A few months back, after watching a SNL skit focused a commemorating Martin Luther King Jr. and also poking fun of how white people celebrate the holiday, I got inspired to write this blog series. At around 3:16, the following dialogue between two SNL actors, really made me analyze and want to learn more about digital activism:
MLK Jr.: “Are you a part of the movement?”
Young White Male: “Oh yea, I definitely protest, and it’s really easy now. You just take your phone here, push this Twitter button, and then type in #IAmFergeson or #We’reAllBlack or #Blessed, and then you’re done.”
MLK Jr.: “And that’s how you protest?”
Young White Male: “Yea.”
MLK Jr.: “That mountain is miles away.”
All jokes aside, I began to want to understand activism on Twitter, the leaders, and the hashtags that fostered awareness and harnessed thousands to join a movement. Is digital activism, as described above, really making that metaphoric mountain appear far away? What’s its role in our digital behaviors? How does digital activism play into our real worlds? When does digital activism become slacktivism?
Above is an example of what most people refer to as “slacktivism”. According to the Journal of Consumer Research, in a journal entitled, The Nature of Slacktivism: How the Social Observability of an Initial Act of Token Support Affects Subsequent Prosocial Action, slacktivism is “a willingness to perform a relatively costless, token display[s] of support for a social cause, with an accompanying lack of willingness to devote significant effort to enact meaningful change”. How do we measure a slacktivist’s attempt to endorse meaningful change? What does that mean to the millions that participate in the procedurality of digital activism? Although it is a simple act, slacktivists are performing an acknowledgement, proclaiming their support, and building upon a conversation. They are performing a labor of sorts.
Of course there is a superficial component to these effortless tokens of participation, as noted in The Nature of Slacktivism. In essence slacktivism is an act of impression-management, meaning people participate in these digital movements to self-promote to a large audience. Although true for some, that does not necessarily provide a clear picture of those that care about a cause and want to contribute, even in a simple way.
In the context of my topics, #BlackLivesMatter, DeRay Mckesson, and Black Twitter, digital activism, even slacktivism, like the SNL example above, plays a functional role in the prominence of these subjects. An Assistant professor at Michigan State, Gary Hsieh, denotes that slacktivism poses more complications than critics may observe. Hsieh looked at both sides of the situation, implying “sometimes digital activism can encourage additional action, while other times it leads to the problematic moral balancing”. He stated, “So the implications of our work is that framing of the civic actions matter. If we can get people to think of their actions as building on top of each other to support a larger cause, then I think we can better harness slacktivism.” Slacktivism can possess a positive affect in the building and sustaining of digital activism. Keeping the conversation alive allows a cause to thrive. This could very well be the case, in following the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson. The Ferguson Grand Jury received the most amount of attention this year on Twitter, as reported below:
Another observation stemming from digital activism that relates to the procedurality of digital activism or slacktivism, deals with how we see these hashtags play out in real life. Much like James Bridle’s “the new aesthetic”, digital activism has played a role in the way we see activism. The Washington Post recently wrote about #HashtagActivism, and its correlation to how we perceive the Internet and its juxtaposition to real life:
What’s unconventional is that participants in Saturday’s marches took those hashtags and wrote them on posterboard. That one of the Internet’s most dynamic phenomena is appearing in a format that can’t be clicked or linked to or collected as data says a lot about the relationship between what happens online and “in real life.”
How we see digital activism is now how we see “offline” activism. People are taking #BlackLivesMatter and making it a real life sign to hold and show the world -- bringing the online conversation to real life. An example of the new aesthetic.
Whether one perceives slacktivism has a negative instrument in digital activism, its existence as a performance, allows us to still observe its production and often, its contribution to the new aesthetic. Digital activism has allowed #BlackLivesMatter to become a movement and also a slogan. The slogan’s digitality, particularly the use of the hashtag, has become a way we see digital in the real world, and changing the way we communicate and protest.
Even if its just a quick protest Tweet.