I think that leveraging Social Networking tools for political activism or interpreting public opinion has enormous potential. I don’t believe that just because supporting a cause online is easier to do that it has less meaning than more traditional forms of getting your voice heard. That said, I don’t think that the methods have matured to fully capitalize on this potential. I like this quadrant chart, which separates different forms of activism by global/local level of participation, and by use of technology. After the break I share my opinions on the strengths of slacktivism, and its potential future in active protest.
On March 26th, many Facebook users saw their feeds full of profile picture changes to a red equal sign (slacktivism, displaying a badge online), signifying that they were in support of equal marriage rights for all couples, heterosexual or homosexual. What impact does that have on the Supreme Court case outcome for the US? Probably nothing; some people changed their pictures. So what? Facebook chimed in with data to visualize the movement. Facebook says that on March 26th, roughly 2.7 million more people updated their profile photo compared with the week prior — an increase of 120 percent.” That means a total of about four million users out of an estimated 160 to 180 million users in the US (~1.6%) changed their profile pictures. They heat mapped the changes geographically, resulting in the following:
1.6% doesn’t read like overwhelming support. For those that believe that this gesture of support means nothing, I would ask you: would it have meant something if all 4 million people had been congregated in Washington DC? What about all the supporters that aren’t on Facebook? If we counted their support, would that mean something? To put it in perspective, the “I Have A Dream“ speech was delivered to a mere 250,000 civil rights supporters from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom; the speech was a defining moment of the American Civil Rights Movement.
The visual is everything. 250,000 people that could make the journey to DC, and presumed hundreds of thousands more that could not. The scale of the message is palpable.
Still the Freedom protesters actually in attendance was .13% of the US population in 1963. The Facebook Protester’s four million make up 1.3% of the US population today.
This leads me to my first point on dissecting Slacktivism: we measure activism on the amount of people reached and the level of engagement of those people. Showing up in person is a lot harder, and makes you a lot more vulnerable than slapping a bumper sticker on your car, or changing a profile picture. Rightly, activism seems to value sending a powerful visual message. But not everyone can show up.
Ignoring the fact that some act of support is easy to do, can you visualize the impact on the collective movement? Today, visualizing what one of these viral internet campaigns means is difficult. As visualizations and analytics get better, will we treat 4 million users in solidarity online the same as 4 million on our front steps? Should we? It may be a simplest act, but when put into perspective, it can be just as powerful a visual.
There is no way to know how many people were unable to show support for the freedom movement in 1963, either due to geographic challenges, fear of arrest or harm, or circumstantial inability. It is certainly unfair to say that since they didn’t show up, their verbal support was meaningless to the cause. There just wasn’t a mechanism for obtaining their support aside from joining the front line.
Facebook picture changes present no risk of harm to the poster, and understandably is not as significant as a time commitment to be physically present at a protest, but those that participate are forced to make a declarative statement, visible to all of their friends and peers, that they do support equal marriage rights, which is more immediate social visibility than most other forms of activism. Arguably, these “friends”, and there opinions of you, matter greatly to the posting individual, so this is no small statement to take a public stance on such a divisive issue.
What Does Slacktivism Accomplish?
I am trying to make a case that those “slackers” engaging in “slacktivism” are not accomplishing more than the Freedom Protesters of 1963, but they are still accomplishing more awareness and making a more public show of support than traditional pickers, newsletters, flyers, bumper stickers, and other local movements. Maybe it is these local thought, local action movements that are “slacking” in the globally connected world.
Visualizing slacktivism applies to successful and failed movements. What if analytics get to a point where we can definitively say, “public opinion is clearly and quantitatively not in support of some issue, so I act as a legislator with confidence that I am supporting my constituents when I vote against this motion.” Personally, I think this has value as well – it simply allows greater visibility into the opinions for or against an issue.
The Future of Activism
To this day, a relatively small portion of the country represents the full body in all governmental decisions. Traditional activism exists so that citizens can be heard, because the people making the decision represent constituents on both sides of nearly every issue. For one person to accurately represent his people, he needs to know how they feel. Activism is born of the democracy, to remind the government that they represent the people. When you generate an overwhelming visual of public opinion for something, it becomes difficult to justify not supporting it.
Even today, with all this technology, there is no physical way to include everyone in every decision. We all can’t live in the capital. But technology is increasing the amount of voice we have, globally. It is reducing the age-old barriers of geographical space, time and effort to participate, and allowing an unheard of amount of collaboration, and opinion-sharing.
Slacktivism has enormous potential to increase awareness to critical issues and to visualize the extent of the public opinion. I believe that as methods of participation mature, and the methods of measuring participation become more accurate, that we will begin to see value in this young form or protest. Maybe then we will stop calling it Slacktivism.