Does retweeting make you an activist or a slacktivist?

The online space is vastly contested space. News, memes, injustices and celebrity weddings are constantly competing for your attention. Destiny Man magazine editor, Kojo Baffoe recently tweeted, “deluge of opinion, flurries of indignation and concern, until the next thing. How quickly we move on. How quickly we forget”.

In times past, to be part of a movement or to think of oneself as an activist was to actively engage for extended periods of time with whatever your particular cause of choice was. This didn’t necessarily mean that one had to be a Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr or Mohandas Gandhi, but it was certainly something more than what it seems to be in today’s online age.

Popular New Yorker magazine writer Malcolm Gladwell wrote

“The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life… Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice…”

Or as researcher and blogger Evgeny Morozov writing for Foreign Policy expresses:

“Slacktivism” is an apt term to describe feel-good online activism that has zero political or social impact. It gives those who participate in “slacktivist” campaigns an illusion of having a meaningful impact on the world without demanding anything more than joining a Facebook group. Remember that online petition that you signed and forwarded to your entire contacts list? That was probably an act of slacktivism…”

Though one may not have agreed with the premise that social-media platforms are built around weak ties, the overall views expressed on social network activism, slacktivism is something worth taking note of. This might come as a surprise to ardent fans of social networking, particularly Twitter users.

Probably the first example of online activism was the much hated, maligned and “sent to spam”, email petition. After a few paragraphs of information the sender would usually ask you to add your name and location before you forwarded the email on. Though the aims were certainly laudable, the effectiveness of such campaigns was, at best, suspect. But as the internet developed so did means by which activism was organised on the web.

The best – and perhaps what will always be the most celebrated – examples of this development in online activism are the revolutionary movements in the Middle East.

From Iran and Tunisia, through to Egypt and Syria to name just a few, people took to the streets coordinating through social networks. However, to refer to them as “Twitter Revolutions” (Twitter obviously being a placeholder for social networks in general) as the media often did, would be incorrect.

Despots in these nations were not overthrown by the millions of updates posted onto social networking sites, but by people doing what has always been done when fighting for change, going out into the streets. These revolutions were not “social-networking revolutions” but rather revolutions organised through the social-networks. These “weak ties”, as Gladwell calls them, allowed people to pass along information to each other about where to meet, what to do and what to say when there.

However, true as this may be, it must also be conceded to that the “Twitter Revolutions” of the Middle-East were a once-in-a-generation occurrence and cannot alone be used in a defense against charges of slacktivism for the social-networking community. This still does not necessarily mean that online activism will always and mainly translate to slacktivism.

This model, of using social networking sites to organise to meet, to turn these weak ties into strong ones is used and replicated the world over, beyond the Middle-East revolutionary movements.

South African tweeter Melanie Minnaar last year used that very same tactic. With the modest aim of gathering a few of her followers – ten as she said in a podcast – to meet up, bring a blanket each to donate to a welfare society, what she started turned into the national campaign: Twitter Blanket Drive (currently again underway). As she said in that podcast, “I don’t know any of the people I’m working with on this project,” but that never stopped the project from making a real impact.

Gladwell, Morozov or the others who decry “slacktivism,” aren’t entirely wrong. Far too often people do feel that by clicking that “like”, “retweet”, or “forward”, button they have done their bit. (Though it must be noted that even such “slactivist” activities can have the desired effect). However, that doesn’t mean activism through social-networking is of no use.

As all things in these new medium, from marketing yourself, your product or your brand, wielded in the right hands, activism on social-networks can work. Perhaps if we stopped referring to it as “activism on social-networks”, but rather “activism through social-networking” there might be more impact.



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