Blog 4: How activism can become ‘slacktivism’ on Social Media

I need to do more to help homelessness than just share this post…

In this series of blog posts I have been considering what are the keys to building my profile and influence, both as a public servant and to retain my potential future as a freelance consultant.

So far I have considered the need to build an authentic on-line presence for myself, considered the power of social capital to build my influence and the value of harnessing cognitive surplus to achieve more with my time. Now I want to influence more strongly through the power of activism.

The spread of activism was being held back for decades because of a phenomenon called transactional complexity. Put simply, it becomes harder and harder to organise larger and larger groups of people, and in the end it is larger groups that can have more influence within society.

This can be well illustrated through the example of friends organising a trip to the cinema. Two friends can very easily decide when they are going and which film they would like to see. But make that ten friends and the complexity grows exponentially. It becomes incredibly hard to even agree a date and time to go, let alone agree on which film to actually watch! (Shirky, 2008:27)

The result of this transactional friction has been that government or big organisations get left to lead significant societal changes. They have management structures and considerable resources that can provide a level of mass organisation and communication. This has been based on the ‘universal and unspoken proposition that people simply couldn’t self-assemble’, it meant that traditionally ‘the alternative to institutional action was usually no action’ (Shirky 2008:47).

 

But then technology and tools began to transform, the photo storing and sharing platform Flickr was a very good early example. Within hours of the 2004 Tsunami disaster across Asia photos were appearing on-line. Flickr was able to act as a marshalling yard, enabling the tagging and organising of a vast number of photos from many contributors.

 

The resources required for Flickr or anyone to organise thousands of photographers using human management alone would have been impossibly vast. But by providing tools on their platform Flickr enabled self-assembly and self-organising. The result was that all these images became available for reuse, ‘creating a symbiotic relationship among various social tools’, photographers and journalists (Shirky 2008:35-36).

The collapse of transaction costs meant people could now get together in groups, of all shapes and sizes and purposes. Shirky observed that these groups are able to participate in a ‘ladder of activity’ the rungs of which represent in order of difficulty, ‘sharing, cooperation and collective action’ (Shirky 2008:49).

The first of these, sharing, requires a very minimum level of participation within the group. It could be as easy as sharing a link amongst friends. Christian Fuchs argues the danger of this level of ‘activism’, as being little more than ‘clicktivism and slacktivism’, something that ‘soothes the conscience of concerned middle class people who do not want to take risks’ (Fuchs 2014:5).

Evgeny Morozov picks up the idea, by observing that with ‘pointing, clicking, uploading, liking and befriending on Facebook, the participant has a ‘feel good’ sense of online activism yet the result is zero political or social impact. (Morozov 2010) . An example is a group of 1.2m people raising money for their shared good cause. After five years of concerted ‘action’ they only raised $12,500! The use of ‘clicktivism’ absolved their consciences but nothing really changed in the real-world.

The next level of activism is cooperation, this has more value as it requires some synchronisation of effort between members of a group. There will be some tangible evidence of results.

The final and biggest step is collective action. This requires cooperation and agreement between many people. It is at this level that true activism begins to happen and actions make a real-world difference.

The power of activism and collective action is ever growing, as long as we can get over the feeling that clicking a like is activism and means we think we have truly participated and are doing something good and useful.

I can see how engaging with some specific activism would be good for me, my profile and my influence. But the lesson to learn here is to be self critical about what I am actually doing. A few hours browsing social media and sharing links is not going to count for anything.

So far this blog series has helped me understand the need to find my own authentic voice, build my social capital, harness my cognitive surplus and identify specific avenues to develop my own activism. The 5th blog completes my planned reinvention, helping me frame all that I do within a context of truth and clarity.

 

Bibliography

Shirky, Clay (2008), ‘Here Comes Everybody’, London, Penguin Books, page 27

Fuchs, Christian (2014), Social Media: A critical Introduction, Sage publications Ltd, London

Morozov, Evgeny (2010), ‘The Net Delusion: How not to liberate the world’, London, Allen lane

 

 

 

 

 

 

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