Is Digital Activism Ruined?
An essay published last week at The Guardian argued that digital activism has devolved into nothing more than "clicktivism," or a lesser breed of activism that's overly focused on marketing strategy. In response, Esra'a al Shafei of Mideast Youth posted her thoughts.
Originally published at Mideast Youth
I have mixed feelings about the term “clicktivism.” My concern is that every digital campaign will be slapped with that label by default and therefore quickly ignored or dismissed as ineffective. On the other hand, I see where the term is inspired from.
We have people who really do preach that clicking a petition or a link or simply RTing something is “enough” when it isn’t. Our job is to communicate how and why it isn’t, and often we fail, because we ARE dealing with an overwhelmingly lazy (and sometimes numb or unaware generation)—even right here in the Middle East. I thi nk this is something we digital activists have been dealing with for many years and only now it is being discussed on a larger scale. We have always fought hard against “lazy activism,” otherwise known as “slacktivism” or now “clicktivism” (surely other -isms will follow.) But in some situations, you are forced to simply take what you can get. That’s where clicktivism comes in.
I encourage spreading awareness, and that includes retweeting and other forms of quick sharing. But these are supporters of campaigns and shouldn’t be confused with digital activists themselves, regardless of how they describe their efforts (which should be credited and appreciated). This is because if RTs and Facebook "likes" become the new digital activism, then we’ve all just walked into a huge puddle of “fail,” so to speak. I think the “RT activists” discredit the digital activists who do get a lot of stuff done by referring to themselves as such—but most don’t. They are perfectly aware that they are not doing “enough” and are doing what they can do, which isn’t much, but still something. Will they do more? That’s the job of campaign directors to figure out.
When you are a housewife with five kids, a full-time job, financial issues and mismanaged stress, supporting Iran or Kyrgyzstan or China is not going to be your number one priority. But you still care—so you RT a link. Or two. And then three. There is nothing wrong with that; it’s actually encouraged to get involved in every “little” way you can, and tweeting counts. This is the only way you can tap into audiences who would otherwise not be inspired to think and possibly act upon these global issues that affect us all.
I don’t see people who changed their avatars in solidarity with a cause claiming to be activists; they just see themselves as average people trying to help out. Some of them are willing to go much further than that, but the problem is that on many occasions, no one gives them a realistic, achievable direction. So what happens to a directionless activist? They turn into a clicktivist. That’s the direct fault of the campaign director. People who look at numbers. Statistics of participants is merely a detail. Some of the best campaigns I’ve witnessed have been launched by two to three people who focused on just getting stuff done—and relied on the community to share that work, with a clear guide on what they’re expected to be doing.
People really do underestimate the amount of work that has to be done for a digital campaign to really be effective. It’s incredibly difficult to cut through the noise specifically if your attempt is to generate international support on a channel as busy as the internet. This is no easy challenge to overcome, but many digital activists do overcome those challenges through creative ideas and tough, long hours to pull it off.
United4Iran is a great example of that. These guys work around the clock. Sometimes it even becomes apparent that they’re exhausted, but they keep going knowing that the community is relying on their ideas, their efforts and their organizational skills to keep the movement running. That is an example of a mission with leadership. No idea can succeed without a leader really pushing toward making it happen.
This is the kind of work ethic that is admirable, and we at Mideast Youth have also tried to maintain that ethic. One editor per site is all that it takes to keep that site kicking through traditional media outlets: the papers, the news, the mainstream, being heard by the world, transforming ideas, inspiring new ones, etc. One hard-working person can achieve what a billion RTs cannot, and those individuals are not clicktivists. However, let it be known that the people who “clicked” and RT'ed helped get the idea to continue gushing through people’s screens, radios, etc. It’s really part of a huge, ongoing circle and every bit counts. It really does, because we witness it happening right here on our network of sites. We very much rely on our community to get the word out—once we've built something, or created a new tool, or a video, or a new campaign, that’s where the clicktivists come in. Then we take the new readership and traffic and turn it into a movement. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t, but the attempt is always there.
Don’t be distracted by what anyone accuses you of; I have seen articles like these (slacktivists/clicktivists) discourage would-be activists who could have been influential leaders. Accept that digital activism is much beyond clicking/RTing and consider such articles to be tips, a reminder of your greater potential perhaps. Just be sure to work hard if you are passionate for change. Don’t rely on RTs always, but if it’s literally all you can do, so be it. It does help in some little ways, but they’re never really the backbone behind a movement.
Don’t be scared at some point to be a leader of your own campaign and to understand what it feels like to fail and to succeed, because you will undoubtedly experience much of both, but only if you are consistent with your efforts.
On a final note, do what you can! But be the best at it. Clicktivist or activist, we are all relying on you to make it happen.