Re-Engineering Talk II: Revisiting Online Activism

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Quiz time: what’s the quickest way to show you care for a cause (say, domestic violence) without stepping out of your home? Well, just like it. Sorry, that should be ‘Like’, as in, visit Facebook.com, search for the name of the NGO or cause – planting trees and green environment, saving abused kids, literacy for all – click on Like and there you have it, you are one among thousands of Facebook users who support the cause of domestic violence.

Defining digital activism: online petitioning
Digital activism or slacktivism, allows one to participate in causes, read literature or material related to the issue, and voice your opinion (or just lurk on the Facebook group), without the condition of visiting the NGO’s office, meeting up with the troubled people – the abused housewife in the case of domestic violence – plan a series of mobilization efforts, or any of the other traditional ways of drawing attention to a cause and subscribing to it. (Click here for my post on: unconventional ways to protest in the 21st century: Kissing and Walking!)

Subscriptions in the digital age are significantly dominated by the eye-catching buttons – I call it the button culture – which entice you to Sign Up! Join Today, Subscribe Now, Submit, and click on the ubiquitous Like (and that’s why the sobriquet of clicktivism. It doesn’t take analysis of the kind you would engage in if you were to join a cause at the ground level: would I have a free weekend, do I have spare donation money for this charity, would I be in trouble if I participate in a street demonstration, I do not want my parents to catch me supporting an anti-abortion / pro-choice march, it’s dangerous, police could hurt me, or worse, I could get killed. Honestly, the gravity of supporting a cause should not be taken lightly. When you subscribe to a cause – offline – it means devoting time, energy, money, efforts, and sometimes, your blood and life. Do I really want to pay for the freedom of abused children with MY Life?

Why Digital Activism: how does it work?
Are online campaigns restricted to merely Likes and Clicks and Sign-ups and becoming a follower of an NGO with an online presence? Well, many NGOs merely join Facebook and other social networking platforms and micro-blogging sites such as Twitter to reach a wider audience than what their physical campaigning efforts would reach. It’s also easier to promote your event or workshops, conferences and seminars online as news goes viral within seconds. Thousands of youth who don’t read newspapers or pick up brochures and pamphlets at schools, malls or from the hands of a volunteer, would definitely see an online message or marketing campaign centered on a particular cause. It’s the psychology of minimal effort and maximum rewards. Efforts involve subscribing to the cause and keeping up with news or events created by the NGOs, participating in surveys and discussions, and contributing advocacy ideas that will in real time / offline have an impact on the cause. And the rewards are surely manifold, the least is that you will now be seen as a supporter of important societal issues. A cynical viewpoint?

Marketing Gimmick: Follow, Like, Sign-up
Where having an online presence was once seen as an aid to offline mobilization efforts, I see an increasing marketing frenzy accompanying causes online; it’s more about presence than substance. “Please RT this message or Like Us on Facebook” is a common reminder on Twitter accounts, as is, “Help us reach 1,000 Likes by this weekend”! (I see the same method employed by friends when they are promoting the music or art work of their friends on Facebook: please support my friend’s work by Liking his Facebook page.)

This is an artificial method to boost your ratings and presence, visitor hits per day, follower base per month, and crucially, show your boss a great Google Analytics dashboard with stratospheric graph charts. Online causes (causes with only a digital presence) and causes which also have an online presence clutch on to the digital mantra of ROI – return on investment. But it gets rather meaningless after a while as you mistake increasing subscriber base to a good ROI on the number of social media hours you put in you boost your cause – with the real support required offline not accounted for. A majority NGOs also hire social media specialists to connect with audience online. Tell me, if the person didn’t have the time to visit your office, donate money or participate in a short street play or write a letter to the local member of parliament, how does having her email id or Facebook Like help your cause?

Online & Offline | mobilization in real time
How can having 2 million followers and a 160,000 email subscription base promote the cause of domestic violence? Mostly, online causes help raise awareness and could be looked upon as an additional means of letting people know that there is trouble brewing in these areas as well. Awareness campaigns have to be hard-hitting and make your audience sit up and feel empathetic to spreading the message. Beyond that, online discussion boards help bounce off new ideas and help you to recruit potential ‘ground staff’. Beyond that, it would take a kindred soul to be interested in the activities of an NGO, enough to go beyond Liking and Following and attend fortnightly meetings, shoot off letters to government departments, write letters to newspapers, spend time with the constituents (the people who face abuse) and make your time and resources available – without pay, as a volunteer.

The real success of any campaign – whether political, marketing or a social cause – is how well you mobilize support in real time for the afflicted and affected groups. Has their plight lessened? Are they able to talk about their problems on the platform you operate on – World Wide Web? Do they have access to digital technology? Do you look at them as “charity” cases who need help but cannot contribute to the success of their own well-being? Please don’t! If you were the victim of such abuse, what kind of support or help would you expect from an NGO and its supporters? Stop patting yourself on the back because you have 1,000 new Likes since last weekend! Pass the baton of change to the victims. They have a lot to say about mobilizing support. Let me end with this wonderful quote: Activism proceeds best when it is persistent, positive, respectful; filled with facts & hope ~ Billie Jean King. (via @SheSpeaksNow on Twitter).

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4 thoughts on “Re-Engineering Talk II: Revisiting Online Activism

  1. Mary: Perfect, just had an “aha!” moment after reading your response. I understand your stance (concern) now. Hopefully, my growth in the digital space will reflect a mature worldview – and you just helped with that – in due course of time. Thank you! Thank you!

  2. Nilofar, I am sure you mean well, but you are spreading incorrect information about digital activism. “Slacktivism” is not a synomyn for “digital activism” just as “droning on” is not a synonym for “monologue.” Slacktivism is a characterization of the worst and most ineffective digital activism, while effective digital activism can be world-changing, as we have seen recently in the Arab world. Please do more careful research before writing on this topic again. The world needs people to write good analytic work about digital activism, but spreading misinformation just increases misunderstanding.

    1. Dear Mary, I follow your work (via your blog and media articles) and I know that your response comes from a very concerned space.

      While it might be naive or even juvenile of me to use “digital activism” and “slacktivism” interchangeably, I feel…that..you have the right to define digital activism the way you see it work, or the way it feels right for you. That definition or connotation of slactivism doesn’t necessarily have to fit in with my world view. Perhaps, for me, undertaking digital activism is synonymous with slacktivism – and I have a right to that worldview?

      Secondly, perhaps my using the words slactivism and digital activism interchangeably might also be a reflection of how we – the youth – perceive causes as. I definitely am not presumptuous enough to speak for all the youth or all the young, digital users, or all young, digital users of technology and Internet who also happen to be activists – either extensively offline or online – OR BOTH – the permutation and combination is remarkable and if you think about it, a slacitvist could also be a youth working OFFLINE, without really participating in protest marches, but instead writes a lot of letters – and thinks of it as “activism”.

      Many of us do believe that clicking on Like and signing up on Facebook for a cause will bring about change. While these actions might characterize a slactivist, I do not adhere to the negative or disparaging connotations that the media – or activists – like to attribute to a slactivist – lazy, useless, uncaring, disconnected, apathetic – a very Western, Christian, 1950s world view of the young.

      Sure, slactivism might do less for serious causes than what you look at as “real” digital activism, however, I believe that the youth themselves don’t look at their actions as “worst and the most ineffectual digital activism” (quoting you). That’s YOUR benchmark of how activism is supposed to operate and the parameters of success. Would you have solid proof, taking into account the sum collective of all slactivist activities – that they haven’t made ANY difference AT ALL?

      It would be hypocritical of me to defend the slactivist – as in my heart I don’t believe that Likes and Sign-ups can change the world. But, hey, I don’t have irrefutable proof to disown them or label them as “the worst”. My blog post is not an analysis, more an observation and a jotting down of my impressions. Feelings and impressions cannot be confused with misinformation.

      1. You have clearly thought about this a lot, and I’m flattered that your read my work. In your place I would have noted that slacktivism is a type of digital activism, rather than implying that both terms refer to the same phenomena. When we start speaking about clicking a like button and posting a State Department cable to Wikileaks as being essentially the same type of activity, that is where the confusion comes in.

        It is fine to evaluate the effectiveness of clicking a like button or joining a Facebook group, but we have to be clear that we are evaluating a certain kind of less-engaged digital activity, and not all of digital activism. Painting a rich and varied range of phenomena with the same pejorative brush, that is what I’d like to avoid.

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