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In last month’s column, a few of the more prominent critiques and criticism of Internet-based social activism were discussed and debated. In particular, critics charged that social media, online petitions and other forms of digital activism have effectively disempowered activism by generating a false sense of accomplishment. These slacktivists or clicktivists, as critics contend, engage with issues in a superficial manner that is devoid of personal investment and, at best, produces negligible results.

However, over the past few years an alternative form of digital activism has emerged that heavily relies upon the impulsive and ephemeral aspects that characterize slacktivism and clicktivism, yet requires greater personal investment on behalf of the activist and has a record of producing substantial results. Mobile giving – where cell phone users text specified messages to generate a, typically small, donation to a particular charity or cause – has become an increasingly popular form of charitable giving, institutional fundraising and social activism.

The donation of small amounts of money through mobile giving – or perhaps better framed as “textavism” – saw its first large-scale use in the aftermaths of the Indian Ocean Earthquake & Tsunami in 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. However, based on an agreement between the Mobile Giving Foundation and major US wireless carriers that ensured that more than 90% of the donated amount was passed through to charities, this textavism reached new heights in 2008 when the United Way aired a 10-second commercial during Super Bowl XLII. This ad asked viewers to text the message “FIT” to a specified number in order to donate $10 to the organization’s Youth Fitness Fund, which supports youth activities designed to combat childhood obesity. This ad quickly generated $10,000 in donations and was widely hailed as the first successful mobile campaign. Similar campaigns were initiated in response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake ($43 million raised) and the 2011 Japanese tsunami  ($4.5 million donated to the American Red Cross).

In January, Harvard University’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society and the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project released a report entitled Real Time Charitable Giving, which examined the phenomenon of mobile giving in response to the 2010 Haiti earthquake. Some of the key findings of this report include:

  • Nearly one in ten (9%) Americans have made a charitable contribution via text messaging.
  • A majority of the Haiti text donations via text messaging were “impulsive giving” where the decision to donate was made quickly in response to images they saw on television.
    • 50% of surveyed donors made their donations immediately upon learning about the campaign.
    • An additional 23% made their contribution on the same day they heard about the campaign.
    • After making their text donation, 43% acknowledged following the reconstruction efforts in Haiti “not too closely” and 15% acknowledged to have followed them “not at all”.
    • 74% of surveyed donors were first time mobile givers.
    • 56% of mobile givers to the Haiti earthquake have made text donations to other disaster relief efforts since their Haiti donation.
      • 40% texted a donation in response to the 2011 Japan tsunami.
      • 27% texted a donation in response to the 2010 BP oil spill.
      • 18% texted a donation in response to the 2011 tornadoes in the United States.
      • 43% of Haiti text donors encouraged family and friends to donate to the cause via text messaging.
        • 76% indicated that family and friends made a text donation to the Haiti relief effort.
        • 75% encouraged family and friend donations through face-to-face conversations.
        • 38% encouraged family and friend donations through voice calls.
        • 34% encouraged family and friend donations through text messaging.
        • 21% encouraged family and friend donations through social media.
        • 10% encouraged family and friend donations through email.

The Berkman-Pew study provides one of the first in-depth examinations of mobile giving and the results are a decidedly mixed bag in terms of how text donations function as a form of social activism. On the one hand, this textavism displays issues that the critics of slacktivism and clicktivism have long decried. In particular, textavism seemingly offers a superficial and ephemeral engagement with particular crisis or issue at hand; a point reinforced with the Berkman-Pew findings that 58% of donors to the Haitian relief effort did not closely follow the story after their donation. Furthermore, critics of this form of digital activism will invariably color the donation as an emotional reaction to graphic and heart wrenching images of people suffering, which further indicates an absence of personal investment on behalf of the digital activist.

Yet on the other hand, the Berkman-Pew findings undercut other critiques of digital activism. Rather than restricting activism to the realm of social media and electronic communication, the textavists relied heavily upon traditional social networks and face-to-face communication to elicit additional participants and, in the end, raise more funds for Haitian relief. In addition, the recurring criticism that digital activism fails to produce substantial results is effectively dispelled through the sheer number of dollars generated through textavism. 

 

Originally published in Anthropology News.

 

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