Seven years ago author Malcolm Gladwell – in a piece penned for The New Yorker – declared that the “revolution will not be tweeted”. In making a case against what he characterizes as the “so-called Twitter revolution”, Gladwell muses on how social media platforms simultaneously make it easier for activists to express themselves and “harder for that expression to have any impact”. The thrust of his argument is this: social networks built around weak ties cannot create or sustain constructive activism or revolutionary thinking and may even maintain rather than challenge the status quo. His argument is still quoted and used today to discuss how little use social media technologies are for activism for social good.
On its face, Gladwell’s declaration seems reasonable considering that social movements were in fact fought and won long before the advent of internet technologies and social media and activism and protests. But activism is already a middle class pastime. After all, who else would have the disposable time and resources required to physically attend protests, marches and demonstrations? For lower income groups who lack the same access to basic resources, more practical considerations, such as whether they have sufficient financial security, and time, can hinder willingness and ability to participate in civil action. The more practical considerations aside, protesting is also mentally, physically and emotionally taxing. Seeing online civil action as merely a form of slacktivism assumes an even playing field and ignores these realities.
People can only do what they can and start from where they are. Every little thing counts. Digital technologies lower the barriers for many to access the Internet and to communicate with a potential global audience and gather information. These are important aspects of being involved in activism and social justice issues – knowledge and awareness of it, are the first steps towards change.
There have been many social media campaigns directed towards collective action, though only a fraction of these campaigns have experienced success. Nevertheless, findings of recently published research from the UK (Political Turbulence) suggest that social media offers individuals a low-cost way to participate and mobilize and that, when taken together, the many acts of these loosely connected individuals can mobilize and support strategic and collective action. Thus, activities that Gladwell might describe as slacktivism – including but not limited to posting hashtags, ‘liking’ a page on Facebook, signing an online petition or forwarding a message to friends – may still be effective ways for showing support and solidarity, increasing awareness and calling others to action.
Moving past the notion of slacktivism popularized by Gladwell – perhaps it’s more constructive to think of activism as a continuum with varying degrees of, and avenues for, involvement.
Yes, social media may not be the best among the available tools for mobilizing collective action, but it’s one that by nature is far more accessible than the higher-risk strategies Gladwell advocates. Being open to online activism avoids shunning, shaming or holding people to impossible standards despite their intentions, circumstances and abilities. We must continue to use social media as one of many ways to cultivate collective action even if it’s not yet entirely clear where the roots will take hold and what fruit the tree will bear.