A Thursday flash mob in Cairo’s Ramsis Station has been drawing some press attention, as reporters seem determined to figure out what the purpose of the event was. As usual, reporters try their hardest to emphasize the pointlessness and essential frivolity of any kind of digitally-organized gathering.
The point of this post is not to decide whether or not the flash mob constituted street art or some other political protest. It is to try, once again, to complicate our understanding of what constitutes success and failure in digital organizing. According toAl-Masry Al-Youm: “On Facebook some 174 people confirmed their attendance, but only less than a fourth of that number were present.” Organizer Balal Kamal then told the reporter, “Next time, I’ll make sure they come.”
Kamal should be a bit more pleased than himself than this – a 25% turnout rate means there were roughly forty attendees of the event, which is really not a bad number at all. Speaking from the perspective of someone who used to try to get people to turn out for union organizing events (a graduate student organizing campaign at the University of Pennsylvania), having someone “confirmed” doesn’t mean all that much even when you’ve spoken to the person over the phone. There’s a reason that political organizers have to literally knock on doors the day of the election and tell people that their neighbors are voting: a verbal commitment of any kind, whether digital, audio or even face-to-face, means nothing until the day of the event. In the context of digital activism, if campaigns could count on 25% turnout, they would typically be considered smashing successes. This is because the sheer number of people who get exposed to digital activist campaigns is staggering – if even a fraction of the people exposed to the campaign sign up for it, and if even a further fraction of those individuals turn out for events, that’s still often tens of thousands of people.
Remember: organizing is hard. Digital activism doesn’t necessarily make people easier to organize, it just makes them easier to reach, and in some cases easier to influence. You can call them “slacktivists” if you want, but they are the exact same people who used to tell us, sure we’ll show up for the TA strike, and then walk by us on the way to class saying “good luck!” Having 40 people show up to do performance art in Cairo for no particular reason – that’s actually a success.