Category Archives: MoveOn

Can slacktivism work?

Flickr photo by CodeMartial

I was quoted last month in a Philadelphia Inquirer piece on “slacktivism”.

“The easier it is to show support for the cause, the more easily [the action] is dismissed,” says Harvard University’s Tom Sander, who studies civic engagement as executive director of the Saguaro Seminar at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government.

When Sander worked in Washington for Democratic Massachusetts Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, it was common lore among legislative staffers that e-petitions “signed” online were not taken as seriously as ones that bore actual signatures. The same was true for letters in which writers cut and pasted their messages from a master copy on the Internet, he says.

Obviously the label “slacktivism” already has the conclusion embedded within: i.e., that slacktivism is lazy activism that implicitly can’t work.  I noted, which Davis did not quote me on, that social change typically is fighting against  self-interests that are deeply vested for a reason — those individuals are benefiting strongly financially from the status quo, they care passionately about the status quo, etc.  It’s hard to fathom that anything as important as civil rights or women’s suffrage could have been obtained by Americans’ signaling on their Facebook face that they liked civil rights or liked the idea of women voting.  I noted that typically social change, as Weber noted, requires “a strong and slow boring of hard boards.”

I think the interesting question is when can change occur without serious effort and how can technology be used in that process.  There are examples, like the Jody Williams’ initial work on the International Land Mine Ban, or Kate Hanni’s electronic organizing for the Airline Passengers’ Bill of Rights, that were organized without large-scale public marches or rallies (things that typically signify just how importantly people care about an issue because it takes a lot of people’s time and expense to come, say to Washington, to rally).  I think the electronic phase of a movement may be helpful in identifying at some level how widespread support is for an issue and help leaders who are willing to devote serious time to lobbying Congress or organizing a boycott, whether “there is a there there.” But in the case of the land mine or the passengers’ bill of rights, it still took tireless advocacy on the part of Jody Williams or Kate Hanni, although internet organizing was a useful tool in informing their followers and rallying them.

Certainly groups like MoveOn and more recent political campaigns are also testament that the internet is a ripe source for raising money that may be critical to sustaining an organized campaign.  [While I certainly differ from what I see as Clay Shirky's over-optimistic tone in Here Comes Everybody, the book is instructive in helping us to rethink ways in which technology might enable new forms of civic engagement and new forms of protest.]

In any event,  I don’t want to be categorized in the group that believes that internet activism can’t play an important role (for sure it has and will), but I think the danger is to think that cheap action (e.g., putting a cartoon character on your Facebook page to show opposition to animal cruelty) is sufficient in and of itself to bring about meaningful change.

As I noted to Carolyn Davis, it’s a similar danger to corporate volunteer days where individuals may feel at the end of the day that they’ve satisfied their yearly dose of volunteering rather than spurring them to deepen their civic and social engagement during the rest of the year.

I welcome your thoughts.

See “Slacktivism emerges as questionable online way to support causes” (Philadelphia Inquirer, Dec. 27, 2010, Carolyn Davis).