's just one of the conversations we're having this morning about how we are living online or not. And we'll talk about the role race plays in cyber-dating. You think race doesn't matter? Think again, that's a little later.

But first, are we spending too much time on Twitter, to the exclusion of more productive activities? No, I have not been talking to your boss or put some screening device on your computer. Last week, Evgeny Morozov wrote an eye-catching article for Foreign Policy magazine's Web site. It was titled "Anne Frank + Balloon Boy = Slacktivism." Mr. Morozov is a fellow at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. He's at work on a book about the impact of the Internet on global politics. And he joins us now from our studio in Washington, D.C. Welcome, thank you.

Mr. MOROZOV: Hi, Michel. Good to be here.

MARTIN: So, you - let's jump right in. You write, the amount of energy that had been exerted by the Twitterati to save the now-infamous Balloon Boy would probably be enough to prevent at least a few dozen African genocides. How do you figure that?

Mr. MOROZOV: Well, I mean, if you look at the most popular topics discussed on Twitter at the end of last week, they actually, you know, the Balloon Boy dominated pretty much everything. You know, it dominated politics, it dominated health care, it dominated everything else. More than that, you actually had a particular campaign before, you know, it turned out that the boy was actually hiding and was not, you know, in the balloon. There was actually a campaign on Twitter to try to save him, to try to influence events, right; to try to maybe contact, you know, 911 or try to contact, you know, the sheriff's office and do something.

MARTIN: And to encourage the authorities to do the...

Mr. MOROZOV: Yes.

MARTIN: ...make the maximum effort...

Mr. MOROZOV: Yes.

MARTIN: ...to help this boy out.

Mr. MOROZOV: Yes. And the ease with which now it is possible to form these issue groups. You know, it of course could be extremely good and productive, as we've seen with events in Iran, for example, you know, earlier this year. But sometimes I think these people go a little bit too far and they start campaigning on issues before actually thinking them through and verifying that the problem actually exists.

And I think that it just creates this almost on-demand activism, where, you know, whenever you feel bad about the world, you can actually get involved for 30 seconds, join the Facebook group or sign an online petition.

MARTIN: But what's so terrible? What's so terrible about getting involved for...

Mr. MOROZOV: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...30 seconds, if perhaps 30 seconds is enough to achieve an outcome?

Mr. MOROZOV: Yes. Well, the question is, does it actually achieve an outcome? And my understanding has been that, in many cases, it's all just about making you feel good, you know, this notion of slacktivism where, you know, you are still a slacker without actually getting involved, you know, depth. But you also kind of, you know, visibly, you are doing something. All your friends see that you're involved, but your involvement is for those purposes only. It's only to impress your friends, to impress your Facebook community, to impress your Twitter followers, while the actual impact is very minimal.

MARTIN: So, it's what some might call cheap grace. But if you take it to your -well, I don't know if it's an extreme, but if you take it to the conclusion of your piece, which I understand was somewhat tongue-in-cheek.

Mr. MOROZOV: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: Isn't preventing an African genocide a little different than…

Mr. MOROZOV: Sure.

MARTIN: …calling on the sheriff's department or calling on even the National Guard to get involved in a particular incident?

Mr. MOROZOV: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: You know what I mean, it seems to me that I understand your…

Mr. MOROZOV: Sure.

MARTIN: …argument about how this is…

Mr. MOROZOV: Sure.

MARTIN: …sort of diffusing energy that…

Mr. MOROZOV: Yes.

MARTIN: …could be otherwise and more productively directed.

Mr. MOROZOV: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm.

MARTIN: But what else should people do? Should they just wait, stop, what? What should they do?

Mr. MOROZOV: No. Well, I think people who organize these campaigns should just be smarter when they set them up. And they should be more knowledgeable in terms of directing people's energy. And, you know, setting up concrete targets and saying that, you know, we want to achieve this and you have to stay involved after you have joined, you know, the Facebook group.

My favorite example is this campaign to feed the children of Africa on Facebook. If you look at it, it has 1.2 million members. And then you actually look at what those members have done, it's just raising $6,000 which is, you know, less than half a cent per person. And then, of course, having this mass of people, you could probably involve them in much better and more productive ways. So, I guess my criticism, not so much to people who get involved but to people who lead these campaigns who are not very strategic about setting up goals and actually following up with people who join them.

MARTIN: But by definition, these are - how can I say it, leaderless, it's...

Mr. MOROZOV: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: ...it's almost like you're a leader because you say you are.

Mr. MOROZOV: Mm-hmm.

MARTIN: What are you saying? Are you saying that people who - if they're going to put themselves out there, they should take the time to educate themselves or to put in some front-end time to...

Mr. MOROZOV: Well...

MARTIN: ...decide if they're really doing the right thing? They obviously think they are doing the right thing.

Mr. MOROZOV: Of course. I mean, that definitely wouldn't hurt. I mean, I think educating yourself about a cause before you take it on is a good piece of advice for any campaigner, right? Because what we do see happen in many cases is that people join nonexistent causes. There was this very interesting campaign in Europe, in Denmark, earlier this year, where 28,000 people signed up to save a fountain in Denmark who nobody was threatening. So, it was just a hoax. Someone set up this, you know, imaginary cause and 28,000 people went for it, right? And again, it proves that we have to be a little bit more careful when we are choosing which campaigns to join.

MARTIN: We'll look forward to your book.

Mr. MOROZOV: Well, thank you.

MARTIN: Evgeny Morozov is Yahoo! fellow at Georgetown University's Institute for the Study of Diplomacy. As we mentioned, he's working on a book about the impact of the Internet on global politics. And he joined us here in our Washington, D.C. studio. Thank you so much.

Mr. MOROZOV: Thanks so much for having me.

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