At the end of Call + Response, a celebrity-studded documentary about human trafficking, audience members see a screen inviting them to take out their cell phones and text "Call" to a five-digit number. Seconds later, a message pops back inviting them to text "Respond" to donate $5 to help build a clinic for human-trafficking victims. Text "Respond." Text "Yes" to confirm, and in seconds donors have a $5 donation tacked on to their phone bill and flying across the world. It's instant activism from a seat in a theater, and it's powered by technology.
Technology is creating what Call + Response director Justin Dillon, a musician-turned-activist-turned-director, calls a sea change in social activism: "It's when everything starts to shift and the winds blow in a different way." This shift is not just a change in methods but in the way a generation views itself, the world, and that cliché-ed buzzword, "change." Global, instant, individualistic, and (says Dillon) sexy, online activism is the way this generation channels its passion for social good. The question, however, is whether technology's "sexiness" can sustain the arduous task of actual activism.
"It used to be the coolest thing you could do when you were a teenager is start a band," Dillon said. "Now the coolest thing you can do is start a nonprofit." He sees a passion for social activism and an impulse to take it online. The data agree: An October 2008 Harvard University survey found that 47 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds engage in community service, and a 2008 YouGov survey found that 59 percent of British 18- to 24-year-olds use online campaigning tactics to address community issues. The Millennial generation is moving social activism from streets and offices onto Facebook, MySpace, YouTube, and "social action networks."
For Call + Response, the fight against human trafficking starts online. You can use an online form to ask your favorite brands to sell slave-free products. An online "Slavery Map" flags locations that have reported human slavery and lets you report human slavery online. In the Open Source Activism section, online activists can submit their own ideas to fight human trafficking, ranging from artistic to literary to culinary: a slave-free, fair-trade, kosher, organic Chocolate Moses that "tastes like freedom-sweet with a touch of saltiness from our tears," and comes in a box that educates consumers about child slavery in the chocolate industry.
On Facebook, you could join the Call + Response cause and link with 17,000 other people speaking against human trafficking, recruiting others, posting links, and promoting similar organizations. When Facebook announces your birthday to your Friend List, members of that list can click next to your name and donate to the cause you choose. Facebook users raised $26,000 for the cause "Make Abortion Unthinkable!", $30,000 for the cause "Stop Global Warming," and over $78,000 for Facebook's top cause, a campaign for cancer prevention. A box on your profile shows "Your Impact": the number of people you've recruited, the amount of money you've raised, and the amount you've donated.
MySpace is designed for media promotion so it's more effective than Facebook, said Ben Rattray, founder of Change.org. There's no friend limit so Invisible Children, an organization drawing attention to the plight of Ugandan orphans, has 151,000 MySpace friends who can watch clips, get updates on screenings, and use Google Checkout to make quick donations. Rattray said one girl who started a recycling campaign on MySpace eventually ended up on the front page of her local paper, got a personal call from the mayor inviting her to make a presentation, and launched curbside recycling in her hometown.
Organizations use YouTube's recently added section for Nonprofits and Activism to hook people and pull them toward action. Bright Hope International, a Christian organization fighting world poverty, makes YouTube videos telling the stories of the people they help. One video highlights the Mapuche Indians, who have fruit falling from their trees but no equipment to turn the fruit into jam, and directs viewers to the BHI site, which has a 30-day online prayer calendar and an online store. "We're hoping we can [turn] video watchers into people who are going to be engaged in ministry," said Anne Farrell, director of communications at BHI. And, she adds, gain a younger audience.
Then there are sites like Causecast.org and Rattray's Change.org-designed to create a social network for people who care about any cause from "Autism" to "Homelessness" to "Universal Health Care." You can sign petitions, raise money, and find nonprofits, but this isn't just anonymous clicking. Activists create their own profile pages with friend lists, "About Me" sections, "Ideas I Like," videos, a wall where friends can post and, of course, profile pictures cute enough for personal ads. (One Top Activist's profile picture shows her glancing over her right shoulder as her wavy hair falls past the low-cut back of her dress.)
Millennials are individualists, and the internet allows for "unique, individualistic participation" Rattray said: "It's not just being one in 100,000. It's that you have a unique ability to add something to the conversation." It's both individual and international: "It's not so much global as it is boundary-less. . . . The internet enables those loosely connected people to organize in a much easier way. It lowers the cost of organizing."
But there are limits to how much change you can make from your living room. Eventually you have to stop signing online petitions and step out in the real world. Tom Watson, author of CauseWired: Plugging In, Getting Involved, Changing the World, said activism has to include both offline and online activities to create rich, long-term involvement. Rattray agreed that online activism has to attach itself to an institutional framework, but he also said a successful online movement can "institutionalize itself"-move from web activism to offline organization.
This generation combines a passion for social change with a consummate ability to self-promote, Dillon said, "in an era when the line between common person and celebrity has never been blurrier." He says he's never seen a demographic with a deeper desire to help the world, but will they be able to sustain that desire outside the glow of technology?
Dillon says activism can be like starting a band. The successful bands think not just of the girls and the spotlights but all the grueling details: the tour van, the day job, the MySpace page, the marketing, the venue scheduling, and most of all, the unique sound they bring. It's the same with activism, Dillon said: "What exactly are you bringing to the world, whether it's music or justice, that's different?" Bringing justice may mean forgoing the temptation of the YouTube celebrity age and bringing attention to the cause instead of yourself. It means paying attention to mundane details out of the MySpace spotlight, and Dillon knows the definition of detail: An intricate network of grassroots volunteers does all the publicity for Call + Response screenings.
Young people used to hand him their demo tapes. Now they hand him their nonprofit plans. He applauds the excitement but cautions them that it will take work. Even decades, he tells them: "Not just committing a year here or there when it's fun and sexy but committing 35 years to it. It's not a criticism. It's more of a hope."