Clicktivism, Schmictivism. Move on, literally.

Last week, The Guardian ran a piece called “Clicktivism is ruining leftist activism,” (12 August 2010) by Micah White. The basis of it was that digital activism has been diminished to mere tallying of things like clicks, email subscribers, Facebook followers… you name it.

While he offers a small glimmer of hope at the end, rallying digital activists to “jettison the consumerist ideology of marketing that has for too long constrained the possibility of social revolution,” he paints a pretty dismal picture of how digital activism campaigns are now run: just like marketers, it’s all about the numbers and how many you can get and nothing more.

The huge glaring problem with this piece? It stops there. It stops at giving a laundry list of campaigns that advertise a huge “member” base and the fact that digital activism has become nothing more than a numbers game.

Dave Karpf responded by highlighting how many activists have used this marketing model since well before the dawn of the internet (“Let’s move past the tired Clicktivism critiques please,” 12 August 2010). One of Dave’s main points is the fact that, in White’s criticism, there was no discussion or even mention of the process put in place after those clicks occur, the Ladder-of-Engagement.

He argues that “actual social justice organizing looks nothing like the fiction White compares digital activism to. Organizing is hard work. We create change by building power and mobilizing relationships, applying pressure on decision-makers that would prefer we went away. Real activism (to use White’s own phrase) isn’t about “the power of ideas or the poetry of deeds.””

[Sidenote: Dave points to a great example of White’s worst passage, although I’d be prone to pick “Exchanging the substance of activism for reformist platitudes that do well in market tests, clicktivists damage every genuine political movement they touch. In expanding their tactics into formerly untrammelled political scenes and niche identities, they unfairly compete with legitimate local organisations who represent an authentic voice of their communities. They are the Wal-Mart of activism: leveraging economies of scale, they colonise emergent political identities and silence underfunded radical voices.”]

On that note, I’d also like to have a marketing discussion with you.

As a marketing strategist and social media marketer who’s had many clients in the private and the non-profits spaces, I can’t tell you how many organizations I’ve seen that have tried to base success on click-through-rates, RSS subscriptions, Twitter followers etc. When those people become our clients, we sit them down day one and have a conversation about what success means to them. 100% of the time, success is not actually the number of followers they’ve got on any given social network or email list. It’s “more money (profit or donations), more supporters, more influence, more brand awareness, etc”. We make it clear that to accomplish those goals, you have to turn the numbers into something valuable – and that’s what we ultimately end up working with them on. It does no good if you have 10,000 Twitter followers if your goal is to create actionable, organized social change. Your 10,000 mean nothing. Zilch.

My point is that, if we’re going to rip apart this idea of Clicktivism, and basing everything on numbers etc, I’d like for Mr White to run his analysis of how these organizations turned those numbers into value for themselves. I would bet you that MoveOn has achieved what it would consider tremendous success from their “measly click-throughs.”

How? They went past the numbers and linked them to something more engaging than a click, which is only the first rung of the Ladder-of-Engagement. When White discusses the loss of passion for a cause, or, as Dave put it, the loss of soul of Digital Activism, he doesn’t look at the clicks that were turned into passionate supporters.

Esra’a hit the nail on the head in her post “Is digital activism ruined?,” (12 August 2010). One of her observations jumped out at me:

“We have people who really do preach that clicking a petition or a link or simply RTing something is “enough,” when it isn’t. Our job is to communicate how and why it isn’t – often we fail, because we ARE dealing with an overwhelmingly lazy (and sometimes numb or unaware generation) – even right here in the Middle East. I think this is something we digital activists have been dealing with for many years and only now it is being discussed on a larger scale.”

The real deal? This isn’t just a digital activism problem. Unfortunately for White, he simply drew a comparison between bad digital activist campaigns and bad marketing campaigns. Anyone worth their stuff as a marketer will tell you that the numbers is only the first step, and that those numbers must be linked to a strategy and goals if the campaign is going to be a success.

Mary added a comment supporting the idea of needing to put all of these “measurements” that White talks about in the context of a strategic framework.

“I utterly agree with you Esra’a – [clicktivism,] the bottom rung of digital activism (RTing, changing an avatar) is just that – the bottom rung, the first step. Strategic organizers can mobilize these people who self-identify as caring about a cause to take more significant actions with greater impact. Only intentional nay-sayers or people who don’t understand the mechanics of activism would equate the failure to mobilize “clicktivists” to achieve campaign goals with the failure of digital technology for activism. Just as in the offline world, digital campaigns are multi-faceted, including a range of tactics for a range of supporters over a long time horizon.”

It’s only then that we can begin to make sense of the numbers, and understand their true impact.

What do you think about Clicktivism? Does it have it’s place in Digital Activism?

7 thoughts on “Clicktivism, Schmictivism. Move on, literally.

  1. I think clicktivism is a serious problem for two reasons: the first, which you noted, is that too many people do advocate for online petitions or simple RT’s as a mode of driving change when it has little or no impact. Resources are spent. Expectations are set. Lessons are not learned. And, sadly, the whole process of online activism and engagement fails to evolve and grow as it should (to the point we might actually be accomplishing something). Clearly, clicktivism has its benefits — to the organization who is engaging in the effort, because it helps to build their list, raise funds to support their operations, etc. I don’t have a problem with organizations raising funds or building their list, however, suggesting that an online petition or similar will have an impact, and not acknowledging the real reason the group chooses to pursue such an activity, is a problem. The second reason, I believe, is actually more important — and you can file it under the ‘boy who cried wolf’ category. As technology has become widely available, and organizations of all types have rushed to find ways to ‘engage’ audiences, the people who are being asked to click, donate, take action and similar have been bombarded. We are all overwhelmed with asks. Now, most of the time people click because they believe in an issue, support an organization, or believe – truly, deeply, honestly believe – that their click will help to lead the desired impact. Every time that the expectation is set, that the promise is made that the click provided on an online petition, or similar, will help to advance a cause or issue, a member of the audience invests a little bit of their energy. When that promise isn’t kept, when that expectation isn’t met that little bit of hope, faith, willingness to commit, etc. is wasted. In the short-term. its not a huge deal… we have a pretty decent reservoir of faith and hope and energy and resources to draw from in most cases. But over time, we are damaging the credibility of real movements, and undermining the potential for future action. Every petition that doesn’t impact an issue — and most do not, perhaps none do really anymore — brings us one step closer to the day when organizations, who really need help and are doing incredible work, will ask and find themselves without an audience who is willing to take action. Someday, possibly soon, people will simply say ‘no, I sign on to your activity because you promise action, and you end up with all the benefits — my name, the ability to ask me for money, etc. And the issue I care about… nothing happened. Screw you.” All the short-term thinking, the easy deployment of cheap online tools, the serving of causes by organizations instead of solving them isn’t just a lazy way of operating, and a poor strategy for fulfilling an organizational mission… it also has long-term damaging effects on the entire community’s ability to deepen engagement and address serious issues facing our society.

    • @Brian Reich, Brian – I think you hit a lot of good points here. I agree with you, there’s bad clicktivism just as there is bad marketing. What we need to move towards is identifying what makes a clicktivism campaign a “good” one that brings value and reaches goals. How do we use those numbers we’ve got better? What do they mean to the bottom line?

      To your bigger issue, I also agree with you, but don’t know that this is a problem with Clicktivism per se. I think it’s a noise problem. One could argue that this sort of thing happens (billboard advertising, TV commercials) but I tend to agree with you that the digital age brings a lot more noise, a lot more quickly. Now we’re talking about aggregate numbers, right? What does Clicktivism mean when we’re talking about ALL of the Clicktivism campaigns out there? NOW what does success look like? I think these are all really good questions to be asking. On the individual level, to make a good campaign, you’d have to figure out how to rise about the noise (also the same problem that marketing has as well).

      I’m just still convinced that, within the current structure, clicktivism CAN work when the numbers are applied appropriately. Maybe the problem is that more education or work needs to be done to get to that point (again, same as in marketing…).

      I would also say that it’s a pretty wide generalization to boil Digital Activism down to online petitions and email click-throughs. That’s a mistake and isn’t taking in the entire picture.

      Thanks for your comment, good stuff in there!!

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