Twenty years ago, when people wanted to get something done for a cause, they had to work for it. If they had a petition to circulate, they'd walk door to door. If they wanted to protest something, they'd march for hours in a picket line.
Today, someone could raise money, write a blog entry or start a petition and gain thousands of “signatures” without ever leaving their home. It's the Armchair Activism movement, made possible by the Internet.
“The Internet can definitely serve as a way to spread awareness of any kind,” said Karim Ahmath, a peer adviser for the Social Issues Resource Center. “It can be very effective as a form of activism.”
One place most students will encounter the effects of armchair activism is on Facebook. The popular Causes application allows users to join groups reflecting their political or social views. According to Facebook, Causes boasts 120,351 daily active users.
By adding the Causes application, Facebook users can put links on their profile to the cause of their choice, from “Barack Obama for President” to “Society Against Child Abuse.” Not all Causes have the same function—some exist simply to inform and unite people of similar beliefs, while others ask users to donate money or click a button that, according to the profile, will somehow benefit the cause.
According to Ahmath, the Social Issues Resource Center has taken advantage of Facebook as a means of reaching out and informing students.
“We do as much communication as we can, and one of the ways we can do that is Facebook,” Ahmath said.
Activism is also becoming common through blogs, or online journals. Bloggers can put a personal spin on topics they care about and “humanize” issues to persuade or inform their readers.
According to a 2005 estimate by the Pew Internet & American Life Project, a group that compiles reports on the impact of the Internet, a new weblog is created every 5.8 seconds. This means that 15,000 new blogs are created each day.
“Blogging is an avenue I use to express my thoughts and feelings,” Western graduate Ariel Wetzel said. Wetzel has been blogging for two and a half years, often discussing topics related to feminism and sexism.
Like many bloggers, Wetzel has established a reader base, which is key for promoting ideas and initiating discussion, but comes with both benefits and downsides.
“I get recognition through blogging, and it's great for networking, but it can also be dangerous,” Wetzel said. “Misogyny [from readers] on the Internet isn't punished like it would be if you were writing or speaking out in another venue.”
Spreading the word from the comfort of home is certainly convenient, but there is disagreement over whether or not armchair activism is as effective as conventional activism—that is, handing out flyers, petitioning and collecting donations in person.
While the most successful Facebook Cause, “Support the Campaign for Cancer Research” has gained more than $57,760 in donations, a 2001 survey conducted by the Princeton Survey Research Associates showed that only 6 percent of Americans have ever made a charitable contribution of $10 or more online, and only 22 percent said they would ever consider making an online contribution in the future.
According to Wetzel, activism through the Internet can be a great tool for students.
“It's a good way for young people to be active and bring about social change without being isolated on a university,” Wetzel said.
Ahmath agrees that online activism can work well, but isn't dependable in every case.
“You could put an event for your cause on Facebook and get people to come, and it would be effective that way,” Ahmath said. “But I don't know if the people who get you to click on things and donate money actually follow through.”