By John Ballard
The neologism has been around for a couple of years but I'm old and can be excused for not being cool enough to have found out.
Slactivism is a contraction of slacking and activism.
Everybody knows what activism is. And slacking is another term for not putting your best effort at doing something. According to Wikipedia the term slacktivism has been around for a decade, so I'm embarrasingly late to the party.
The concept has taken on new life this week with the KONY 2012 viral video that I mentioned in the reading list earlier. More about that in a moment. Meantime, here from November 2010 are Ten Signs You Might be a Slactivist...
- If you wear awareness bracelets
- If you join a Facebook group for a cause
- If you wear colored t-shirts to support different causes
- If you put a ribbon magnet on your vehicle to support a cause
- If you sign Internet petitions
- If you participate in short-term boycotts
- If you post YouTube videos of yourself discussing issues
- If you change your avatar or update your Facebook statuses for a cause
- If you simply "like" something on Facebook
- If you go to a booksigning
Three years ago FP Magazine wrote about slactivism but I missed it.
"Slacktivism" is the ideal type of activism for a lazy generation: why bother with sit-ins and the risk of arrest, police brutality, or torture if one can be as loud campaigning in the virtual space? Given the media's fixation on all things digital -- from blogging to social networking to Twitter -- every click of your mouse is almost guaranteed to receive immediate media attention, as long as it's geared towards the noble causes. That media attention doesn't always translate into campaign effectiveness is only of secondary importance.
The adherents of "slacktivism" usually point a well-known narrative to justify what they are doing: while it's true that 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. It's easy to dismiss most criticism of "slacktivism" as simply unproductive: after all, having thousands of people -- most of them previously not involved in any activist campaigns at all -- suddenly start practicing the kind of click-based "nano-activism" available via Facebook and Twitter could be extremely useful, if only for specific campaigns that would, indeed, benefit from increased public attention.
The article raised a few prescient questions but the idea was waiting for something bigger (or faster or more viral) to get it into the spotlight.
Now back to KONY 2012, the video that has at once brought a horrible situation to the attention of many people who didn't know about it before while rubbing wrong the fur of others who really do know more about the issue and are dedicated in a serious, and in some cases life-threatening way, to ameliorate the problem.
A serious public discussion secondary to Joseph Kony and the LRA is taking form. The conversation seems just to be starting, but it promises to become more than rhetoric. When people like Senator James Inhofe (R-OK) starts talking about the situation with the Daily Caller we can be sure the story "has legs" and is apt to run further and faster than the usual partisan subjects. Of course this is red meat for war hawks, but still...
Up to now a large majority of the population, despite years of hard work on the part of card-carrying ACTivists, remains ignorant or indifferent to the atrocities of the Lords Resistance Army.
(In my case, being an old Liberal, I have been aware of stuff like this for years. I saw a little of Blood Diamond on TV and had to stop watching and do something else because I already knew the horrors depicted there and couldn't stand seeing even a movie depiction. I'm sure Leonoardo De Caprio did a great acting job but as in the case of many movies the reality is far too ugly, even with today's nothing held back standards, for a motion picture.)
So here is #Kony2012 and Understanding Networked Symbolic Action (hint: �Slacktivism� is Conceptually Misleading), a thoughtful and intelligent second look at slactivism by Zeynep Tufekci offering something more than a slick dismissal. This is the last part but the reader is urged to go read the whole essay.
ZEYNEP TUFEKCI Exploring the interactions between technology and society. I'm an assistant professor at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill. I'm also a fellow at Harvard Berkman Center for Internet and Society. My (previous) university web page can be found here
My argument is this: the concept of slacktivism is not just na� and condescending, it is misinformed and misleading. What is called commonly called slacktivism is not at all about �slacking activists�; rather it is about non-activists taking symbolic action�often in spheres traditionally engaged only by activists or professionals (governments, NGOs, international institutions.). Since these so-called �slacktivists� were never activists to begin with, they are not in dereliction of their activist duties. On the contrary, they are acting, symbolically and in a small way, in a sphere that has traditionally been closed off to �the masses� in any meaningful fashion.
In other words, slacktivism should be seen as the encroachment of politics and civics into people�s everyday worlds which tend to be dominated by mundane concerns of day-to-day existence�or dominated by the consumerism transmitted through traditional media. It�s also a step in the unraveling of the professionalization of human rights and cause advocacy. [Credit: parts of this argument were developed in discussion with Alaa Abdal Fatah of Egypt and Sami Ben Gharbia of Tunisia].
~~~~ [nevertheless] ~~~~
The power of the symbolic action to shape particular narratives is exactly why so many people felt the need to pushback against #stopkony�the video was effectively and powerfully laying down a narrative for a particular kind of action.
Indeed, go back in history, and you see these normative shifts, brought about by words and symbolic action, before or along with major social changes. History is full of such examples. Harriet Beecher Stowe�s anti-slavery novel �Uncle Tom�s Cabin.� Anna Sewell�s animal rights story �Black Beauty.� Or take a modern variation, like the clever video, �The Meatrix.� These are examples of symbolic action which helps structure narratives within which further human action occurs.
And social media streams are a new and important dynamic in how those narratives are formed�and, importantly, who gets to have a say. I usually do not like to proclaim new developments as �good� or �bad��they are often a complex interaction of both. However, contrast the swift pushback against the simplistic and dangerous narrative of #stopkony with the lead up to the Iraq War of 2003. It was clear to many people at the time that the narrative being built up in the rush to war in Iraq was erroneous, dangerous and in many ways, irresponsible. However, opposition voices �while loud, organized and including many �were drowned out by the gatekeepers�big media, Sunday talk shows, political powers�
In contrast the swift backlash against Kony2012 was loud, organized and, most importantly, also able to command attention. In just one day, I saw more human-rights experts and African and Ugandan voices on mainstream media than I do in a month or three. My social media stream was flooded by critical and in-depth discussion about the topic, often from Ugandans or topic experts. This is a key way in which Kony2012 differs from, say, �We are the World� campaign in the eighties in which Africans never got to be anything beyond silent victims. People can now talk back a lot more effectively. Indeed, the spread of Kony2012 is likely going to be remembered as one of the early examples how emergent networked global publics can connect amongst each other and focus their �and everyone else�s�attention in a manner that would have hard to imagine just ten years ago.
It also appears to me that this was, at least at first, spread most strongly by teenagers and young adults, at least at first. I obviously don�t have hard numbers at the moment �and hope we will at some point�but anyone with any experience in activism, organizing and social movements can immediately recognize that most lifelong dedicated activists have a �gateway� moment, often in their teens. It would not be surprising if the intensity of the attention to this video �as well as the intensity of the backlash�did not become just such a moment for many future leaders. The kids are listening, maybe to a simplistic message, maybe to a misguided cause. But some portion of them will keep looking, listening and learning. Such moments have long-terms consequences.
There is much more to analyze in this event in terms of content, politics of the message, the increasingly complicated interaction between our global institutions �such as the International Criminal Court�and increasingly networked global public. But here�s one thing. This is not unimportant. This isn�t about activists who are slacking. It�s symbolic action in a networked world, a complex and important topic for anyone interested in social change.
Obliquely related but in the same vein, I note with smug satisfaction that in the wake of Rush Limbaugh's Don Imus moment a veritable avalanche of advertisers seem to have had it with that kind of ugliness. I don't know if this is the result of activism, slactivism or plain old disgust, but whatever it is gives me satisfaction.
From today�s TRI Newsletter: Premiere Networks is circulating a list of 98 advertisers who want to avoid �environments likely to stir negative sentiments.� The list includes carmakers (Ford, GM, Toyota), insurance companies (Allstate, Geico, Prudential, State Farm) and restaurants (McDonald�s, Subway). As you�ll see in the note below, those �environments� go beyond the Rush Limbaugh show �
�To all Traffic Managers: The information below applies to your Premiere Radio Networks commercial inventory. More than 350 different advertisers sponsor the programs and services provided to your station on a barter basis. Like advertisers that purchase commercials on your radio station from your sales staff, our sponsors communicate specific rotations, daypart preferences and advertising environments they prefer� They�ve specifically asked that you schedule their commercials in dayparts or programs free of content that you know are deemed to be offensive or controversial (for example, Mark Levin, Rush Limbaugh, Tom Leykis, Michael Savage, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity). Those are defined as environments likely to stir negative sentiment from a very small percentage of the listening public.�