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On the Net, "Slacktivism' / Do-gooders flood in-boxes

In 1995, two students at the University of Northern

Colorado circulated by e-mail a petition to rally people to protest government

cutbacks in PBS, National Public Radio and the arts. In order to ensure it

reached as many people as possible, it included the words, "Forward this to

everyone you know."

The idea was that the e-mail would then periodically make its way back to

the students, who would forward it to the proper authorities as an indication

of public interest in the issue.

Right idea. Wrong approach.

Six years later, that e-mail - in various forms - is still circulating on

the Internet. People still "sign" it by adding a name and hometown, and people

still forward it to everyone they know (or a close approximation). It matters

not that the information it contains is outdated, or that the addresses for

returning it to the two students no longer exist.

The addresses are gone because the response overwhelmed the two students'

in boxes and the university's mail servers, forcing officials to cancel the

accounts and reprimand the students. But despite repeated attempts to inform

people that the e-mail is no longer valid, including posting a note about it on

its Web site, the school still gets inquiries about it through other e-mail

addresses and phone calls.

"They had no idea what they were starting," Gary Hatch, the school's

assistant vice president for information technology, said of the students.

"Once it's out there, it doesn't die."

Those who wage the seemingly futile war to rid the Internet of such e-mails

have given a name to the practice of keeping such e-mails alive: They call it

"slacker activism," or "slacktivism" (the term preferred by slacker typists).

It's not that these e-mails don't intend to do good, the experts say. It's that

they go about it in a way that can too easily become utterly meaningless.

"People feel they've satisfied their need to do a good thing, when in

reality they haven't done a darned thing," said Barbara Mikkelson, who lives in

Agoura, Calif., and runs the Urban Legends Reference Pages at,

a site that documents the various chain e-mails in circulation.

"My mom always said something about the road to hell, and best intentions."

Often some of the most fervent activists have been students, so perhaps

it's not surprising that many of these petitions seem to come from within the

academic community, said Patricia James, director of the Eugene M. Lang Center

for Social Responsibility at Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania.

The problem, James said, is that the informality of the Net can make

rallying cries ineffective. "It's a good reminder, I think, to activists

everywhere," she said, "that activism requires relationship building, and

e-mail is not relationship building."

The University of Colorado's NPR/PBS e-mail has been around so long that

it's crossed the border into the land of urban legend, joining a host of

others. In one such case, the e-mail suggested that for every new person who

forwards the petition, the American Cancer Society would donate 3 cents toward

fighting the type of cancer from which one little girl was dying.

Never mind that the organization's primary function is to direct funds to

cancer research, or that it's impossible to perform such tracking.

Meanwhile, the organization's workers must spend time answering questions

about a phony e-mail rather than more important work. Online activists, while

quick to denounce such e-mails, say they fall into the category of hoaxes more

than a legitimate attempt to raise awareness.

Joann Schellenback, who works out of Manhattan and serves as national

spokeswoman for the Atlanta-based organization, said the group still gets calls

about the e-mail, though it's down from a few years ago when the Society was

bombarded with questions every day for months.

She said she fears that if people believe that forwarding an e-mail is a

form of donation, they won't make legitimate donations. Or, worse, upon

discovering the e-mail is false, they may conclude that the group is somehow

behind it.

"They were moved and manipulated, and our name is attached to that

particular manipulation," Schellenback said. "They might be angry. They may

think it's tacky."

Meanwhile, many critics question the effectiveness of these types of

e-mails, even when they're legitimate and timely.

"It's easy to get people to sign a petition," said Rep. Peter King

(R-Seaford). But the best way to get King's attention, he said, is "to sit down

and compose a handwritten letter-that's still the most effective way." During

a recent weekend, King's office received 675 e-mails, a third of which were

form e-mails, which King says are just a person's signature over someone else's


But while King is critical, Baltej Kochar of San Diego argues that the

great number of people accessible through the Internet can be a strong tool in

getting a particular message across.

To that end, Kochar has created a site intended to ensure signatures are

collected and put to good use.

His Web site,, provides background information on

current issues and allows people to sign petitions by entering a name, state,

e-mail address and ZIP code. But instead of forwarding them by e-mail, Kochar

plans to add names and home states to a print-out of the petition that will be

sent to Washington, D.C., via the Postal Service.

While some petitions may seem to float around the Net aimlessly, Kochar,

30, said the information it holds may still provide a public service. Besides,

he said, who's to say it won't end up in the in-box of, say, the secretary of


"Ideally, a petition will both educate and result in a particular action,"

he said.

Kochar does acknowledge, however, that while the Internet is a powerful

communication tool, a petition printed on paper carries more weight than one

submitted electronically. While writing a letter may be ideal, most people

don't have the time, he said, and his site allows people to quickly sign a

petition in a centralized location with the assurance it will end up on a desk

in Washington.

And he and others argue that for every misguided e-petition or hoax, there

are countless other ways the Internet has furthered various causes.

Many involve merely visiting a Web page and clicking an icon. For example,

one of the most well-known is The Hunger Site (, which

helps feed the hungry by donating a cup of food for every person who clicks on

the "donate free food" button. Donations are paid for by the site's sponsors,

and it attracts more than 220,000 people daily, according to the site.

(Seattle-based, which owns the site, was co-founded by


Other sites use the same "click to donate" approach. On Oct. 25,

Manhattan-based said that, for every person who visits the "NFL For

Her" section of the site, the league would donate $5 per visit, up to $50,000,

to a foundation supporting breast cancer research.

Although only 10,000 page views were needed to trigger the maximum

donation, had 1.75 million unique users on that day and 3 million "NFL

For Her" page views.

More recently, United Way Canada, on its "Click For United Way!" page

(, arranged for sponsors to donate $1.25 per click

from Feb. 12-14. In all, 232,975 people participated, and although the maximum

donation was reached, clickers were thanked and told, "By continuing to click,

you are...[d]emonstrating the power and attraction of this online event which

will help us to leverage even more commitments from sponsors for our next Click


The question some have raised is whether people use these "click to donate"

sites to replace charitable acts they would otherwise do, or to supplement

them. Perhaps it doesn't matter.

"If it is legitimate," said Theresa Lowe, who works at PR21, a Manhattan

public relations firm, "so what if it promotes laziness if it gets more people

aware of the cause."

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