Abstract Introduction Ch. 2—Toward a Virtue Ethics in Digital Rhetoric Ch. 3—The Practice of Equality as a Virtue Ch. 4—Care in Remix and Digital Sampling Ch. 5—Generosity in Social Media Technology Ch. 6—A Virtue of Patience in Environmental Networks Ch. 7—Future Applications of Hexeis in Networked Societies Key Takeaways References About the Author

Rhetoric, Technology, and the Virtues by Jared S. Colton and Steve Holmes

Reviewed by Jonathan Marine

four busts of Greek philosophers
"Greek philosophers" by J.D. Falk (2007) is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0

Generosity in Social Media Technology


In chapter five, "Generosity in Social Media Technology," Jared Colton and Steve Holmes focus on examples of slacktivism to complicate our understanding of ethical online engagement. By highlighting the (supposedly) false sense of contribution which slacktivists harbor after liking and sharing viral digital events, the authors are able to show that the hollowness of these gestures may be overstated: that slacktivism leads to change in un- or underreported ways. Hinged on Aristotle's discussion of generosity as a virtue and supplemented by virtue ethicist Martha Nussbaum's idea of "transactional forgiveness" (quoted on p. 104), they argue for successful examples of contributions via clicks to different causes. It is through this digital absolution and atonement that viral events like KONY 2012, the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, and Humans of New York may, to the authors' minds, have worked—raising awareness and fostering offline generosity and progress.


Yet, what it means for slacktivism to work is by all accounts a particularly fleeting metric. Citing a communication study, Colton and Holmes purport that slacktivism "may increase the likelihood of individuals' engaging in offline forms of civic action"(p. 96)—but is the mere possibility that slacktivism leads to offline action enough to definitively recast the movement as effective? The authors contend that "it is entirely possible to argue that slacktivism is not a sign of the absence of a generous offline disposition but may serve as a reliable signal of the presence of the latter (or even help develop it)" before going on to suggest that they found "evidence that some forms of slacktivism have made a difference" (p. 96) and that "the Ice Bucket Challenge may have worked" (p. 99). But the chapter's own language is more pointedly focused on presenting virtue ethics as a "powerful language for discussing social media ethics in the context of slacktivism," not a guidebook for producing action (p. 101, emphasis added). Apologizing for vagueness, the authors recenter the discussion on slacktivism's ability to contribute to the development of people's habits—particularly generosity. If "the actual dispositions social media encourages us to form will play an important role in the types of political and social change we may wish to support or challenge," then readers would benefit from a more straight-forward and discerning explanation of how these habit formations are linked to the actionable change they at the end of the day seek to produce (p. 112).