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Place and the Politics of Slacktivism

Americans have come to stand at quite a distance from their government. The interests of government, as well as those of politics, are a point of indifference to many citizens. A Pew Research Center study conducted before the 2012 election cycle designated 43 percent of the voting-age population in its entirety as “non-voters.”

As a result, our political process has seen the rise of slacktivism, defined by one august Internet institution as “the act of participating in obviously pointless activities as an expedient alternative to actually expending effort to fix a problem.” It manifests itself in many ways: hashtag activism (see also: #WeAreN, #YesAllWomen, and #BringBackOurGirls), social media campaigns for “change,” and clicktivism, to name a few. Laura Seay at The WashingtonPost‘s Monkey Cage writes that the logic of slacktivist campaigns “are usually based on the logic that increased awareness of a cause is in and of itself a worthy reason to pursue them.”

Why the emphasis on awareness? Today’s political sphere has been atomized. The public has no voice, no agency unless it somehow finds a way to leverage its power in Washington indirectly. This is where slacktivism is so appealing. A click, a share, and you feel that you have influenced something, somewhere. Seay again:

[Slacktivist campaign] logic assumes that the more attention a cause receives, the more likely public officials are to pay attention to a cause, and thus the more tangible benefits (like legislation, a policy change, or money allocated to help victims of a crisis) there will be.

Of course, this is not merely a political matter. Social media activism is a massive commercial industry, as Vice points out:

With each click, Change.org makes a profit, and increases its clientele base. Clients are often organizations with deep pockets; Amnesty InternationalSierra Club, and even the Democratic Party.

Some of the petitions do indeed go “viral” and cause change—the article points to the “pink sludge” and Gatorade campaigns as success stories, with one caveat.

Both petitions were started by regular people, went viral, and resulted in real change. But therein also lies the problem: As research shows, you’re more likely to click on something short, simple, and easy to understand.

Large-scale petition programs often end up being little more than a means to translate widespread but apathetic goodwill into monetary gain. Micah White, in a piece that ostensibly named the “clicktivism” movement, posed the conflict as “a struggle between digital activists, who have adopted the logic of the marketplace, and those organisers who vehemently oppose the marketisation of social change.”

The article is an eloquent jeremiad, declaiming what he sees as a crass by-product of capitalism.

Gone is faith in the power of ideas, or the poetry of deeds, to enact social change. Instead, subject lines are A/B tested and messages vetted for widest appeal…. Exchanging the substance of activism for reformist platitudes that do well in market tests, clicktivists damage every genuine political movement they touch. In expanding their tactics into formerly untrammelled political scenes and niche identities, they unfairly compete with legitimate local organisations who represent an authentic voice of their communities.

But in that last sentence, he hits upon the truth of “clicktivism,” “slacktivism,” etc. Local organizations, formerly the “authentic voice” of the community, have been all but eliminated in modern politics. The problem is not capitalism, but the lack of a meaningful way to act and influence others locally—namely, the absence of the intermediary social institutions of town, church, home; in a word, place.

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