Category Archives: here comes everybody

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).

Why the revolution won’t be tweeted

Twitter Revolution - Flickr Photo by FrauleinSchiller

Malcolm Gladwell has an interesting column in the October 4, 2010 New Yorker called “Small Change.”

Gladwell asserts that claims of Twitter’s role in various uprisings in developing countries (like Moldova or Iran) have been exaggerated.  He cited Evgeny Morozov, a Stanford-based scholar who notes that “Twitter had scant internal significance in Moldova, a country where very few Twitter accounts exist.” And he cites Anne Applebaum who suggested in the Washington Post that the protest “may well have been a bit of stage-craft cooked up by the government.”  Golnaz Esfandiari in Foreign Policy wrote in Summer 2010 about Iran: “It is time to get Twitter’s role in the events of Iran right…Simply put: There was no Twitter Revolution inside Iran.”

What’s more interesting about the article is Gladwell’s dissection of various events during the Civil Rights (The sit-in at the Woolworth’s lunch counter in February, 1960, the Montgomery Bus Boycott, the Freedom Summer Campaigns).

Gladwell notes that social change and protest requires huge sacrifice and understandably one only engages in such sacrifice for one’s close friends (strong ties).

What makes people capable of this kind of activism? The Stanford sociologist Doug McAdam compared the Freedom Summer dropouts with the participants who stayed, and discovered that the key difference wasn’t, as might be expected, ideological fervor. “All of the applicants—participants and withdrawals alike—emerge as highly committed, articulate supporters of the goals and values of the summer program,” he concluded. What mattered more was an applicant’s degree of personal connection to the civil-rights movement. All the volunteers were required to provide a list of personal contacts—the people they wanted kept apprised of their activities—and participants were far more likely than dropouts to have close friends who were also going to Mississippi. High-risk activism, McAdam concluded, is a “strong-tie” phenomenon.

This pattern shows up again and again. One study of the Red Brigades, the Italian terrorist group of the nineteen-seventies, found that seventy per cent of recruits had at least one good friend already in the organization. The same is true of the men who joined the mujahideen in Afghanistan. Even revolutionary actions that look spontaneous, like the demonstrations in East Germany that led to the fall of the Berlin Wall, are, at core, strong-tie phenomena. The opposition movement in East Germany consisted of several hundred groups, each with roughly a dozen members. Each group was in limited contact with the others: at the time, only thirteen per cent of East Germans even had a phone. All they knew was that on Monday nights, outside St. Nicholas Church in downtown Leipzig, people gathered to voice their anger at the state. And the primary determinant of who showed up was “critical friends”—the more friends you had who were critical of the regime the more likely you were to join the protest.

So one crucial fact about the four freshmen at the Greensboro lunch counter—David Richmond, Franklin McCain, Ezell Blair, and Joseph McNeil—was their relationship with one another. McNeil was a roommate of Blair’s in A. & T.’s Scott Hall dormitory. Richmond roomed with McCain one floor up, and Blair, Richmond, and McCain had all gone to Dudley High School. The four would smuggle beer into the dorm and talk late into the night in Blair and McNeil’s room. They would all have remembered the murder of Emmett Till in 1955, the Montgomery bus boycott that same year, and the showdown in Little Rock in 1957. It was McNeil who brought up the idea of a sit-in at Woolworth’s. They’d discussed it for nearly a month. Then McNeil came into the dorm room and asked the others if they were ready. There was a pause, and McCain said, in a way that works only with people who talk late into the night with one another, “Are you guys chicken or not?” Ezell Blair worked up the courage the next day to ask for a cup of coffee because he was flanked by his roommate and two good friends from high school.

Twitter’s strength is in weak ties (which as Mark Granovetter showed are good for things like job search, and as Clay Shirky observes in Here Comes Everybody, the Internet can be great for engaging thousands of friends to track down one’s stolen Sidekick phone).  Gladwell also cites The Dragonfly Effect to show how these week internet ties can be great for finding a bone-marrow transplant.  But are these weak Internet ties useful in recruiting compatriots for the revolution: are we willing to be put in jail and protest just because we got a tweet?

Gladwell concludes:

Shirky ends the story of the lost Sidekick by asking, portentously, “What happens next?”—no doubt imagining future waves of digital protesters. But he has already answered the question. What happens next is more of the same. A networked, weak-tie world is good at things like helping Wall Streeters get phones back from teen-age girls. Viva la revolución.

Gladwell’s conclusions generally resonate with our research on social capital.  We’ve speculated before about whether Facebook, for example, cheapens the currency of friendship, and whether you’ll bring chicken soup to your Facebook friends to say nothing of joining Justin Timberlake’s revolution just because you are following his tweets.

Where I may disagree with Gladwell is whether Twitter can’t have value in changing the calculus of getting involved.  Undoubtedly, you are typically recruited through strong friendships but whether to participate is a mix of loyalty to one’s friends, loyalty to the cause, and some sense of the chances of success.  Imagine that these potential recruits are arrayed in their willingness to take risks, from those most willing to take a risk to those least:  think of the bigger risk takers as being further out on a tree limb.  But how far out one thinks one is out on this limb is not dictated by God but by one’s perception of where others are.  This is so because the risks of taking action (protesting) vary inversely to the number of people involved.  If one or two people break the law, the government will imprison them.  If a million people are breaking the law, the government lacks the power and resources to prosecute and imprison them and will have to give up. We often have imperfect information about the size of the movement.  Seeing massive protest crowds (from prior demonstrations or a current one) can change the calculus but I think tweets might too. Tweets might provide would-be protesters with more information about whether government is able to respond, how they are responding, where else people are protesting, how many are protesting, etc.  And all this information can induce would-be fence sitters to get off the fence and protest.  But I agree that they are most likely to be recruited through trusted compatriots.

Read Malcolm Gladwell’s “Small Change” article.  [Gladwell in the article also focuses on how some protests require a hierarchy, like the Montgomery Bus Boycott, and how the Internet does not make it easier to organize such a hierarchy.]

Trivial technologies (Twitter, Flash Mobs) have power in non-democratic countries

[Updated 4/7/09 to reflect latest use of Twitter in Moldovan protests.]

Clay Shirky, author of the interesting read, Here Comes Everybody, has commented on how technologies that seemed trivial and pointless have shown their mettle outside the U.S.

Flash mobs: As Shirky says everyone remembers flash mobs. The technology that made it possible to almost instantaneously and without a clear organization, assemble a pillow fight in downtown Toronto, or enable a mob to all meet in New York’s Central Park, and make pigeon noises for a few minutes. A wonderful recent cool, but pointless example, was 100s of New Yorkers freezing simultaneously in Grand Central Station for a minute.

The anonymous New York founder “Bill”, aimed to critique hipster culture and art happenings.

I published a piece on the meaningless of this trend (“Flash-in -the-pan Mobs?“, 2003). But then in 2006, a developer created a page on Live Journal in Belarus. He proposed a flash mob of citizens convening in the central square and simultaneously eating ice cream. The government’s rules prohibited group public actions (although no doubt the law’s inventors weren’t thinking about ice cream eating). The protesters brought their cameras and filmed black clad security forces apprehending them in October Square. The mission didn’t bring down the government since the protesters overestimated how enraged citizens outside Belarus would at this action, but they did make the government look foolish.

Twitter: another seemingly mindless technology being put to social use. Twitter users send ‘tweets’ (short descriptions, up to 140 characters, of what they are doing at the moment). ‘Having a little trail mix’, ‘On my way to the daily grind’, etc. As the Toronto Star describes Twitter: “In Akron last week, JuggleNuts coded 250 death certificates in a single day. “A new record,” he said. In Bakersfield, jcjdoss “(j)ust bit into a rotten apple… almost barfed.” Seconds later and half a world away, sauj in Auckland, New Zealand, shared a moment that was, he said, “Beautiful: the early morning train, witnessing the gentle pink blushes or the sun reflected on the wind-caressed waves of the Orakei basin.

“Random musings, mundane updates, boredom-fueled brain farts, the rare poetic outburst – all constant fare on Twitter, the online social-networking (think: Facebook) world’s fascination of the moment.

“Until very recently, Twitter could have been regarded as little more than that: an always-on inanity machine, indulging spontaneous tedium. In the past two months, though, those narrow parameters have broadened considerably.”

Then Egypt and China found twitter. An American journalism grade, James Karl Buck, arrested in April in Egypt, send a ‘tweet’ through his cellphone that said simply ‘Arrested.’ Buck’s tweet, after being taken in by policy following an anti-government protest, rallied family, friends and even the U.S. government and led to his ultimate release.

On April 6, 2009, 10,000 protesters used Twitter to mobilize out of thin air to protest the communist government, in a protest that began peaceably and turned violent. Protesters created their own searchable Twitter tag so other would-be protesters could learn of the impending protest.

Last month, the Chinese 7.9-magnitude earthquake in Chengdu offered Twitter another chance to shine as a meaningful technology. The Toronto Star notes that “Twitter users offered the first on-scene accounts. “Slight ly dizzy after being shaken around by the Chengdu earthquake for several hours now,” tweeted one user, Casperodj.

“Suddenly, Twitter’s triviality was no longer its most notable feature. ‘I saw three people in Chengdou giving reports on the ground long before traditional media could even get close,’ said Fons Tuinstra, a media consultant in Shanghai and a fellow at the U.S. media nonprofit organization the Poynter Institute. ‘On that first day, it was a very important tool – a great example of how it could work.’

“A year ago, it was a weird little toy,” says Jason Pontin, editor-in-chief of Technology Review, a publication owned by M.I.T. “Now, its potential seems significantly greater than that.

“How much greater? That’s open for debate. (‘One of the reasons it’s not fully mature yet is that it keeps breaking,’ says Pontin, a nod to the service’s iffy architecture).

“But slow down a moment. The weird little toy is still very much at play, and with tweets like this one, from femmedelacreme, still being the norm, overblown idealism is kept well in check: ‘I am really craving shavings of parmesan cheese. Plain. Such oddness.’ ”

Twitter users have doubled in only 18 months from just over 600,000 to more than 1.2 million. The creators (much like Flash Mobs) did not build it with social purpose in mind, although the Toronto Star notes that Twitter offers to turn the world into 24-hour a day micro-blogging.

And some claim that with Twitter’s rise in popularity, comes the increased corporatization of the site (a la Friendster, Facebook or Second Life) that ultimately portends its demise as an innovative social approach.