Micah White (no relation) in The Guardian has a provocative article that makes the case that online activism (“clicktivism” or “slacktivism”) is ruining left-wing activism because of an obsession with “opens, clicks, actions, sign-ups, unsubscribes, bounces and referrals”.
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.
Exchanging the substance of activism for reformist platitudes that do well in market tests, clicktivists damage every genuine political movement they touch. In expanding their tactics into formerly untrammelled political scenes and niche identities, they unfairly compete with legitimate local organisations who represent an authentic voice of their communities. They are the Wal-Mart of activism: leveraging economies of scale, they colonise emergent political identities and silence underfunded radical voices.
Digital activists hide behind gloried stories of viral campaigns and inflated figures of how many millions signed their petition in 24 hours. Masters of branding, their beautiful websites paint a dazzling self-portrait. But, it is largely a marketing deception. While these organisations are staffed by well-meaning individuals who sincerely believe they are doing good, a bit of self-criticism is sorely needed from their leaders.
The truth is that as the novelty of online activism wears off, millions of formerly socially engaged individuals who trusted digital organisations are coming away believing in the impotence of all forms of activism. Even leading Bay Area clicktivist organisations are finding it increasingly difficult to motivate their members to any action whatsoever. The insider truth is that the vast majority, between 80% to 90%, of so-called members rarely even open campaign emails. Clicktivists are to blame for alienating a generation of would-be activists with their ineffectual campaigns that resemble marketing.
Micah harks back to a time when activism really meant something – and were “genuinely radical movements”. This Golden Age thinking seems to ignore the many controversies and debates that occurred before the “interwebby” was invented – the use of mass-media, zines, glossy paper vs risographs, one-on-one conversations, and so on. The quaint notion that the “power of ideas” could “enact social change” is laughably utopian. Activists from bygone eras, like Saul Alinsky, knew the importance of the hard slog and nitty gritty of activism.
The role of technology in progressive movements has been ever-present. In fact, left-wing activism has often been at the fore-front of technological innovation. From movable type and portable presses, to bulletin boards and email, technology has assisted progressive causes greatly.
More recent technology has simply taken what we used to do manually and slowly, and made it quicker and easier. Left activism has always cared about metrics, but until now we haven’t had the technology to truly benefit from it. Attendance sheets at mass-meetings, rollodex cards of activists, contacts and supporters, databases kept in filing cabinets have been replaced with online databases, email lists, CRMs, and event registration iphone apps. Much more civilised.
With scarce resources, left activists have to make sure that everything they do is useful, strategic, and makes best use of what they have, whether money, people or time. The metrics – the clicks, opens, and A/B testing – helps left-wing activists to not waste time, effort or money on things that don’t work. Far better to find out that the message you’ve developed doesn’t work early on in a campaign – so you can rejig it – than at the end, having activated no one and achieved nothing.
There is something to what Micah says about transparency. Progressive activist organisations need to be more honest about the failures, as well as the successes. We need to stop pretending that something was fantastically successful because of its great online metrics – clicks, views, donations, list signups – if the purpose of the campaign wasn’t fulfilled. We shouldn’t inflate our numbers, or pretend that the 1000s of people on our email list are all activists themselves (unless they really are). Transparency helps accountability – and activist organisations (and especially their leadership) should be accountable to its members and supporters for the success and failure of campaigns.
Micah is also right that online activism that has no “real world” outcome – that does not change something – is pointless. Even online marketing by the nastiest company in the world has a real world outcome: they want to you buy their product or service. Activists should make progressive change, and an online campaign that doesn’t have that as its goal is truly pointless.
Michael Silberman from EchoDitto makes this case clearly:
Let’s stop declaring victory in our online campaigns while we lose the very battles that many of these campaigns and their sponsoring organizations are setup to fight. My colleague Allyson Kapin compiled a wonderful list of some of the most innovative online campaigns of 2009 here at Frogloop (and we catalogued a few of our own here) — but at what point will we stop calling campaigns successful if they wowed us with cool tech or participation numbers but failed to move the needle? What role are these campaigns playing in bringing the change we seek?
Increasingly the metrics we use to gauge success online will need to incorporate or connect to overall impact. Total eyeballs or unique visits to a campaign site will only matter insomuch as that’s an audience of eyeballs that a decision-maker is truly concerned about pleasing.
To some extent, Micah White is arguing against a straw man. There isn’t really anyone out there who advocates that slick online marketing should replace real-world activism – rather that it should support, encourage and augment it. No one is arguing that clicks, retweets and likes can, in and of themselves, change anything, but they can help activist organisations engage with and activate supporters.
Micah’s problems with the corporatisation of activism – the rise of PR companies advising NGOs like WFF, Greenpeace and Oxfam (such as the Tcktcktck campaign) are separate issues to online campaigning and communication. In my view, tactics are (mostly) ideology-free. A good tactic (such as one-on-one conversations) is not left-wing or right-wing by its nature. It’s what you use the tactic for. It’s purpose and goal.
The fact that large PR forms and advertising agencies have good ideas and good tactics that can assist progressive, activist organisations is not necessarily bad. If those activist organistations compromise their values or goals as a result of working together – that is bad. But if those PR and advertising agencies help achieve something and change something for the better, then good!
I for one will continue to use online tools for the campaigns I am involved in. I think they are valuable tools, but the medium should not be the message (to cribb from Marshall McLuhan).