In defense of slacktivism. An interview.

Big red button
The Big Red Button, courtesy of włodi

In Casual Politics: From slacktivism to emergent movements and pattern recognition I stated that the important thing in slacktivism is not the isolated person, the slactivist, but what lies underneath the tip of the iceberg that slacktivism might represent. Tiny casual actions, when they come by millions, can tell lots of things on behavioral trends and patterns, as they can tell lots of things on who are fostering them. Slacktivism is but a part of a new world where stories are transmedia, and that is why slactivism is so important.

Ana Spinnato-Pujol, a sophomore at Georgetown University, interviews me on the phenomenon of slacktivism. It is always welcome when people make others think, so I’ll here share my thoughts on her good questions.

What do you believe the pitfalls of ‘slacktivism’ are? Do you think lack of credible information is one of them? What are the ‘pros’ of casual participation?

The most obvious pitfall of slacktivism is detachment from the goal to be achieved. Detachment in two senses: low commitment from the person, that can even believe that they contributed a lot, when they didn’t, or when they could contribute much more; and detachment in undervaluing or even trivializing the importance of the goal to be achieved, in the sense that, all in all, it only deserves a tiny fraction of one’s attention/effort.

I don’t think it is a matter of information — because most of the times there is plenty — but lack of attention, of willingness to go deeper into that pile of information which is actually available.

On the other hand, the pros of casual participation are, at least, two. The most important is raising awareness on a given topic. If we take slacktivism not as having things done but having things being heard, its potential is huge. Slacktivism works very well word-of-mouth (surely more than spending a year in a postconflict zone, for instance), it is viral, and contributes in very quickly and broadly spreading some news about an issue, to position it in the public agenda.

Besides, many people are increasingly reluctant to enrol in big nonprofits, many times bureaucratized and not that different from political parties. Casual participation enables to participate not in a big infrastructure, but on a very specific project.

In addition, most people have little time to participate, to engage in civic actions. It is costly, in terms of time and resources. Casual participation inverts the terms of the relationship between people and goals: instead of people having to “go after” a specific action, the action finds the person in the appropriate time and space, at that moment where you wished you could participate. It may be irreflexive, but it may definitely be not: people already made their minds up, and that casual participation found the perfect ground where to flourish.

What kind of information do you believe is most important when it comes to generating online content to spread awareness for a movement?

The main asset of slacktivism and casual participation is that, most of the times, what lies underneath is not that casual: there is plenty of people that worked for it to happen. The most important thing, thus, to generate online content is that it is backed by a solid “brand”, an experienced movement or a well reputed organization. The specific action might be casual but the people behind should definitely be not.

That said, there are two main things that normally work well. The first one is that the message is sent by someone in your closest circle of acquaintances, especially someone knowledgeable in the field: e.g. that friend of yours that is a teacher at a school sending you information about financing public education. The second one is that information and the action to be participated is timely, especially in thematic matters. And this is not only about segmentation of the target audience (e.g. children health for new parents) but also in what matters at a given time (e.g. a call for transparency after a corruption scandal).

What do you believe the role of online awareness and social media might be for a cause like climate change? How might it be different from the protests and movements you’ve researched?

I do not think of online awareness as something opposite to “traditional” movements, but as a new toolbox. I like to see activism unfolding thanks to ICTs — not being substituted. Indeed, I cannot think of isolated actions online or offline. I usually think of a pyramid or a tree of actions, all of them coordinated, with the same vision and mission, but with different goals and messages to adapt to the different realities and platforms. I think the idea of “transmedia” is what we will be seeing more and more: to create a storyworld made up of different stories in different platforms and supports.

In other words, it is not that online awareness should be different from other kind of movements, just like a carpenter will not think of building a table having to chose between a hammer and a screwdriver. The whole policy or action will have to be designed in a comprehensive way. From the start.

How do you envision the future of effecting change through online participation? What do you believe is the future of social movements?

In the same train of though, I do not envision “online participation” but participation. There will be several tools and several layers or fields of action, they will be coordinated, they will talk to each other.

I do believe that ICTs will enable a higher degree of granularization of actions and, with thus, the concurrence of much more actors working in a more distributed way. There will be much more people doing smaller things, and thus a need for someone to coordinate ex-post — and not only ex-ante — what will be done. In other words, this someone is very likely to spend less time planning and managing, and more time gathering and capitalizing the small actions.

What other tidbits of knowledge do you have about online activism that you think might be appealing to a young readership?

ICTs are seriously challenging the role of intermediaries. Strictly speaking, they are challenging the need that a single institution performs several — and some times disperse — roles at the same time. ICTs will enable separating roles without a loss of efficiency or efficacy. Institutions will the be able to get rid of these roles where they add little value and focus instead on the ones where they add much more value and where they may have no competition at all.

Institutions should not be afraid of getting rid of dead weight and concentrate in what people give them credit for, what is that constitutes their reputation, their legitimacy.

This will in consequence give some sovereignty back to the citizen and hopefully initiate a much needed debate between institutions and citizens, a debate that, nowadays, most of the times, is not fluent — when not directly rotten.

If you need to cite this article in a formal way (i.e. for bibliographical purposes) I dare suggest:

Peña-López, I. (2016) “In defense of slacktivism. An interview.” In ICTlogy, #152, May 2016. Barcelona: ICTlogy.
Retrieved month dd, yyyy from http://ictlogy.net/review/?p=4421

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About Me

    I am Ismael Peña-López.

    I am professor at the School of Law and Political Science of the Open University of Catalonia, and researcher at the Internet Interdisciplinary Institute and the eLearn Center of that university. I am also the director of the Open Innovation project at Fundació Jaume Bofill.