'Slacktivism' vs. thick, impactful civic participation

25.06.2013 Blog

Earlier this year, Unicef in Sweden launched a new campaign with the tagline: "Like us on Facebook and we will vaccinate zero children against Polio".  It was accompanied by a video of a young actor playing a boy whose mother is sick explaining, “I think everything will be alright. Today Unicef Sweden has 177,000 likes on Facebook. Maybe they’ll reach 200,000 by summer.” Not exactly subtle satire, but it was a clever campaign (and ironically, very social media friendly). 

The phenomenon that Unicef was reacting against has been described by Evgeny Morozov as ‘slacktivism’. This is what he perceives as a shift towards less demanding forms of activism that sees people more likely to change their Facebook profile picture to an icon showing they support gay marriage (as happened in droves in the States earlier this year) than to go to the hassle of turning up to a live protest, writing to their political representative, signing a petition or any other more arduous form of action. In Morozov’s words it is “feel good online activism that has zero political or social impact”.

Some argue that the availability of these light touch forms of virtual participation have no bearing on the numbers of people getting involved in ‘real world’ activity, since the ‘slactivists’ would not have been activists anyway; the availability of online tools is not turning would-be activists into lazy Facebookers, they argue. Certainly the numbers of people on the streets in Rio and Istanbul in recent weeks is testament to the fact that more traditional forms of protest are alive and kicking.

All too often however, this debate quickly reduces to a simplistic discussion about whether we think online activism is net positive or negative, ‘good’ or ‘bad’ when it comes to advancing the causes of various social movements. Instead, we need to think in a more nuanced way about how we distinguish between different types of online and offline activism and the kinds of value they might produce.

A helpful recent contribution to this end comes from Ethan Zuckerman, director of the MIT Center for Civic Media and founder of the citizen media platform Global Voices. In an opening address to the Digital Media Learning conference earlier this year entitled ‘Civics in Crisis’, Zuckerman introduced a typology for thinking about different types of civic activism:

The vertical axis describes a spectrum of participation going from thin to thick. Thin participation is takes place when people are asked to do no more than ‘show up’ or perform some pre-defined kind of activity. Liking a cause on Facebook or re-tweeting a charity’s message are great examples of thin activities. Thick participation on the other hand asks people to do more than this – it requires their ideas, input and creativity.

On the horizontal axis we move from ‘symbolic’ through to ‘impactful’. The position of an activity along this spectrum is determined by what Zuckerman describes as its connection to ‘levers of change’ in the world. Symbolic activities are often about allying myself with a particular cause or view, but lack an obvious mechanism for creating change.

This typology gives us four quadrants that we can use to think in more detail about the quality of specific kinds of activism. ‘Slacktivism’ of the kind Morozov and others ridicule sits firmly in the left hand corner – it is thin (I’m told what to do) and symbolic (it shows my alignment with a specific view rather than suggests how I will contribute to changing any specific state of affairs).

In the upper right quadrant of activities that are thin and impactful, one of the best examples is voting. Voting is a form of participation that absolutely has to be thin, because barriers to participation must be as low as possible so that everyone can take part. So ‘thin’ activities are not necessarily deemed less valuable.

In the bottom left hand quadrant of symbolic and thick activity, Zuckerman argues we find the Occupy movement. At the various Occupy camps around the world, people have given huge amounts of time and creativity engaging in discussion and protest. But the movement is best understood as a symbolic form of participation, since the emphasis has been on calling attention to the impact of the financial crisis on the vast majority, rather than moving any specific levers of change.

The final quadrant bottom right quadrant represents thick and impactful activity. Interestingly, Zuckerman argues that some specific instances of Occupy can be thought of in these terms. For example, members of Occupy Sandy moved away from symbolic protest to impactful action when they set up a food distribution centre and formed a ‘motor’ pool to help get people more readily into areas affected by the hurricane.

One of the biggest challenges to civic participation in the ‘thick and impactful’ space is that it tends to work best at a small scale. Where an activity demands substantive forms of action it requires much higher levels of time and commitment which can limit the numbers who will participate. This is a major issue given that most people engaged in trying to effect social change want to transform problems at scale.

Can online tools help to enable thick and symbolic engagement at larger scale? While it is easy to characterise online activity as occupying the thin and symbolic space, there are instances of online participation that are impactful, thick and operate at scale. A recent example Zuckerman gives is Planned Parenthood’s reaction to threats of essential funding being withdrawn by the Susan G. Komen Foundation. Planned Parenthood asked its supporters to suggest their own forms of response and campaigns. One activist started a Tumblr site called ‘Planned Parenthood Saved Me’ which invited people to describe their stories of how the service had provided vital support to them. The site has collected thousands of accounts and the resulting publicity increased pressure on the Komen Foundation to reverse its funding decision. Similarly, some of the initiatives supported by the Young Foundation's recent Digital Activism project, such as the Hackney Citizen Advice Bureau Crowdmap (which provided a mechanism for people to map stories about the impact of housing benefit cuts), demonstrate how online forms of activism can indeed be thick and impactful.

Zuckerman’s analysis is useful because it makes clear that our assessment of the value of different forms of civic participation needs to focus less on what form they take (online vs. offline) and more on asking: who are we hoping to impact what are the particular levers of change that we are trying to shift? You can view Zuckerman’s talk, which is well worth watching in full, here.

Image by Semilla Luz, Flickr Creative Commons