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Raise your hand if you’re a Facebook slacktivist

I did not change my profile picture after the Paris attacks.

I celebrated my 40th birthday in Paris. We strategically planned the trip so that my birthday rang true over the Atlantic and that the celebration continued on Parisian soil. We imbibed, we explored, and we participated in all that Paris offered. A week later on the Amalfi coast I became a delightfully engaged woman. As a now ecstatically married, I recollect the city and the trip as a monumental part of my history.

I did not change my profile picture after the Paris attacks.

I love the city. I love the people of Paris. I petted the Eiffel Tower every day that we were there. We talk about reenacting our engagement trip on every 5th anniversary.

I did not change my profile picture after the Paris attacks.

Why? I have done nothing impactful since the terrorist attacks in Paris. I have not donated money. I have not opened my home to those in need. I have not flown to Paris on my own dime and offered assistance. My thoughts and "prayers" for the people of Paris, while genuine, have not actually made a difference. My thoughts are not actions. Changing my profile picture is not an action of meaningful consequence.

Thoughts are not actions

Social media provides people an easy opportunity to express unity for a cause or an event. It also allows like-minded people to identify with each other across miles and borders. But does this social media solidarity increase our likelihood to actually do something with our time or money?

No. No, according to a 2013 study conducted by the University of British Columbia's Sauder School of Business.

Take the U.S. Supreme Court ruling on June 26, 2015, that guarantees the right for same-sex couples to marry in all 50 states. In three days, over 26 million people (including myself) used the rainbow filter on Facebook to express our support. Yet there is no proof that the action generated more education, awareness, or funding to the cause. Writer Peter Moskowitz argued in the Washington Post that the fight for equality was far from over and that heavy focus—money, time, and attention—is still needed for LGBT people. "Covering your profile picture in rainbow colors doesn’t change any of those truths," he wrote.

If we announce our support, and look good to others, we've essentially killed the urgency to do something more powerful like volunteer or give money.

This behavior is not isolated to social media; it happens with most free endorsements—wearing a rubber bracelet, hanging a flag, or slapping on a bumper sticker. But the apathetic approach is compounded by channels like Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The University of British Columbia study results say that the more public the endorsement, the higher our own personal satisfaction with the behavior. If we announce our support, and look good to others, we've essentially killed the urgency to do something more powerful like volunteer or give money. As Seth Meyers said on Saturday Night Live, "Look, if you make a Facebook page we will 'like' it—it's the least we can do. But it's also the most we can do."

Slacktivist support

Researchers now call this slacktivism: a willingness to perform a relatively costless, token display of support for a social cause, with an accompanying lack of willingness to devote significant effort to enact meaningful change. Ouch.

I doubt when most of my social network superimposed the French flag over their profile picture, they thought, "I'm such a Facebook slacktivist." No, I expect they meant to be sympathetic to a people, and a country under extreme duress. While it’s easy to dismiss low-effort activism, for many people it can be a way to quietly show support.

Russell Saunders from The Daily Beast agrees. In Change Your Damn Facebook Photo, he implores people to do just that. "A change in a person’s Facebook photo is a small thing done by people with no recourse to bigger things in the face of tragedy and pain. We don’t say, “I’m sorry” under such circumstances because we expect it will fix anything. We say we’re sorry in the best way we can because it’s what human beings do."

Beyond the Facebook flag

I could call you a slacktivist, and you could call me apathetic. But this is not about social shaming or playing a mean name-game. It's not about a right way or a wrong way; it's about a better way.

Fund it: Be it a terrorist attack in Paris, a bombing in Lebanon, or a hurricane in Texas, back-up your cause. Humanitarian organizations, including the Red Cross, are always in need of funding for both emergencies and day-to-day support. Use a catastrophic event as a reminder to donate online or text money to your cause. A few dollars goes a long way.

Take some action: Volunteering in the U.S. is on the decline and is at its lowest levels in a decade. The impact to society is great, as volunteer hours add up to around $175 billion worth of services in the U.S. alone. While it isn't feasible for most of us to fly to Paris and assist, there are many activities in our local cities that are affiliated and can use support. Or, just take the crisis for what it can be: a wake-up call to get out and do some good in your neighborhood.

Tell your story: Money or time not on your side? Share a story of why the impacted city, the event, or the struggling people are meaningful to you. Upload photos that convey your best memories. Intentional emotion carries influencer weight and can potentially motivate someone with greater resources to take action or fund your cause. At the very least, it’s a positive reminder of why help is needed.

Once the emergency is over, or the fight is won, don't abandon your cause. We are more than our Facebook profiles, or a flag, or a rainbow. We can do more for one another.

Sarah Stealey Reed is the editor of Relate. When she's not wandering the world, she's a loud writer of customer experiences, contact centers, and optimistic relationships. Find her on Twitter at @stealeyreed.

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