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.

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Casual Politics: slacktivism as the tip of the technopolitics iceberg

Paper cover for Casual politics: del clicktivismo a los movimientos emergentes y el reconocimiento de patrones

My research on slacktivism has finally been published as a paper both in Spanish and Catalan at two “brother” journals: Educación Social. Revista de Intervención Socioeducativa and Educació Social. Revista d’Intervenció Sòcioeducativa.

This is work that I had already presented at two conferences — 9th International Conference on Internet, Law & Politics; II Jornadas españolas de ciberpolítica — and, thus, is now available in three languages: the former two plus English.

What follows — after the abstract — is a list of the references and full text downloads for the papers. The main idea of the papers is that if we look at slacktivism from the point of view of the “activist”, it is but true that it is a very low-commitment activism. But if we take the approach of the politician or the policy-maker, or if we take some distance and take a look at the whole landscape, what we find is that slacktivism is only a tiny portion of a huge cosmos of people very actively engaging in politics, extra-representational politics though, and that is why most of it flies underneath the traditional political radar.

Abstract

Politics have traditionally looked at the exercise of democracy with at least two implicit assumptions: (1) institutions are the normal channel of politics and (2) voting is the normal channel for politics to make decisions. Of course, reality is much more complex than that, but, on the one hand, all the extensions of that model beyond or around voting –issues related to access to public information, to deliberation and argumentation, to negotiation and opinion shaping, or related to accountability are based on institutions as the core axis around which politics spin. On the other hand, the existence and analysis of extra-institutional political participation –awareness raising, lobbying, citizen movements, protests and demonstrations– have also most of the times been put in relationship with affecting the final outcomes of institutional participation and decision-making, especially in affecting voting.

Inspired in the concept of «feet voting» (developed by Tiebout, Friedman and others) in this paper we want to challenge this way of understanding politics as a proactive and conscious action, and propose instead a reactive and unconscious way of doing politics, based on small, casual contributions and its posterior analysis by means of big data, emergence analysis and pattern recognition.

In our theoretical approach –illustrated with real examples in and out of the field of politics– we will argue that social media practices like tweeting, liking and sharing on Facebook or Google+, blogging, commenting on social networking sites, tagging, hashtagging and geotagging are not what has been pejoratively labelled as «slacktivism» (a comfortable, low commitment and feel-good way of activism) but «casual politics», that is, the same kind of politics that happen informally in the offline world. The difference being that, for the first time, policy- and decision-makers can leverage and turn into real politics. If they are able to listen. If they are able to think about politics out of institutions and in real-time.

Download

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Peña-López, I. (2013). Casual politics: del clicktivismo a los movimientos emergentes y el reconocimiento de patrones. En Educación Social. Revista de Intervención Socioeducativa, (55), 33-51. Barcelona: Universitat Ramon Llull.
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Peña-López, I. (2013). Casual politics: del clicktivisme als moviments emergents i el reconeixement de patrons. A Educació Social. Revista d’Intervenció Sòcioeducativa, (55), 33-50. Barcelona: Universitat Ramon Llull.
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Peña-López, I. (2013). Casual Politics: From slacktivism to emergent movements and pattern recognition. Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Internet, Law & Politics. Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Barcelona, 25-26 June, 2013. Barcelona: UOC.

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Casual Politics: From slacktivism to emergent movements and pattern recognition

The topic of slacktivism has been dealt in quite a relative extent but, in my opinion, in a shallow depth. In brief, slacktivism is used to refer to civic activities that require little commitment and/or exposure. As such, they do not deserve much credit and are labelled as frivolous, comfortable and often impactless civic action. This is not untrue: liking the website of a nonprofit organization or signing an online petition is closer to buying a sticker and placing it in your bumper than to volunteering the whole weekend on a charity or fighting the police of a totalitarian government when demonstrating before the presidential palace.

But that is only part of the story.

Let us take a more neutral example than humanitarian action or citizen politics to make our point. Let us imagine a university student playing truant once every month or once every two months.

From the individual point of view, this action will mostly have very little impact. The student will spend that morning in the bar with some other colleagues, they will be handled the notes of the class they missed and end of story.

But there are, at least, two more approaches.

From a collective point of view, this missing a class is but a small piece in a bigger picture: the strategies (conscious or unconscious) of socialization that youngsters carry on since their early adolescence until they enter adulthood. Thus, missing this class is only one more activity that has to be aligned with hanging out during weekends with friends, going to theatres, having their first couples and their first hangovers. Missing a class is, even if smallest, yet another way to shape one’s identity and place within the tribe. Missing a class is not something that happens in an isolated way.

We can also approach the teacher’s point of view. If classes are missed at random, the impact is surely almost null. But what if every time that any student misses a class they are actually missing the same teacher’s class? The aggregation of these scattered missed classes concentrated in the very same teacher can end up in empty class lectures. And this arguably is telling something about that specific lecturer. From the teacher’s point of view, it is not the same that one or two students do not show every now and then, that when they do it is always in their classroom and at the same time: uninteresting topic, bad lecturing, bad performance, etc.

Let us substitute missing a class by a tiny online action, the students by the citizens, and the teacher by the government.

If slacktivism is individually taken irrelevant, it does makes a lot of sense if taken collectively or from the government’s point of view.

Collectively, slacktivism rarely is an isolated activity, but the tip of the iceberg of major civic movements that run across different platforms and media. Slacktivism is usually fostered in the framework of exposed projects run by committed citizens.

From the government’s point of view, successful and popular slacktivism in its aggregate form can be easily compared with massive demonstrations which decision-makers usually take into account. Maybe not as legitimate interlocutors but surely as valid probes of the state of the public opinion.

This is what the communication Casual Politics: From slacktivism to emergent movements and pattern recognition tries to explain by performing a thorough review at what we know so far about online politics and social media enabled social movements. The communication was presented in English at the 9th International Conference on Internet, Law & Politics and in Spanish at the II Jornadas españolas de ciberpolítica. Below can be accessed the slides and full papers in these languages.

Abstract

Politics have traditionally looked at the exercise of democracy with at least two implicit assumptions: (1) institutions are the normal channel of politics and (2) voting is the normal channel for politics to make decisions. Of course, reality is much more complex than that, but, on the one hand, all the extensions of that model beyond or around voting –issues related to access to public information, to deliberation and argumentation, to negotiation and opinion shaping, or related to accountability are based on institutions as the core axis around which politics spin. On the other hand, the existence and analysis of extra-institutional political participation –awareness raising, lobbying, citizen movements, protests and demonstrations– have also most of the times been put in relationship with affecting the final outcomes of institutional participation and decision-making, especially in affecting voting.

Inspired in the concept of «feet voting» (developed by Tiebout, Friedman and others) in this paper we want to challenge this way of understanding politics as a proactive and conscious action, and propose instead a reactive and unconscious way of doing politics, based on small, casual contributions and its posterior analysis by means of big data, emergence analysis and pattern recognition.

In our theoretical approach –illustrated with real examples in and out of the field of politics– we will argue that social media practices like tweeting, liking and sharing on Facebook or Google+, blogging, commenting on social networking sites, tagging, hashtagging and geotagging are not what has been pejoratively labelled as «slacktivism» (a comfortable, low commitment and feel-good way of activism) but «casual politics», that is, the same kind of politics that happen informally in the offline world. The difference being that, for the first time, policy- and decision-makers can leverage and turn into real politics. If they are able to listen. If they are able to think about politics out of institutions and in real-time.

Slides

Speeches

Communication in Spanish:

Downloads

logo of PDF file
Communication (full paper):
Peña-López, I. (2013). Casual Politics: From slacktivism to emergent movements and pattern recognition. Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Internet, Law & Politics. Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Barcelona, 25-26 June, 2013. Barcelona: UOC.
logo of PDF file
Slides:
Peña-López, I. (2013). Casual Politics: From slacktivism to emergent movements and pattern recognition. Proceedings of the 9th International Conference on Internet, Law & Politics. Universitat Oberta de Catalunya, Barcelona, 25-26 June, 2013. Barcelona: UOC.
logo of PDF file
Communication (full paper):
Peña-López, I. (2013). Casual politics: del clicktivismo a los movimientos emergentes y el reconocimiento de patrones. II Jornadas españolas de ciberpolítica, 28 de mayo de 2013. Madrid: Centro de Estudios Políticos y Constitucionales.
logo of PDF file
Slides:
Peña-López, I. (2013). Casual politics: del clicktivismo a los movimientos emergentes y el reconocimiento de patrones. II Jornadas españolas de ciberpolítica, 28 de mayo de 2013. Madrid: Centro de Estudios Políticos y Constitucionales.

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