The essential problem with any activist cause is that you never have enough people to fight for it.
In a country as big as the United States, our voices only matter in unison. And it isn’t enough for us to just cast our white stones for “yea” and our black stones for “nay”; the closest we get to that is California’s excessive number of state propositions on the ballot each year. Those voices have to be obtrusive. They have to be loud. Such is the reality of representative democracy.
Enter the internet. The activist’s (gender neutral!) wet dream—right? Screw those time-consuming, emotionally exhausting word-of-mouth campaigns, I’m going to start a protest on Facebook.
It almost seems too easy. Heartwrenching videos, stats, media coverage, logistics and mass communication all in one place. No wonder Invisible Children’s “Kony 2012” video garnered 50 million views within a week of going up on the internet.
Except the leader of Kony 2012 had a semi-nude mental breakdown that made national news and most people’s participation in the campaign never went beyond clicking the “Like” button. Despite the extraordinary feat of getting people to actually sit down and take 25 minutes out of their own busy lives to learn about one of the grossest human rights abuses of our time, most of those viewers couldn’t tell you the next thing about the history of the Lord’s Resistance Army or where it is now. They couldn’t enter into an in-depth discussion on the challenges facing the re-integration of former child soldiers into a war-torn society. They couldn’t tell you about how their own consumer choices continue to influence current conflicts overseas where child soldiers are used.
There’s a pretty good chance that you, reading this, couldn’t tell anyone about these things either. And it’s probably not because you’re a hypocrite or because you don’t care; it’s because someone didn’t engage you properly.
We call this phenomenon slacktivism, the practice of expending a minimal amount of effort to align yourself with a cause you think you could probably get behind if you learned a little more about it or if you had more time. The population of so-called slacktivists has grown exponentially since the advent of the internet and, in particular, social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, because of how conducive these websites are to engaging in activities for one minute or less. But while some activists may curse this particular breed of armchair politics, I prefer to see it as an opportunity.
The trick is to transform the slacktivists into small-scale activists, a large group of progressively-minded people whose smaller actions collectively support the larger efforts of people with more time, energy or passion to devote to the cause.
With the internet, we have been given an unprecedented organizational tool, a means of both getting the word out instantaneously and collaborating across long distances, thus increasing the flexibility, efficiency and size of actions such as demonstrations and awareness campaigns.
But as much as we would like to pretend otherwise (and as much as avid players of video games may disagree with me), we don’t live on our computers. We live in the real world, and in order for us to make change in that world, we have to be willing to follow up any internet interaction with in-person engagement. Like Newton’s Third Law, for every (cyber) action, there should be a (real world) reaction. For example, a political campaign might encourage people to like a Facebook page for an election candidate in the hopes of transforming each one of those likes into a vote for the candidate. The American Cancer Society might put out a video about skin cancer that ends by encouraging viewers to wear sunscreen when they go outside. A college activist group might start a dialogue on the internet about a discrimination issue on their campus and then invite everyone who participates in the discussion to come to a public event to get the administration’s attention.
Even if people never complement their cyber activity with something more tangible, they can play an important role as a carrier to someone who does. Maybe someone shares a video on Facebook and never thinks about it again, but someone else sees it and shows up to a protest the very next day.
Bringing about this kind of conversion from sympathizer to movement builder isn’t easy, especially on a widespread level; therein lies the difficulty in abolishing slacktivism. But hell, you knew this job would be tough when you signed up to live your politics. You’re ready for the challenge. The more three-dimensional you make your presence on the internet, the more willingness you demonstrate to follow up with people in person, the more opportunities you provide for sympathizers to your cause to join you in public as opposed to just online, the more concrete, tangible change you can make happen.
When it comes to internet slacktivism, the only real danger is the potential development of a misconception that clicking the “Like” button is all it takes, that there isn’t anyone behind the scenes slaving day and night to convince a powerful person that this small digital statement matters. But again, the more you remind people of the extent of your campaign in the real world, the harder it is to ignore how much work it requires.
So to all of you activists out there, don’t lament the fact that there is a small army of people on Facebook who don’t quite get it—because you’re only a few steps away from having an army who does. To the rest of you, the next time you like a photo celebrating queer rights or post a status about Earth Day, remember to be grateful to all those who have the energy to stand up for what you believe in, again and again and again.