Slacktivism is like a First Kiss

You can’t make a baby by kissing.

This metaphor sounds weird, but bear with me. You can’t make a baby by kissing just like you can’t end poverty or elect a president or gain civil rights by joining a Facebook group or tweeting or forwarding an SMS.

But, like those first tentative gestures of affection, Facebook and Twitter and SMS are a place to start that can lead to something grand and life-changing. They are a first point of contact, a place to say “I believe this” “I agree with you” “this should change” and finally “let’s do something about it.”

Big change always starts small, and today that small start often happens digitally. Yes, like kissing, sometimes digital actions go nowhere. Sometimes you don’t even get a second date. But this does not mean there is anything wrong with digital tactics. It just means that change is difficult, the powers that be are arrayed against it, and activists often lack the strategic and material resources to achieve their goal.

To call digital activism slacktivism is to fundamentally misunderstand how change is achieved. It implies an incorrect belief that change just happens, and if you try something and don’t succeed, the tactic is worthless. But change does not just happen. It never has and it never will. Change is a process. And, because that process of change begins in the imperfect present, it needs to start with what is small and possible, with a blog post, with a tweet, with an email.

So let’s be honest about what’s not working, criticize tactics constructively, and get better at making change. But let’s not mistake the beginning for the end. Let’s stop referring to digital activism as slacktivism, but rather as digital tactics that may succeed or fail in a range of ways, but often move us closer to our goal. To quote the great Tracy Chapman:

Don’t you know
They’re talkin’ bout a revolution
It sounds like a whisper

Or at least that’s how it begins.

images: Flickr/Marlon Hammes & Auzigog

10 thoughts on “Slacktivism is like a First Kiss

  1. Hi Mary,

    I think the main issue is that digital activism in general isn’t slacktivism, but a lot of people lump it all into one barrel. Awareness shared digitally can be very effective and there are plenty of examples of that. The problem is the way this awareness often is shared: grow a moustache; announce your bra colour on your Facebook profile. These and other actions ARE slacktivism, not because they are simple, fast and social, but because there is nothing actionable or informative about them. Or there could be, but the vast majority of people and companies just latch onto the fun, marketable aspects.

    I would also classify something as slacktivism if it perpetuates misinformation, or if the little information it does provide/actions it encourages are moot, thus defeating the purpose of awareness.

    Some digital activism is doomed to fail because it just can’t cause necessary change and some gets lost along the way because of corporate interests, social ignorance, lack of critical thinking, etc.

    Then there are campaigns like Helene Campbell’s that was destined to work because all of the key elements of awareness were there, powerful forces were pushing it and the calls to action were clear. It was a huge success, largely because of social media.


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  5. Mary, Thanks for this! Your work is so inspiring and always gives me material to work with in both my scholarship and teaching about digital activism. As a PhD Candidate slugging her way through this work with much less street-cred than yourself, I am humbled, inspired, and grateful to learn by your example and from your presentations. Many thanks again!

    • Wow, Cassie, that is one of the best complements I’ve ever received in my whole life. Thank you so much!

  6. Of course, Mary! Your work is super important and timely. I hope one day to be “more like Mary” and to teach my students to move beyond “elegant consumption” of digital media to more activist-based approaches to social networking. I could imagine using your blog in a course on “The Rhetoric of Digital Activism,” for example. What do you think? 🙂

    • Ooh, “Rhetoric of Digital Activism”! Please share the syllabus with me when you create it. Sounds interesting! (And of course you can use my blog). I actually just wrote a paper analyzing digital activism discourse.

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