Monday, April 29, 2013

Something to sort of maybe believe in for a little while

The shift from mass communication to networked communication has changed culture by altering not only how we connect with one another but how we support one other. Traditional activism, or offline activism, has often relied on face-to-face networks to influence certain issues and causes. Protests, boycotts, political rallies, strikes, sit-ins, fundraising campaigns, and petitions, among many other forms of social, political, and environmental efforts are forms of traditional activism aimed at persuading others in favor or opposition to particular causes. In the era of networked communication, however, activism has evolved in significant ways: 
  1. Networked communication has made reaching new members and connecting with existing members much easier and more cost-effective;
  2. Online and mobile social movements eliminate the need for “copresence” in the same space and time; and
  3. Networked communication allows activists to respond remarkably quickly to tragedies, disasters, and other issues receiving the public’s attention. 

 Despite the benefits to increasing social awareness, however, one real question is whether or not these new forms of activism actually translate into significant social or political change. This paper will therefore look at some of the criticisms of digital activism. A potential downside of activism through web or mobile technology is that it does not always require a great deal of personal investment on the part of the activist. The term “slacktivism” is often used to describe slacker activism, or feel good measures often via mobile or online networks that require minimal effort on the part of the participant. When does this new model of activism work and when does it not? This paper will conclude by identifying some of the conditions that make activism via networked communication more effective.  

Whether an issue at hand is an oil pipeline in one’s home state or a revolution several thousand miles away, networked communication allows members from diverse and disparate backgrounds to act collectively to support or create pressure for social, political, economic, or environmental changes. Most obviously, online and mobile activism can be economically cheaper than traditional activism. Petitions, rallies, boycotts, marches, fundraising, donations, and protests, among other forms of activism are largely organized these days at least in some form via networked communication. Prior to the internet, email, and social media, organizing these collective actions required a great deal of investment in time, face-to-face communication, and resources. Petitions, for example, required volunteers or temporary workers to canvas communities to gain signatures to raise awareness for causes. In the era of networked communication, not only is petitioning far less expensive, but it is more effective at garnering “signatures”., for example, is a free website for creating and disseminating petitions. One entry, titled “Stop the dolphin and whale killings in Taiji”, is addressed to the Prime Minister of Japan. The petition currently has nearly 1,304,000 electronic signatures (Petition Online, 2013). is one such activist group that began as an online petition (in response to the ensuing impeachment of former President Clinton). MoveOn originated as a petition “that its founders sent to friends, who sent it to their friends, who forwarded in on again until the petition…gathered over a half a million signatures” (Earl and Kimport, 2011, p.73). All of this was accomplished with relatively low-cost participation and with an equally minimal investment of time required by its supporters. Castells (2004) called this advantage of networked communication “scalability” because it could expand, often organically, to accommodate countless new members. 

A second important change that has occurred in the shift from mass communication to networked communication is that it is no longer necessary to maintain copresence in the same space and time. Earl and Kimport (2011) created a distinction between “being together versus working together” (p.123). The authors argued that meaningful collective action can be taken online between individuals all over the world who share the same values or goals. Supporters of the micro-lending organization,, for example, can help to alleviate poverty by joining other lenders to fulfill small loans for entrepreneurs in the developing world who may otherwise not be able to acquire a loan through traditional means. Lenders are able to pool their resources together, often in small $25.00 increments, to complete loan requests which are then paid back over 12 to 18 months. To date, Kiva has attracted over 922,000 lenders and granted loans of nearly $425 million to borrowers in 67 countries (Kiva, 2013). Not only is the Kiva model not reliant on the exclusive copresence of members in the same space and time, but it is likely Kiva works largely because of the lack of copresence. A single Kiva loan of $1000 may be filled by 40 lenders, each of whom is in a different part of the world and lending for different reasons. It is difficult to imagine how such microloans could have been filled prior to networked communication where lenders can now micro-target where they want their loan money to go. This is in contrast to the Sally Struthers “Christian Children’s Fund” commercials of the 1980s, where supporters donated “about 70 cents a day” to a combined fund with no real say about where their donations went.
A third way the shift to networked communication has affected activism is the speed with which activists, supporters, and donors can mobilize or respond to issues and tragedies. When disaster strikes or a tragedy befalls individuals in one’s own country or abroad, charity can be offered almost instantly. In the wake of the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, for example, the Red Cross raised over $103 million in the following week. Remarkably, $22 million was collected via SMS text messages (New York Times, 2010). Donors were able to make small $5 or $10 contributions by simply submitting a code by text message to the Red Cross. Today, websites like Facebook, Twitter, or even act like efficient “phone trees” where members can rapidly disseminate information to one another.

Castells (2004) argued that because of the lack of centralization of networked communication, there is also a level of survivability and flexibility afforded activist causes. The countless nodes of networked communication mean that if one node is cut off, by an authoritarian state for example, information can find its way to the public forum via alternative nodes. Protests can be stoked by Twitter and mobilized quickly, and would-be censors can be circumnavigated.

Each of these three changes has significantly affected how individuals participate in social, environmental, political and economic causes. One question, however, is whether or not networked communication actually enables members to feel committed to a cause and to each other. A sense of “we-ness”, as Earl and Kimport (2011) argued, is needed for a social movement to root itself in a public’s consciousness. Malcolm Gladwell (2010) expanded on this idea of “we-ness” and posited that successful social movements must have strong tie-ins, meaning that effective activist networks need real-world bonds, not loose feel-good arrangements. In his New Yorker article Gladwell cited several seminal campaigns during the civil rights movement of the 1960s. In each, members and protesters faced strong, sometimes physically violent, opposition. Threats were made, demonstrators were often arrested or beaten, and churches were set ablaze. Maintaining group cohesion during such turbulence required that members felt invested in the causes they were advocating for, and more likely than not members had close friends who were also part of the movements. These strong tie-ins, according to Gladwell, are exactly what separate traditional activism from the newer activism involving social media. 

Due to the limited amount of time a participant is required to invest, some might argue that the networked activism of today is relatively risk-free and a poor substitute for traditional person-to-person activism. The examples listed above, PetitionOnline, Kiva, and the Red Cross, while generally effective at raising awareness (as well as money), do not require a significant investment of time. 

The term “slacktivism” has been coined to describe these acts of “doing good without having to do much at all” (Lublin, 2010, para. 3). Slacktivism includes “liking” a particular topic or issue on Facebook; changing one’s profile to a pink “=” to show support for gay rights; “re-tweeting” a meme on Twitter; wearing yellow rubber bracelets to support cancer research; or sharing a You Tube video that raises awareness of the atrocities of a warlord in Africa. 

The latter example refers to the Kony 2012 campaign, which gives credence to the arguments of those with more skeptical views of slacktivism. The campaign, which was essentially a well-produced 30 minute film created by a non-governmental organization called Invisible Children, Inc., was launched in order to bring awareness to the war crimes of the African militia group, the Lord’s Resistance Army, and to capture and arrest its leader, Joseph Kony, by the end of the year.
The video, which currently has nearly 100 million views on You Tube, was a social media phenomenon. Despite the awareness the video brought to the issue of child soldiers in Africa, the movement was built on a very flimsy foundation. Like other slacktivist efforts, the Kony 2012 campaign encouraged participants to perform only simple measures to support the cause, such as putting up posters, tweeting, and sharing the video through social media. Perhaps the main criticism of the campaign, however, is that very little change has been affected and that the movement diminished rapidly due to the lack of organizational ties within Africa. To date, Joseph Kony has yet to be arrested. 
The Kony 2012 campaign demonstrates the power of a story over the cause. Schlumpf (2012) identified that one such downside of movements with such weak commitment to the cause is their tendency to give supporters (who “like”, “tweet”, share videos, or put up posters) the impression that they have done their part. The Kony 2012 campaign lacked sustainability and actual on-site integration. The minimal effect that the campaign achieved seems to validate Gladwell’s (2010) criticism. When the news cycle moved on, the support for the movement faded as well.

A lack of commitment to a cause or investment in the outcome risks turning a cause into a fad, or more cynical yet, a clever marketing campaign, as many t-shirts, magnets, or wristbands reveal. Temporary awareness is much easier to create than long-term change. The PetitionOnline example mentioned earlier is an example of what Lublin (2010) called inch-deep activism. Yasuo Fukuda, the Prime Minister of Japan to which the “stop the whale killings in Taiji” letter was addressed, actually resigned his office in 2008. Despite this, signatures to the “Prime Minister” keep rolling in. One must ask, therefore, what the purpose of the petition is really for. Is it to maintain awareness of an environmental issue or to actually create change?

A similar argument might be made about the “Twitter Revolutions” that occurred in Moldova and Iran in 2009. In his 2010 New Yorker article, Gladwell presented a rather skeptical view of the effectiveness of activism via social media. These revolutions more resembled Western hype than actual revolutions. Regarding Moldova, he argued that very few Twitter accounts actually existed during the “revolution”, and in Iran most of the tweets were written in English. “Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi” (Gladwell, 2010, para. 5). While the digital divide might account for part of this, Gladwell makes a fairly convincing case that at least with regard to these two revolutions very little long-term social change actually occurred. 

Gleick (1999) might argue that slacktivism, or its other neologism “clicktivism” is simply an inevitable byproduct of people living “on internet time”. The speed of the internet and the connectivity of mobile communication create a high degree of efficiency, but it also leads to people feeling busier and overloaded with information. The pauses for reflection that were afforded individuals prior to networked communication seem much rarer in the crisis-oriented, perpetual “breaking news” cycle of the digital era. Slacktivism arises partly because clicking on a link or a “like” button is quite literally the least a person can do, or at least feel he or she has time for, and yet still maintain membership with others who support the particular cause. “It is the way of keeping in contact with someone, anyone, who will assure you that you are not alone” (Stein, as cited by Gleick, 1999, p.92). In a way, Slacktivism is a method of demonstrating that one’s opinion actually matters.

But does it matter? One of the primary criticisms of slacktivism is that it is heavy on attention-getting, but low on achieving outcomes. Is encouraging people to think differently about an issue via a meme on social media any different than signing a petition on a street corner? As the Kony 2012 campaign demonstrated, even ineffective movements can raise awareness of causes that would otherwise remain hidden from the public’s view. While it is difficult to measure hearts and minds, as McCafferty (2011) noted, it is possible to quantify clicks, site visits, and sentiment analysis to determine what is receiving the public’s attention. In such cases social media might indeed influence the national and international news agenda. For some, simply receiving the support of others, even if only online, is enough to make a difference in their lives. The It Gets Better project, for example, is an online platform for communicating with LGBT youth and to combat harassment and bullying.

The purpose of the project is essentially to support individuals who are feeling hopeless and to assure them that life does indeed get better. Like Kiva, It Gets Better works because it does not rely on copresence in the same physical space. It Gets Better is effective because it creates a safe environment where participants can seek support, which might not always be the case for LGBT youth in a traditional face-to-face environment.

Not surprising, digital activism is most effective when it makes use of existing networks. The Arab Spring, which is often heralded as a successful social media revolution, required old school methods in addition to networked communication. The revolutions in Egypt and Tunisia did not take place solely on mobile phone screens, but in the streets where butts were in seats and boots were on the ground. It required showing up in person and thus more resembled “old school organizing, with a digital edge” (Karpf, as cited by McCaffety, 2011, p.18). In this way, digital activism is not necessarily a substitute for traditional activism, but an extension of traditional activism. Tea Party Patriots, for example, uses its website to mobilize its existing real-world networks. The website, a platform for recruiting and connecting members of the political group and for promoting and fundraising for conservative and libertarian causes, is in fact remarkably simple to navigate. “JOIN NOW!” in huge block letters is the first thing a viewer sees upon visiting the site. Atop that are tabs listing how to donate money, information about joining an “accountability” project, and ways to join or create an existing Tea Party group. There are also ways to track down Tea Party rallies in one’s neck of the woods, a link to party literature (purchasable from and, if one is so inclined, the opportunity to buy, I'm not joking, a Tea Party Patriots coloring book.

Regardless of one’s political views, it is difficult to deny the effectiveness of the Tea Party Patriots website. Right away a visitor to the site can get involved in the organization and feel invested in the issues at his or her own level of commitment. The online site serves as a meeting place to raise awareness for Tea Party causes, and it connects members to one another both online and in-person.
While the Tea Party has by most accounts lost steam and popularity among the general population since it emerged as a full-grown national movement in 2010, the website still exists as an effective way of promoting party causes and for facilitating strong real-world tie-ins out of online networks where connections might otherwise be weaker. Despite the promotion from conservative mass media networks like Fox News, and political pundits like Sarah Palin, Sean Hannity, and Glen Beck, there is still an element of actual boots on the ground, localization, and grassroots organization of the Tea Party that makes it, politically at least, an effective activist movement.

In this respect, digital activism shares more similarities with traditional activism than it does with slacktivism. So what are some conditions that make slacktivism effective? This paper argues that slacktivism can be effective if 1. Individuals are invested in the outcomes; 2. There is an element of sustainability, trust, and credibility; and 3. It relies on the lack of copresence in the same space and time. Not surprising, the slacktivist efforts that tend to be effective are those that arise in response to stories receiving the public’s attention. During the triple earthquake/tsunami/nuclear disaster in Japan, the earthquake in Haiti, and the Hurricanes Sandy and Katrina, people all over the world texted monetary support and donated money to the Red Cross. In these cases, it can be argued that slacktivism was effective. Far from being the least someone can do, giving actual money can make a tangible difference to organizations in need of resources. Texting $10 to the Red Cross is quick, easy, and because the Red Cross has achieved a level of credibility, the charity is likely to go where it is intended.

Other forms of digital activism, like Kiva or the It Gets Better project, are successful not only because members are invested in the outcome, but because they would be largely ineffective without the tools of networked communication. Both organizations are generally trusted by their members who are often personally as well as often financially invested in the outcomes. is another such slacktivist site where supporters can literally click their way toward alleviating world hunger. Because the site is owned by the United Nations World Food Programme, there is a level of sustainability. Users are able to answer multiple-choice trivia questions where every correct answer results in 10 grains of rice being donated to the World Food Programme. The free rice is made possible by sponsors who advertise on the site and who donate on a per click basis. The website’s affiliation with the WFP bestows on it credibility, and because users are expected to answer questions correctly to achieve results, some level of personal investment in the outcome is required. Lastly, like Kiva and It Gets Better, it is difficult to imagine a Free Rice campaign being even remotely as effective via traditional offline means.

The shift from mass communication to networked communication has led to innovative ways of supporting one another. This paper has argued that digital activism is cheaper, easier, and faster than traditional activism, and it has also eliminated the need for copresence in the same space and time. Networked communication has also given rise to a newer form of activism that is extremely easy group forming and does not require a significant investment of time. Not all forms of slacktivism are the same, however, and it would be a mistake to require all digital efforts to achieve the same kinds of results. Those online and mobile efforts that make use of existing real-world networks might indeed be more effective than even traditional activism. If the purpose of activism is to affect social, political or environmental change for or against a particular cause, slacktivism in and of itself might not be what is effective. Perhaps what slacktivism is most effective at is bringing attention to causes that would otherwise remain hidden from the public’s view, and for this reason it is difficult to discredit. Clicks, tweets, and texts might not sound very loud individually, but when they get amplified by networked communication they can at least affect the conversation.

Castells, M. (2004). The Network Society: A Cross-Cultural Perspective. Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar Publishing, 2004.
Earl, J., Kimport, K. (2011). Digitally enabled social change. Activism in the internet age. MIT Press: Cambridge, MA.
Gladwell, M. (2010). Small Change: Why the Revolution will not be Tweeted. October 4, 2010. Retrieved from
Gleick,J. (1999). Faster: The Acceleration of Just About Everything. New York: Random House
Lublin, N. (2010). Slacktivism: Helping Humanity with the Click of a Mouse. Retrieved from
McCafferty, D. (2011). Activism vs. Slacktivism. In Communications of the ACM, Volume 54, Issue 12, (pp.17-19). ACM: New York.
Schlumpf, H. (2012). Making the World a Better Place from the Couch. In National Catholic Reporter. Retrieved from

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