Victoria Joseph noticed recently that many of her Facebook friends were changing their profile picture to a favorite childhood cartoon character. The effort, some online explanations said, was to show support for child-abuse prevention.
The University of Pennsylvania student estimates that 40 percent of her 800 Facebook friends obliged and became part of the cartoon cascade that officially ended Dec. 6. But not Joseph, a 21-year-old senior.
"I thought it was just unnecessary," she says. "At the end of the day, what does changing your profile picture even mean?"
Minimally, it means you worship Wilma Flintstone or dote on Underdog. Its impact on the cause célèbre, however, is blurrier than the Road Runner whizzing past Wile E. Coyote.
This type of crusading has become so common online that a word has been coined for it - slacktivism. It's not a term of endearment. Definition: Activism, often done on a computer, that requires a slacker's amount of effort and is of questionable effectiveness.
Why raise money doing a breast cancer walk when you can easily update your Facebook status with the color of your bra? (That Facebook meme happened in January.) Maybe you wanted to encourage Iran's prodemocracy demonstrators last year. To show your support, all you had to do was tint your Twitter avatar green or add to it a virtual green ribbon.
It's not that low-impact activism is new. For years we've sat in traffic and read a bumper crop of bumper stickers proclaiming drivers' concern for the rain forest, support for a political candidate, or pride in little Eddie or Emma making the school honor roll. Walk down the street and you'll see people making statements with T-shirts and rubber wristbands.
But social-media websites up the ante by expanding the audience exponentially for a fraction of the effort. Without getting off the sofa, you instantly can tell your friends about your pet topic. If you want to get involved in a cause but don't know how, you can follow the lead of those who have mentioned their pursuits on Facebook, Twitter, or MySpace. No research needed.
"You can make the case that slacktivism is important because it makes people feel affiliated to a movement and be part of it, and talk about it," says Ethan Zuckerman, a fellow at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology Center for Future Civic Media.
Associating ourselves with people and places helps us define our place in the world, says Patricio Abinales, a fellow at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington.
"It's social bonding," Abinales says. "You have the feeling you're not alone."
The flip side is that taming a complicated problem such as child abuse requires moving beyond bonding - and that is where these Internet campaigns may fall short.
"The question is: How do you get from affiliation to deeper involvement?" Zuckerman says.
Some local NFL alumni cheerleaders figured out how social-media activism could tangibly benefit the Philadelphia affiliate of the breast-cancer awareness group Susan G. Komen for the Cure.
Maggie Trush-Hammond of Media, an Eagles cheerleader from 1993 to 1999, pitched an idea to Philadelphia Komen staff: Her group would teach a routine online to alumni NFL cheerleaders nationwide, invite them here to perform it, and put it all on YouTube.
That alone wouldn't put money in Komen's coffers, but the cheerleaders also suggested getting a sponsor. Elaine Grobman, executive director of Philadelphia Komen, recruited UnitedHealthcare to give money based on the number of times "Team Ra-Ras Kicks Breast Cancer" is viewed on YouTube.
"It took off so quickly," Grobman says.
UnitedHealthcare gave $100,000 at the first one million views. It will donate $50,000 more at five million and another $50,000 at eight million. Since it was posted in October, the video has been viewed more than 2.3 million times.
Local advertising agency the Neiman Group also came up with a way to make slacktivism profitable. Beginning Tuesday morning and ending Wednesday night, the company turned a room in its Walnut Street office into a giant snow globe. People were then sent e-mails inviting them to view the scene on a live Internet feed or via its Facebook page. Every time a visitor to the Facebook page clicked on the "like" button, the agency pledged to donate $1 to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria. The effort raised $564.
The origins of the cartoon campaign and whether it originally was meant to spotlight child abuse are unknown. The website knowyourmeme.com, which tries to document Internet phenomena, says it may have begun in November as a message to Facebook users in Greece and Cyprus with the only goal being to remove all photos of humans from the social network for a few days.
Around the same time, the Cartoon Network ran a promotion to choose cartoon characters as Facebook profile pictures. By Dec. 3, the fad had gained new meaning as a rumored part of a campaign to fight child abuse.
"While I doubted the efficacy of a FB pic to have any effect at all on child abuse, I assumed it was the pink-ribbon thing - a symbol to show your support for its eradication," says Sandy Bykowski, 50, a training director for a nonprofit in Chicago whose Facebook profile recently featured Natasha Fatale, one of the spies who chase Rocky and Bullwinkle.
After one nonprofit noticed the cartoon characters popping on its own Facebook page, it urged participants to express their support for the cause financially.
"We put out: This is going on. If you do it, do it for Childhelp," says Walt Stutz, director of marketing for the national nonprofit group that aids victims of child abuse and neglect. "It was a matter of us trying to take a very general topic and creating awareness for our individual mission within this general cause."
Childhelp ended up getting an unexpected $8,000 in donations and 1,000 more visitors to its website over that cartoon weekend.
Though Childhelp found a way to benefit from the cartoon campaign, some experts say slacktivism has the potential to do more harm than good - that exerting a single, simple effort could make people complacent when otherwise they might have become more active.
Mass online actions also can dilute the heft of a campaign because they suggest a weak commitment on the part of the people involved.
"The easier it is to show support for the cause, the more easily [the action] is dismissed," says Harvard University's Tom Sander, who studies civic engagement as executive director of the Saguaro Seminar at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government.
When Sander worked in Washington for Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, it was common lore among legislative staffers that e-petitions "signed" online were not taken as seriously as ones that bore actual signatures. The same was true for letters in which writers cut and pasted their messages from a master copy on the Internet, he says.
Sometimes, inaction can be lucrative. One of slacktivism's proudest moments may have been this month when a group of celebrities, including Lady Gaga, Alicia Keys, and Justin Timberlake, earned money to help children with HIV/AIDS in Africa and India by doing nothing. Starting Dec. 1, World AIDS Day, they pronounced themselves digitally dead.
"That means no more Twitter or Facebook updates from any of them," said the effort's website. "No more knowing where they are, what they had for dinner. . . . Every single dollar helps Keep a Child Alive [Keys' nonprofit] fight this terrible disease. And when $1 million is reached, everyone will be back online and tweeting in no time."
On Dec. 6, the campaign said it had reached its goal.
Though stunts like that won't work for everyone, experts say it's up to people and organizations to figure out how to harness social media's potential - and drop the slack from slacktivism.
To dismiss the trend, says MIT's Zuckerman, doesn't acknowledge that it's "a really interesting way of starting to get people involved."