If there is one thing I hate, it is chain emails, or chain letters, as they used to be known before the advent of computers. Most of you are familiar with them. You receive an unsolicited email or letter promising to make a wish come true, or prevent you from suffering some nasty fate, such as the sky falling on your head, if you forward the said correspondence to 50 people within six minutes. There are many reasons to despise such letters; notably, they are a waste of time and a sure way to lose friends, if you forward them. But more than anything, it is the emotional manipulation at the core of them that is sometimes steeped in political correctness that bothers me most. Take, for example, one such email I received recently. It went something like this: a poor boy is starving in Africa – he has no family, livestock or limbs, and each time you forward this email, Bill Gates will personally give the boy $1 and good luck will shine on you all your days. If you do not forward this letter, you will be struck down with some horrible disease, just like Joe, from Kansas, who was diagnosed with bubonic plague only hours after refusing to send this letter on. Worse still, the limbless boy, who has no chickens to call his own and is a victim of capitalism, will surely die.
Okay, I exaggerate slightly, but the message is clear. The harbingers of this rubbish play on people’s goodwill and guilt, presumably for no other reason than to see how long the letter takes to get back to them. But such letters also suck you in and I too have succumbed to the odd email promising the end to world hunger at the press of a button. So why do they work? One answer is that they promote ‘slacktivism’, a term derived from merging the words ‘slacker’ and ‘activism. Slacktivism, according to Barbara Mikkelson, cofounder of Snopes.com, a website that debunks urban legends, “is the search for the ultimate feel-good that derives from having come to society’s rescue without actually getting one’s hands dirty, volunteering any of one’s time, or opening one’s wallet”. In other words, getting a big return on a small investment. Consequently, these goodwill emails (laden with threats) keep trundling on for the same reason as pyramid schemes: we want something for nothing and to have the added benefit of feeling good about getting it.
There are, however, different levels of slacktivism. There are those who are serial slacktivists, that is, they sign and forward any old petition blissfully unaware that most governments or corporations will just ignore unverified correspondence. The only beneficiary is the sender, who is left with a warm glow for his or her self-righteous, yet minimal, efforts. Then there are also those who use the Internet and chain emails to drum up support for their cause, which is translated into genuine lobbying in the halls of government. A constant barrage of information, which is factual rather than threatening and based on genuine case studies, could arguably swing public opinion. But to achieve this, the garbage that is circulated on the Internet should be filtered, and this starts with you and me. I am all for a little slacktivism, but it should move beyond simply forwarding heart-wrenching emails. Let’s think before forwarding every email and use the time we spend worrying that bad luck will befall us if we don’t, as well as the time wasted congratulating ourselves on the five seconds we donated to a good cause while pressing the forward button, being a lot more selective and a little more action-oriented. And, if any of you needs lessons on just how to do this, just drop me an email and we can go for a cappuccino and discuss it.
This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 3 March 2006 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.