From slacktivism to activism

Below is the text of a talk about "slacktivism" - a subject that has received considerable attention on this blog and elsewhere - that I delivered at Festival Ars Electronica this morning (the session was dedicated to "cloud intelligence"). 

As someone who studies how the Internet affects global politics, I've grown increasingly skeptical of numerous digital activism campaigns that attempt to change the world through Facebook and Twitter. To explain why,  let me first tell you a story about a campaign that has gone wrong.

If you have been to Copenhagen, you probably have seen the Stork Fountain, the city's famous landmark. A few months ago, a Danish psychologist Anders Colding-Jørgensen, who studies how ideas spread online, used Facebook to conduct a little experiment using the Stork Fountain as his main subject. He started a Facebook group, which implied – but never stated so explicitly – that the city authorities were planning to dismantle the fountain, which of course was NEVER the case. He seeded the group to 125 friends who joined in a matter of hours; then it started spreading virally. In the first few days, it immediately went to a 1000 members and then it started growing more aggressively. After 3 days, it began to grow with over 2 new members each minute in the day time. When the group reached 27.500 members, Jørgensen decided to end the experiment. So there you have it: almost 28,000 people joined a cause that didn't really exist! As far as "clouds" go, that one was probably an empty one.

This broaches an interesting question: why do people join Facebook groups in the first place? In an interview with the Washington Post, Jorgensen said that "just like we need stuff to furnish our homes to show who we are, on Facebook we need cultural objects that put together a version of me that I would like to present to the public."  Other researchers agree: studies by Sherri Grasmuck, a sociologist at Temple University, reveals that Facebook users shape their online identity implicitly rather than explicitly: that is, the kind of campaigns and groups they join reveals more about who they are than their dull “about me” page.

This shopping binge in an online identity supermarket has led to the proliferation of what I call “slacktivism”, where our digital effort make us feel very useful and important but have zero social impact. When the marginal cost of joining yet another Facebook group are low, we click “yes” without even blinking, but the truth is that it may distract us from helping the same cause in more productive ways. Paradoxically, it often means that the very act of joining a Facebook group is often the end – rather than the beginning – of our engagement with a cause, which undermines much of digital activism.

Take a popular Facebook group "saving the children of Africa." It looks very impressive – over 1.2 million members—until you discover that these compassionate souls have raised about $6,000 (or half a penny per person). In a perfect world, this shouldn't even be considered a problem: better donate a penny than not to donate at all. The problem, however, is that the granularity of contemporary digital activism provides too many easy way-outs: too many people decide to donate a penny where they may otherwise want to donate a dollar.

So, what exactly plagues most “slacktivist” campaigns? Above all, it's their unrealistic assumption that, given enough awareness, all problems are solvable; or, in the language of computer geeks, given enough eyeballs are bugs are shallow. This is precisely what propels many of these campaigns into gathering signatures, adding new members to their Facebook pages, and asking everyone involved to link to the campaign on blogs and Twitter. This works for some issues – especially local ones. But global bugs - like climate change - are bugs of a different nature.  Thus, for most global problems, whether it's genocide in Darfur or climate change, there are diminishing returns to awareness-raising. At some point one simply needs to learn how to convert awareness into action – and this is where tools like Twitter and Facebook prove much less useful.

This is not to deny that many of the latest digital activism initiatives, following the success of the Obama electoral juggernaut, have managed to convert their gigantic membership lists into successful money-raising operations. The advent of micro-donations – whereby one can donate any sum from a few cents to a few dollars – has enabled to raise funds that could then be used – at least, in theory – to further advance the goals of the campaign. The problem is that most of these campaigns do not have clear goals or agenda items beyond awareness-raising.

Besides, not every problem can be solved with an injection of funds, which, in a way, creates the same problem as awareness-raising: whether it's financial capital or media capital, spending it in a way that would enable social change could be very tough. Asking for money could also undermine one's efforts to engage groups members in more meaningful real-life activities: the fact that they have already donated some money, no matter how little, makes them feel as if they have already done their bit and should be left alone.

Some grassroots campaigns are beginning to realize it: for example, the web-site of "Free Monem", a 2007 pan-Arab initiative to free an Egyptian blogger from jail carried a sign that said “DON'T DONATE; Take action” and had logos of Visa and MasterCard in a crossed red circle in the background. According to Sami Ben Gharbia, a Tunisian Internet activist and one of the organizers of the campaign, this was a way to show that their campaign needed more than money as well as to shame numerous local and international NGOs that like to raise money to “release bloggers from jail”, without having any meaningful impact on the situation on the ground.

That said, the meager fund-raising results of the Save the Children of Africa campaign still look quite puzzling. Surely, even a dozen people working together would be able to raise more money. Could it be that the Facebook environment is putting too many restraints on how they might otherwise have decided to cooperate?

Psychologists offer an interesting explanation as to why a million people working together may be less effective than one person working alone. They call this phenomenon “social loafing”. It was discovered by the French scientist Max Ringelmann in 1913, when he asked a group of men to pull on a rope. It tdifurned out they each pulled less hard than when they had to pull alone; this was basically the opposite of synergy. Experiments prove that we usually put much less effort into a task when other people are also doing it with us (think about the last time you had to sign a Happy Birthday song). The key lesson here is that when everyone in the group performs the same mundane tasks, it's impossible to evaluate individual contributions; thus, people inevitably begin slacking off. Increasing the number of other persons diminishes the relative social pressure on each person. That's, in short, what Ringelmann called “social loafing”.

Reading about Ringelmann's experiments, I realized that the same problem plagues much of today's “Facebook” activism: once we join a group, we move at the group's own pace, even though we could have been much more effective on our own. As you might have heard from Ethan Zuckerman, Facebook and Twitter were not set up for activists by activists; they were set up for the purposes of entertainment and often attracted activists not because they offered unique services but because they were hard to block. Thus, we shouldn't take it for granted that Facebook activism is the ultimate limit of what's possible in the digital space; it is just the first layer of what's possible if you work on a budget and do not have much time to plan your campaign.

So far, the most successful “slacktivist” initiatives have been those that have set realistic expectations and have taken advantage of “slacktivist” inclinations of Internet users rather then deny their existence. For example, FreeRice, a web-site affiliated with the UN Food Program, which contains numerous education games, the most popular of which are those helping you to learn English. While you are doing so, it exposes you to online ads, the proceeds of which go towards purchasing and distributing rice in the poor countries (by FreeRice's estimates, enough rice is being distributed to feed 7,000 people daily).

This is a brilliant approach: millions of people rely on the Internet to study English anyway and most of them wouldn't mind being exposed to online advertising in exchange for a useful service. Both sides benefit, with no high words exchanged. Those who participate in the effort are not driven by helping the world and have a very selfish motivation; yet, they probably generate more good than thousands of people who are “fighting” hunger via Facebook. While this model may not be applicable to every situation, it's by finding practical hybrid models like FreeRice's that we could convert immense and undeniable collective energy of Internet users into tangible social change.

So, given all this, how do we avoid “slacktivism” when designing an online campaign? First, make it hard for your supporters to become a slacktivist: don't give people their identity trophies until they have proved their worth. The merit badge should come as a result of their successful and effective contributions to your campaign rather than precede it.

Second, create diverse, distinctive, and non-trivial tasks; your supporters can do more than just click “send to all” button” all day. Since most digital activism campaigns are bound to suffer from the problem of diffusion of responsibility, make it impossible for your supporters to fade into the crowd and “free ride” on the work of other people. Don't give up easily: the giant identity supermarket that Facebook has created could actually be a boon for those organizing a campaign; they just need to figure out a way in which to capitalize on identity aspiration of “slacktivists” by giving them interesting and meaningful tasks that could then be evaluated.

Third, do not overdose yourself on the Wikipedia model. It works for some tasks but for most – it doesn't. While inserting a comma into yet another trivia article on Wikipedia does help, being yet another invisible “slacktivist” doesn't. Finding the lowest common denominator between a million users may ultimately yield lower results than raising the barrier and forcing the activists to put up more rather than less effort into what they are doing. Anyone who tells you otherwise is insane. Or, worse, a slacker! Thank you.

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