Illustration from The Express Tribune

Type ‘petition’ into Facebook’s search bar and what comes up is a slew of results: pages, groups, apps, all having to do with social activism. There are Facebook petitions to raise awareness of animal cruelty and petitions for women’s rights—petitions that fight to keep ABC soap operas on the air and petitions against Facebook petitions.

The creation of websites like Change.org, that specialize in organizing petitions on the web, are a sign of the popularity of petition-making that reaches outside of the realm of Facebook. With over 5 million members, Change.org is the biggest and most influential petition-promoting site on the web. Boasting a team of over 98 organizers, campaign directors, software engineers and strategists, Change.org calls itself an ‘organizing platform’ for citizen activists.

Sarah Parsons, Change.org’s Sustainable Food Editor, explains that technology has changed the face of social activism. “It makes sense, that since people communicate online now that activism should be online as well,” Parson says in a phone interview. While social movements before the age of new media depended on the physical congregation of people to protest a cause, technology has created a method of protesting that relies on mouse clicks and virtual signatures.

In a phone interview, Zachary Dominitz, Change.org’s Director of Partnerships, compares the web to the telephone and suggests that although the Internet has changed the way that people communicate, it is still a tool for communication—just a better tool. “There’s nothing to match the speed of the Internet,” Dominitz says. He explains that members of Generation Y are used to using the Internet to reach out to one another. Sites like Facebook and Twitter allow people all over the world to connect instantly. Dominitz says that the reason that online petitions have reached such popularity is due to sites like Facebook that allow individuals to engage in online communities. He says that online petition making gives people the ability to make a difference in the world. “You can put up an idea on Change.org and if its shared amongst a bunch of people, it can be something powerful.”

However, in an age where it has become easy to join causes online, activism means something different—one click and you support gay rights, one click and you support women’s rights. But what does this clicking mean? Has social media made activism a “slacker’s” activity in which people who want to make a difference can do so without having to even leave their computers?

The term “slacktivism” has been used as early as 2001 in online conversations about new media in relation to activism. Although it is not certain where the term originated, it has been used as a critique of online petitioning, referring to a certain kind of person who signs online petitions without being actively involved. “So called ‘slacktivists’ take easy, social actions in support of a cause,” says Katya Anderson of Network for Good (a petitioning website) in an article for Mashable.com. “Signing a petition, liking a Facebook page or putting a pink ribbon on their avatar.”

However, a Georgetown University study made in 2010 found that people who get involved in online petitioning are more likely to donate money or volunteer in actual events than people who do not use social media for activism. Anthony De Rosa, Social Media Editor for Reuters, says that “slacktivism,” is an overrated term. “Social media has helped people take the next step from slacktivism to actual activism,” says De Rosa in an email. De Rosa explains that movements like the Arab Spring—that lead to revolutions in the Middle East this past year—and the current Occupy Wall Street movements use social media to spread their messages, however, they come from real off-line problems that effect people in their daily lives.

On November 1, Change.org announced their victory over Bank of America’s $5 debit card fee after over 300,000 people signed a petition asking the bank to eliminate the fee for all customers. The petition was created by an independent member of Change.org who also broadcasted her plea onto Facebook and Twitter. Dominitz says that Change.org depends on social networking sites so that people can use their connections to spread word of their cause with immediacy. He believes that online petitioning is a tool that goes hand in hand with why people reach out to one another online on sites like Facebook. “It’s looking for something that is larger than ourselves—making or signing a petition gives you a sense of being part of your world.”