Friday, 1 October 2010

The Limits of Online Activism

Following a previous post on strategy and tactics in climate change activism, below is a post written by Micah White at the Adbusters blog. White argues that the "future of activism is not online; it is a spiritual insurrection against pollution of the mind. And that begins with turning off our screens." This is an interesting article and I am fully aware of the irony of reposting it on this blog...

Rejecting Clicktivism

The world is in desperate need of a cultural revolution. While some of us slave to produce objects we will never be able to afford, others toil to consume luxury items they do not need. Neither lives a fulfilling life, neither is happy and both play a role in the continued desecration and evisceration of the earth. Consumer society is founded in this vicious cycle that chains some to the factory workbench and others to the screens in cubicles. It is an increasingly inhumane cycle that is spiraling out of control, dragging humanity into the abyss of climate wars and cultural insanity. That much we know. But what remains unclear is how to change the situation.

One answer that has come to dominate all others is that the future of activism is online. Dazzled by the promise of reaching a million people with a single click, social change has been turned over to a technocracy of programmers and “social media experts” who build glitzy, expensive websites and viral campaigns that amass millions of email addresses. Treating email addresses as equivalent to members, these organizations boast of their large size and downplay their small impact. It is all about quantity. To continue growing, they begin consulting with marketers who assure them that “best practices” dictate crafting a message that will appeal to the greatest number of people. Thus focus groups, A/B testing and membership surveys replace a strong philosophy, vision for radical change, and cadre of diehard supporters.

It is no wonder that their campaigns soon resemble advertising: email messages are market tested and click rate metrics dominant all other considerations. In the race for quantity, passion is left behind. But with each day they find it harder to elicit a response from their “members”. Soon, they hit the pitiful online-activist industry average: less than one in twenty of their members are clicking on their emails, the rest just hit delete. (It is a well-known secret within Bay Area progressive organizations that a 5% response rate is the norm.) Thus, despite their massive, gargantuan list size, they can only count on rallying a minuscule response for any of their actions. To increase click rate, they water down their messages and make their “asks” easier and “actions” simpler. Soon, the “click to sign” deception is rolled out and simply opening an email link is treated as signing a petition. And yet, while their membership list grows larger, the active portion of their base disappears. And what is worse, as well-meaning digital activists soon discover, they are being outdone by disingenuous advertising campaigns posing as true agents of change.

Thus, we find ourselves in the bizarre situation where the celebrated international climate change organization TckTckTck with 10+ million members and 350+ partner organizations – including Greenpeace, 350, WWF, OXFAM etc – is covertly run by Havas Worldwide, the world’s sixth largest advertising company. Havas’ clients include Wal-Mart, Coca-Cola, Pfizer, BP and the rest of the ones who are to blame.

By turning activism over to the technocrats, we’ve done a great disservice to the noble tradition of rabble rousing that has brought humanity every egalitarian development. We’ve exchanged the difficult process of engaging in real world struggles for the ease of sending emails and clicking links. And I say this knowing that digital-activists agree and a new generation are only too eager to offer their services, hawking themselves as the pioneers in the cutting-edge field of turning email addresses into bodies on the street. But we must resist their claims to expertise and their successes defined by quantity. The way forward will not be through the mediation of the screen.

Activism, when properly conceived, aims at revolution by striking at the root. It deploys an essential critique of society that cannot be resolved, or recuperated, without a major cultural shift. Each era must find and hone that critique and with persistence use it to repeatedly attack the prevailing social order. The essential critique of our generation is the mental environmentalist perspective which understands consumerism to be a plague upon the earth supported by pollution of our mental ecology by advertisers.

The future of activism is not online; it is a spiritual insurrection against pollution of the mind. And that begins with turning off our screens.



There is a rebuttal to White's piece in the Huffington Post by Angus Johnston, where he argues:

"The American student movement of the 1960s wasn't directed by any national body. It wasn't, in the main, financed or facilitated by pre-existing groups. It was built at the grass roots by students who stood up when they saw their fellow activists on television or in the papers, or received newsletters from national organizations and letters from friends at distant campuses. It was a movement sparked by social networking, and it was a movement that transformed the campus and the nation.

And now, with the help of contemporary social media, a new generation of campus activists is doing it again."

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