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Slacktivism as optical illusion

Oxford Dictionaries included slacktivism on its Word of the Year 2014 shortlist, so we invited several experts to comment on this Internet activism phenomenon.

Slacktivism is a portmanteau, bridging slacker and activism. It is usually not intended as a compliment.

The term is born out of frustration with the current state of public discourse: signing an e-petition, retweeting a message, or “liking” something on Facebook seems too easy. When people engage in these simple digital acts around social causes, we wonder: are they fooling themselves into believing they can make a difference? What can these clicks actually accomplish? Do they degrade “real” social activism, or make citizens less likely to take more substantial steps?

But if we examine these digital acts a little more closely, it turns out that slacktivism is a bit of an optical illusion. Simple digital acts of participation can be wispy or powerful. They can be a dead end for social engagement, or Act 1 in a grand narrative of social mobilization. It all depends on the context and the intended purpose of these digital actions, and on how committed, organized groups of citizens make use of them.

Three features are particularly important when deciding whether an act of online participation should be dismissed as “just slacktivism.”

First is what Andrew Chadwick (2013) calls “the hybrid media system.” One major goal of most citizen activism is to attract media attention. Mainstream media still help to set the agenda for the national conversation – whether CNN and USA Today are covering Ebola or the national debt helps to magnify attention to each of those issues. In the pre-digital era, activist groups would stage rallies and send press releases to attract the attention of the media. Today, journalists and their editors often turn to digital media in order to pick out potential stories worth covering. So online petitions, likes, and hashtags can be more than just slacktivism if they are strategically used to attract media attention.

Second is the target of the digital action. All activist tactics – digital or offline – should be viewed within their strategic context. Who is being targeted, and why would the target listen? Marshall Ganz (2010) writes that “Strategy is how we turn what we have into what we need to get what we want.” Digital petitions, by this logic, can be tremendously effective or a complete waste of time. A petition to “stop animal cruelty,” aimed at no one in particular, is guaranteed to make no difference. But a recent wave of online petitions aimed at Boy Scout Troops resulted in the Boy Scouts of America officially changing its position and allowing openly gay youths to participate in the organization. Likewise, when online “slackers” submit millions of online comments to the FCC in support of net neutrality, those comments carry the force of demonstrated public opinion. When online citizens tweet or post their displeasure at corporations, reputation-conscious companies have been known to change their policies and practices.

Third, is the organizational context. Some simple acts of digital engagement can indeed leave people less likely to engage in larger-scale activism. In particular, researchers have found that initial acts of token support can relieve psychological pressure that would otherwise push an individual to engage more deeply. But these same acts can also operate as the first step in a “ladder of engagement.” You start by retweeting a news article, and then signing a petition. In the process, you are added to the member rolls of a “netroots” advocacy organization. And that organization then reaches out to you, inviting you to a street protest or a local meeting about the issue. As Hahrie Han (2014) demonstrates, organizations develop activists by building relationships with them over time. These initial acts of “slacktivism” can vanish into nothing, or provide a base for civic mobilization.

The complaints we hear today about “slacktivism” are identical to an earlier generation of complaints about “armchair activism.” Where today we hear that actions performed via the Internet are too simple to make a difference, in the 1970s we heard that actions performed via the mail or the telephone were too simple to make a difference. Then, as now, those complaints were an optical illusion: the power of these activist techniques depends on what angle you observe them from. The medium through which we engage in politics matters less than the networks, relationships, and strategies we employ along the way.

Headline image credit: Large crowd of small symbolic 3d figures, over white. © higyou via iStock.

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