The debate over whether social media is truly effective in achieving social change, or just fosters feel-good clicking and tweeting has brought rise to a new term — “slacktivism”, which is defined as “the act of participating in obviously pointless activities as an expedient alternative to actually expending effort to fix a problem.”

Social media has its fans and its foes. On one hand, “Facebook and MySpace have made [people], unintentionally, more rude,” said University of Washington American Ethnic Studies Professor Connie So. “I’m worried that young people are too insular in their social media space, which is why I like to have potlucks with my students. So they can get to know each other beyond Facebook. A lot of people have stuck together as friends because of those dinners.”

On the other hand, “Social media is here to stay,” said Ron Chew, former executive director of the Wing Luke Asian Museum and current executive director of the International Community Health Services Foundation. “As people build their networks, they’re going to rely on it less and less for friendships but more for information.” He recalls a recent student demonstration at the University of Washington, where students were able to connect with each other through mobile phones so easily, communicating in real-time what was happening on the ground, and what they needed — more provisions, for example. This type of communication just wasn’t possible during the 1970s and 80s, so social media has opened up a whole new breed of activism, that is much more public and much more viral.

Social media can be a tremendous tool, when used correctly, in educating new audiences in engaging ways, and amplifying messages about important activist messages — a new program launch, a fundraising appeal or a big event coming up. Through social media, dedicated activists have the opportunity not only to touch all their friends and family, but extended networks, and the potential to harness the power of millions.

But, it’s also important to not lose sight of the values of old-fashioned communication.

“It’s so much easier to not tell the truth, or embellish the truth, or lay claim to something that isn’t yours through social media,” said Bea Kiyohara, founder of the NW Asian American Theater. “When you’re looking at someone across the table or next to you, it’s harder to not be truthful. I’m not saying that [social media] is not important because it’s here to stay, but I think in reality [communicating] is different.”

Low-investment social media activism, like signing a petition or “liking” on Facebook or following a cause is without a question, much easier than doing the hard work of activists’ past. But with the right vision, and a healthy balance of old-fashioned organizing, those acts can transform into a deeper level of engagement to achieve the end goal.

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