Sunday, March 25, 2012

Slactivism comment

This posting may be out of synch with our class discussions but I came across this blog today and it offers comment on slacktivism – the accusation that social media really does not effect change because it is easy for people to sit behind computers and click “like” without making any real commitment.  It is part of the criticism that Malcolm Gladwell made in his commentary in the New Yorker when he compared this to courageous activists who bravely fought for racial equality in the deep south during the 1960s .  This was one of the references in Linda Komori’s posting, Cute Cats and the Arab Spring. 

I like Gladwell’s writings but I couldn’t help but think he may have missed an important point on this one. While we will never know for sure, I wonder if a quiet majority of people had had access to the Internet and used it to tell elected officials that they wanted change, what impact it may have had. I’m not suggesting it would have or could have replaced the hard sacrifices people made in that important movement.  I don’t think change would have happened without the actions of people like Ezell Blair and his supporters from North Carolina A.&T.  And while their actions spread quickly, social media might have provided another powerful message behind those actions.   No doubt mainstream media hampered the delivery of messages of those who were protesting for change – social media would have provided a channel that those in control could not have stopped.

It is said that the only thing needed for evil to triumph is for good men to stand by and do nothing. Perhaps those likes and links on social media are a way for good men to do something – if it is not within their abilities to take any other form of action.    

The toppling of corrupt regimes as we have witnessed this past year didn’t happen just because of social media, but social media did play a role.


  1. Kim, thanks for the thought provoking post.

    I think the idea of slacktivism is one worth examining further and definitely fits into our discussions on participatory culture and collaborative action. While I would agree that a large mass of slacktivism has some redeeming value, I am worried about the risk of too many people exercising their citizenship through online participation without following up with active engagement.

    For instance, there was a white supremacist rally in Edmonton this weekend, where the group was considerably outnumbered by anti-racist counter protestors. The effectiveness of the counter protest was such that the white supremacists were forced to flee. Meanwhile, a number of people (myself included) sat at home and commented on the events using social media. There is a legitimate trap of complacency that exists if we feel that we are exercising our voice by clicking ‘like’ on the facebook page of “Anti-Racist Rally Edmonton” or “Racism Free Edmonton.” It is possible that everyone can feel happy knowing that they are combating racism from home, which would have problematic results if no one showed up to the counter protest.

    This all puts an interesting twist on Clay Shirky’s notion of the Coasian floor. Shirky says there are a large number of activities that have such low value (when compared to their transactional cost) that makes it impossible for traditional organizations to engage in. The advent of social media tools brings down the transactional costs for individuals enough that it allows people to engage in these activities without the need for traditional organizations. This allowed the counter protest group to organize online – a good thing. But, could the transactional cost become so low that the value of the activity itself is reduced to nil. I think the possibility is there.

    1. Jonathon - thanks for your thoughtful response.

      I did see that incident in Edmonton on the news. When I see things like that and now following the story in Florida about Trayvon, I realize I do sit in a primarily white cocoon where I can believe those kinds of activities belong in the past.

      I would agree that there could be a danger that everyone would choose to sit at home and just protest from their couch and that it took real people in real time to turn back the white supremacist rally in Edmonton,for instance.

      If human nature remains the same, then I think (hope?) there will always be people who want to get directly involved while a silent majority sits by. If social media gives that silent majority a way to add voice, then that is good.

      I guess only time will tell whether it decreases the number of people who go out on the street to protest.

  2. Is it really necessary for people to expend a certain amount of effort or be in danger in order to make their needs, wants and positions known? Since the advent of the internet and social media, the game has changed. A greater, more encompassing form of democracy is possible, where citizens are not reliant on a representative (elected or not) to voice their position. This is a great thing.