Moving beyond clicktivism
Most of you reading this have probably received numerous emails asking you to sign petitions on various causes over the years, some of them will have even come from us at /The Rules. If you are anything like me the vast majority of them will remain unread, and the cumulative effect of this can be demoralising. Critics of this type of activism often refer to it as “clicktivism”, and they argue that it can distract attention from less glamorous but effective on ground activism.
This is not to say that online petitions don’t serve a purpose, nor that they haven’t helped to bring about changes, or that liking a post on Facebook or Retweeting something on Twitter are empty gestures. These activities can be very powerful for raising awareness, and can be an important first step to engage people with an issue they may not have otherwise known about.
However at the kind of systemic change that we are seeking to bring about at /The Rules needs something more, it’s about being in for the long-haul, and so we have been thinking long and hard about how to use these digital tools to better facilitate the kind of change we want to see in the world.
This year we’re going to be rolling out a new suite of community focused tools designed to help our members work with us and with each other to make the long term changes that the world so needs right now.
What’s right with online activism?
Online petitions are undeniably popular, the run your own petition platform Change.org has over 70 million users in 196 countries, while the global online movement Avaaz has more than 40 million people who have signed their petitions. With numbers like these pressure can be brought to bear at key points in a campaign when public support is needed. These tens of millions of people can be made aware of issues that the mainstream media would not cover, and given simple steps they can take to act on them.
Many of these people have gone on to get more involved, starting local groups or volunteering for organisations that work directly on the issue. There are also many instances where a petition is the right tool for the job, especially for single issues at a local level. If you want to see some examples you can check out the Change.org and Avaaz.org websites for yourself.
What’s wrong with online activism?
Very often online petitions are simply the wrong tool for the job. A petition is not going to stop climate change or end violence against women. They may be useful tools at key moments where policy changes are required, but often they are vague and leave people thinking that they have wasted their time by signing, making them pessimistic about the possibility of achieving a change.
At /The Rules we believe that many of the biggest challenges facing us today, such as climate change, global inequality, the persistence of poverty in a world of plenty, are systemic and cannot be dealt with one by one, but require a total change to the system – we’ve outlined many of the facets of that system in our One Party Planet pamphlet – these kind of problems are not going to be solved by a petition no matter how many people sign it.
What is clicktivism?
Clicktivism is generally a pejorative term used to describe online activism where clicking a link replaces any real action, and the clicktivist thinks they have done their bit while not really having contributed anything. Another term for this is slacktivism – activism for slackers.
Micah White of AdBusters wrote a searing critique of clicktivism in which he laments that:
“Gone is faith in the power of ideas, or the poetry of deeds, to enact social change. Instead, subject lines are A/B tested and messages vetted for widest appeal. Most tragically of all, to inflate participation rates, these organisations increasingly ask less and less of their members. The end result is the degradation of activism into a series of petition drives that capitalise on current events. Political engagement becomes a matter of clicking a few links. In promoting the illusion that surfing the web can change the world, clicktivism is to activism as McDonalds is to a slow-cooked meal. It may look like food, but the life-giving nutrients are long gone.”
I’m not in 100% agreement with what he writes, as with any tool there are times when it is appropriate and others when it is not, but much of the sentiment rings true.
Why then do so many organisations encourage clicktivism?
As mentioned above there are plenty of examples of where it works for specific issues, and who wouldn’t want a membership of millions. There is also a relentless pressure to move with the times, so those first successes end up being copied, and not always well. There is also another dynamic at play where organisations become dependant on the leads that clicktivism generates to raise more funds, until we end up in the situation where we are today with people’s inboxes being flooded with petition requests from a huge number of organisations and a growing scepticism about the claims they make.
What is the alternative?
So if clicktivism doesn’t work for the kind of change that we need to see in the world and with the NSA watching everything that happens online, is it time to just pack up the Internet and go home?
There is much serious criticism of clicktivism, prominently Malcolm Gladwell writing on what he saw as the failings of slacktivism in 2010, by comparing it to the kind of activism that won out in the civil rights movement where strong ties that are developed in person seemed to be what held the activists together for the long struggle they were involved in, as opposed to the weak ties that develop online.
“What makes people capable of this kind of activism? The Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam compared the Freedom Summer dropouts with the participants who stayed, and discovered that the key difference wasn’t, as might be expected, ideological fervor. “All of the applicants—participants and withdrawals alike—emerge as highly committed, articulate supporters of the goals and values of the summer program,” he concluded. What mattered more was an applicant’s degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement. All the volunteers were required to provide a list of personal contacts—the people they wanted kept apprised of their activities—and participants were far more likely than dropouts to have close friends who were also going to Mississippi. High-risk activism, McAdam concluded, is a “strong-tie” phenomenon.”
However in 2011 the world saw a new phenomenon of activists using online tools to coordinate the overthrow of governments across the Arab world. Decentralised networks proved effective for staying one step ahead of the authorities, and the power to communicate outside of official channels spread the word to many more people. Not that social media was necessary for the Arab Spring to happen, but it certainly helped.
Last year I had the privilege to go and meet activists involved in the Gezi Park protests in Istanbul. I visited their apartment which served as a makeshift first aid centre and media centre during the protests, and these dual purposes mirror what was necessary to build the momentum of the protest until it became about more than saving trees in an inner city park and mobilised millions of people onto the streets to question the direction in which the country was heading.
The first aid centre was necessary because people were literally putting themselves in the firing line – gas masks still hung from coat rails on the backs of doors, and first aid kits sat on shelves. Without people willing to take that risk none of it would have happened.
However the activists themselves were very clear that without social media they never would have reached critical mass. As the protests grew and police brutality spiralled out of control the mainstream media said nothing as the government tried to stifle the news – CNN in Turkey broadcast a documentary on penguins. Meanwhile the media centre was providing 24 hour coverage through social media to millions of people across Turkey and around the world. People in the midst of the protests were Googling how to deal with tear gas and then streaming what was going on around them live to the world.
Even Gladwell thinks that the weak ties developed online can be generally positive and help massively in the spreading of information:
“There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information. The Internet lets us exploit the power of these kinds of distant connections with marvellous efficiency. It’s terrific at the diffusion of innovation, interdisciplinary collaboration,”
The question we are wrestling with is how do we use the power of weak ties for spreading ideas, at the same time as developing the strong ties that are necessary between activists online? To encourage deeper engagement with our community we need to see them as partners and not just list members.
If our aim is to bring radical thought to the mainstream we are fighting a massive battle, both against the mainstream media and against the $500 billion spent on advertising each year telling people that the only way to be fulfilled is to consume. We simply cannot do this on our own.
Together we can though. Who is in our community? Writers, film-makers, lawyers, programmers, hackers, designers, disillusioned marketers and ad executives. Couldn’t we be doing something more than asking you to click a button and sign a petition?
Writer Clay Shirky coined the idea of Cognitive Surplus, that people are increasingly spending their time creating rather than consuming media, and that this impulse can be put to good use. You can see him explain in his TED Talk.
How can we tap into that same dynamic that makes Wikipedia successful, or powers the OpenSource movement with projects such as WordPress – free software used to power a quarter of the world’s top 10 million websites, and the free, volunteer-developed operating system Linux that now runs the majority of the world’s web servers? The success of these examples lies in providing intrinsic rewards. the reward of a job well done rather than a job well paid.
Can we build a community where people can put their talents to work in bringing radical thought to the mainstream? A community that recognises and celebrates those who contribute to this movement.
Online petitions still have their place, and we will continue to use them where appropriate, but we’re trying to build something deeper and more sustainable that moves beyond mere clicktivism.
To do this we have launched our community section where people are encouraged to work together and form their own activist networks to bring radical thought to the mainstream by creating engaging content, highlighting issues that are neglected and pushing this out through their social networks.
We’ll be learning as we go along, but we hope that you’ll join us for the journey.