Monday, August 17, 2009

A Defense of Slacktivism (Not Really)

I linked an article critical of slacktivism by Evgeny Morozov in Foreign Policy to a blog post I did on actions being taken on behalf of Aung San Suu Kyi Support getting thanks but not results. Despite having admitted to being a slacktivist, I wanted to look closer at those parts of the article I agreed with which are critiques of my actions and the actions of the vast majority of us.

Morozov provides the standard definition of "Slacktivism" as, “an apt term to describe feel-good online activism that has zero political or social impact.

It gives those who participate in "slacktivist" campaigns an illusion of having a meaningful impact on the world without demanding anything more than joining a Facebook group. Remember that online petition that you signed and forwarded to your entire contacts list? That was probably an act of slacktivism

Admittedly this is true for me. A good number of worthwhile online petitions come by email, on which I quite honestly don’t want to spend an inordinate amount of time. I would rather spend that time on causes that I have chosen to put more time - the Millennium Development Goals. So I click and move on.

The main point is “that media attention doesn't always translate into campaign effectiveness” was made by my blog post Aung San Suu Kyi Support getting thanks but not results. The web can be a catalyst, but it can not make a difference in the "real" world on its own.

He offers his own argument for slacktivism as a Straw man through the "long tail" argument.

...the dramatic fall in transaction costs of organizing activist campaigns has simply opened up the field to many more participants and issues, there has been no drop in the actual quality and effectiveness of these campaigns.

I also wonder if "nano-activism" for specific campaigns easily thrown up on the web and send to thousands of people, most previously not involved in activist campaigns, benefit from the increased public attention. There has to be more to these campaigns then how the website is designed.

Morozov goes on to write about "activism for a lazy generation”. Again I cannot argue with this on its face. I don't believe that Morozov means the protestors in Iran using both demonstrations for which many meant arrest, beatings or death and Web 2.0 tools like Twitter, but for campaigns such as the United Nations Millennium Development Goals there will be a point where they need to reach the mainstream masses of the developed countries. The Millennium Development Goals as far as I can determine are not mainstream in the United States.

Morozov challenges the basic slacktivist narrative by asking the question:

are the publicity gains gained through this greater reliance on new media worth the organizational losses that traditional activists entities are likely to suffer, as ordinary people would begin to turn away from conventional (and proven) forms of activism (demonstrations, sit-ins, confrontation with police, strategic litigation, etc) and embrace more "slacktivist" forms, which may be more secure but whose effectiveness is still largely unproven?

The answer to whether the utility of the very public work of 1000 "slacktivists" equals that of the very quiet and often unattributed work of one traditional activist is that it simple does not.

However, this seems to me to be a very unpersuasive argument. How often has demonstrations, sit-ins, confrontation with police, strategic litigation, etc worked without either a democratic system of change through voting or a sufficiently large militia to bring about the change? Vietnam did not end because the demonstrators convinced the government, but because they finally convinced the voters who changed the government. The demonstrators forced open the discussion, main stream then took it up, perhaps with false turns and setbacks but they made the final decision.

The real issue here is whether the mere availability of the "slacktivist" option is likely to push those who in the past might have confronted the regime in person with demonstrations, leaflets, and labor organizing to embrace the Facebook option and join a gazillion online issue groups instead.

However, I disagree with the idea that ordinary people, of which I am a fairly good example, would be out demonstrating and confronting police if not for the Internet. Today, I worry about family, mortgages and my job while trying to participate when I can through online activism and voting. The young have far less problem doing both online and on-street activism.

If this is the case, then the much-touted tools of digital liberation are only driving us further away from the goal of democratization and building global civil society.

The argument fails from my perspective. This blog and Milestones for a New Millennium have found too many resources and too many connections beyond Facebook to give any credence to this argument. Still in the end, Evgeny Morozov makes a number of points we need to think about, and each of us needs to re-examine what they are doing to determine for themselves if they can do more to make a difference and still live their own lives.

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