“Clicktivism” vs. “real” activism – everybody needs to just sit down.

Ever since the internet discovered that it could be used For Good, people have railed against the phenomenon now known as “clicktivism.”

Clicking a link/signing an online petition is not nearly enough (goes the argument) — and worse than that, doing these things gives people a false sense of achievement. Having re-tweeted some punchy hashtag (the argument continues), people think they’ve “helped,” and move on to their reality-TV-watching, double-cheeseburger-eating lives, now freed of any sense that they might need to do anything truly useful.

Inevitably, any social campaign that goes viral leads to a great deal of such handwringing — as one headline recently put it: “Is ‘clicktivism’ destroying meaningful social activism?”

But the question is far from new: I recall the wrath of an old friend when I had the temerity to suggest many years ago that folks could help raise funds for hunger relief via The Hunger Site (where I still click, by the way, on a nearly daily basis, along with all the other clickable causes that GreaterGood Network now supports).

Here’s what I don’t understand about the question, though: What world do these people live in? Or, alternatively: What past are they remembering? Did they once live in a world peopled with passionate social activists burning with a sense of mission, ready to chuck it all, or at least the occasional evening, for the sake of repairing the world?

Because in the world in which I live, and in the past that I remember, most people have never known very much about the world beyond their own bills and laundry piles, and even fewer have ever had the energy, wherewithal, or time to really get involved. For a lot of people, the 30-second investment of clicking a link, learning a few facts, and auto-filling an on-line form is, in fact, change.

I don’t really blame non-activists much for being non-activists. We all have a lot to deal with, and it can be draining to consistently choose to focus on heartbreaking news rather than on getting a break from lousy jobs or difficult family lives. You can’t organize people where you want them to be, you can only organize them where they are — and most people are already pretty busy.

On the other hand, people who are the type to do more than sign an online petition — will do more than sign an online petition. People who are the type to dedicate themselves wholesale to a cause — will dedicate themselves wholesale to a cause. Folks in either of those camps are not (in my estimation) likely to say “You know what? I was going make a nice donation/stage a sit-in, but now that I’ve Facebooked that URL, my work here is done!”

On the other hand, quick-and-easy activism does allow for at least four positive goods:

  1. People who might otherwise have had no interest, or inclination to be interested, suddenly find themselves a little better informed. Will that lead anywhere? Maybe, maybe not. But it’s useful to remember that increasing knowledge is the only thing that has ever led to action.
  2. By sheer dint of numbers, issues that had been entirely relegated to the back-burner of public discourse come to the fore (witness the on-going actions against Rush Limbaugh).
  3. On certain issues, every little bit actually does count — all those $10 donations texted to the Red Cross in the wake of natural disasters actually do add up (see also: Mass Action Is Only Possible If You Have A Mass Of People), and,
  4. Those of us who, by virtue of being human, find ourselves incapable of keeping up with all the issues that genuinely matter to us have a way to stay connected to communities and issues for which we would otherwise simply have no time.

Nothing achieved with human hands will ever be perfect. Money will sometimes be misspent, people’s good will misdirected, problems made not better but worse by our involvement. We can only try, and inevitably fail.

Those of us who are deeply involved with an issue have a real and clear moral responsibility to do our best to keep all of that to a minimum. But in the world in which I live, at some point, we’re going to fail.

And it seems to me that shaming people for trying their best isn’t a particularly good way to counter that — or to get them more involved.



  1. dmf

     /  March 14, 2012

    first increasing knowledge alone has rarely ever been a motivating factor except as it relates to one’s existing self-interests, second perhaps shaming is a poor motivator (that’s actually highly debatable) or better yet one which we would rather not employ but are people really doing their best or have they been sold a version of activism (usually by college profs and now pundits) that is lacking in desirable impact? can we no longer appeal to peoples’ better angels but must instead settle for high-tech gossip?

  2. I have no problem with people using the internet as a form of activism. I have clicked and forwarded online petitions–I think they have their role. There are folks who encounter an issue because of an online petition and then pay more attention the next time ’round, perhaps get more involved, etc.
    What I DO have a problem with are campaigns that claim that by clicking a link you are saving the world–that are intentionally promoting the idea that all you have to do is click a link to become a hero. Furthermore, I have a huge problems with campaigns that are based not only in oversimplified information–but actually false information–and highly sensationalized mis-information–in order to manipulate people’s emotions to get them to click, share, and become a hero.
    Not to mention my problem with campaigns that infantilize an entire country/continent, suggest that the only solutions to problems in Uganda will come from Americans, promote dangerous militarized actions, and are a part of the phenomenon that suggests that “raising awareness for its own sake” is all it takes to save the poor, helpless people of Africa.
    The Ugandans and folks from other African countries whose responses to Kony2012 I have been reading have been angry and upset not because of the “Clicktivism” aspect of the campaign, but because of all of the above–just for starters.

    • I somehow thought I might see you here!

      You’ll note, though, that I didn’t mention Kony, or even use the word “video” (other than to link to an article that discusses that campaign, because of the headline), because that campaign, per se, is not what I’m talking about, so I very consciously avoided it (perhaps I shouldn’t have linked to a piece that discussed it, but the headline encompasses the larger question, so I felt it was reasonable. I may remove the link to remove any doubt as to my intent).

      I’m talking about a larger set of demands that I see played out all the time for a kind of purity that is (to my mind) entirely unreasonable, and unhelpful. In the past week alone, I’ve seen it express itself re: Israel/Palestine, women’s reproductive rights, Wall Street executives, Occupy, President Obama, and on and on.

      I’ve written before about our need (very much including my own) to stop talking about “Africa” as if it were a single, helpless entity https://emilylhauserinmyhead.wordpress.com/2009/07/13/africa/ and you know that I have some very powerful opinions about what is right and wrong in the world and the duty we have to play in repairing it, not just adjusting our lens so that it looks like we want it to.

      But I would also say that this is where “Those of us who are deeply involved with an issue have a real and clear moral responsibility to do our best to keep all of that to a minimum” — it is important that we get things as right as we can. But that’s on us. People who are just trying to find their feet need to be encouraged in, not shamed away. IMalwaysHO.

  3. I thought you were (at least partially) responding to Kony2012, not just cause of the link, but also because of your tag. And–I do know (and respect, and largely share) your opinions about right and wrong in the world and the duty we all hold.
    And–I agree with you that folks should be encouraged towards deeper engagement, and not shamed away.
    It’s not the folks who have been clicking or posting the Kony video who I think have created the damage–it’s the people who made the video. The ones who should have had a real and clear moral responsibility to get things as right as they could.

    • Oops, that’s right, I forgot the tag! I was typing late at night and honestly remember thinking “wait, what? I thought I wasn’t doing that.” And then completely spaced on myself. Off to delete!

      (Just to explain better, now that I’ve deleted: Since I had the link there, I thought I should list it as a tag – there’s this weird reporter-like thing that comes over me that doesn’t entirely make sense but somehow translates to giving credit. Then I thought “but I thought…”, then spaced on myself. All is corrected now, and my apologies, because that really and truly wasn’t my intent).

  4. It seems to me that the problem is that there are people who think that the idea behind online activism is to replace in-person activism, and I don’t think that’s the case at all. Even the online campaigns aren’t all strictly online: every now and then I get something from change.org or CREDO or UltraViolet asking me to call my reps – who support virtually nothing I like, but that’s not the point – to let them know my position on something.

    But for the most part, the way I see those campaigns is as a first step: hey, add your name to this petition, if nothing more. If you’d like to help more, there are additional ways to become involved.

    I thought the analogy to McDonald’s in the Al Jazeera article was a good one, although not for the reason it was presented. I suspect there are people who will insist that you should not get involved in online campaigns because there are better ways to help out, just as there are people who will insist that you should not eat at McDonald’s because there is better food to be had. Sure, that works for some people in a lot of situations and for a lot of people in some situations, but how many of us have found ourselves short on time with the Golden Arches in sight? What, am I supposed to keep driving because there might be a Chipotle 30 minutes away?

    The analogy breaks down even more: while McDonald’s may in fact want you to eat every meal there, although they may not be as open about that as they were before SuperSize Me was aired, I doubt there are any online activism campaigns that want you to drop all your other efforts and click through theirs. It’s more that they’re saying hey, take a few minutes and click/call/share/whatever. Are there campaigns that assume an online petition will change everything? Sure. That doesn’t mean all online campaigns are worthless, any more than McDonald’s making some unhealthy food means that no one should ever eat fast food.

  5. helensprogeny

     /  March 14, 2012

    Another excellent post. As someone who not ten minutes ago clicked and sent a letter to my state rep at the urging of the ACLU, I appreciate your lack of judgment toward me. I’m not a political activist, not even close. Seriously unlikely to become one. I have other, equally compelling, equally important work to do and to which I devote a majority of my time and energy. So online petitions are a godsend to me, since they allow me to participate at least tangentially in issues which are genuinely important to me but which I don’t have time/energy/money/attention to devote to. My state rep just got one more small form letter in her inbox, telling her how one of her constituents feels about an issue. This is a very small thing. A grain of sand. But it is the grain of sand I am able to contribute and it may well be a grain of sand that tips the balance. Many grains of sand eventually become a truckload.

    So I go on, clicking and giving money where and when I can, voting at appropriate times. It beats the alternative, which basically consists of ranting or clucking over issues and nothing more. At least this way there are small contributions going toward things that matter.

    • This is exactly the sort of thing I was thinking about. I’m reminded of my friend who was for many years an organic farmer and very active in all manner of local environmental causes (not least: farming organically) who was once very apologetic about not knowing what was going on in Israel/Palestine beyond what she heard on NPR. I said something like: “Look at me, do you see me farming?”

      There will only ever be 24 hours in any given day. We all have to pick and choose. The beauty of the new technologies is they allow us to choose a little bit more, and at the very least be that much more connected to our fellow humans. And I think that really matters.

      • helensprogeny

         /  March 14, 2012

        I tend to think about it terms of “we’re all given our jobs to do”. I feel genuinely called to do the work I do, even as you are called to be a political activist. We both help make the world a better place, because the world needs both activists and farmers. And massage therapists. And thinkers and writers and painters and mechanics and grocery clerks. We all do important work. The blessing and the miracle of the internet is that now those of us engaged in work other than overt political activism can also lend our voices – even if it’s only a click on an online petition. It’s more than we would/could do otherwise, and every little bit helps.

        I think about the online petitions I’ve signed this year – Troy Davis, Planned Parenthood (several), ACLU (likewise). It’s not as great an involvement as a phone call or attending a protest. But the clicktivism I’ve engaged with also led me to actually, physically participate in the Occupy movement (actually sitting in a bit and donating food), which I likely otherwise wouldn’t have done.

        Political activism/involvement is all of that. The space shuttle needs o-rings as much as it needs fuel.

  6. Given that before the advent of the Digital Information Age, most people who felt passionate about a subject, but were isolated, or did not have the time or wherewithal to seek out activism, might have simply done nothing. It certainly was harder 25 years ago to get people to sign petitions in large numbers. My memory strikes back to being 17, living in Vermont, standing in front of a supermarket in the bitter cold, trying to get Jesse Jackson on the Democratic primary ballot by getting people to sign his petitions. It was none too easy to gauge the interest of the people passing in and out, let alone stop them and ask them to sign.

    I bemoan the derisiveness people have applied to on-line activism. For once, there is a means to gather together not merely dozens but thousands of people of like mind and desire. It is possible now to spread a message beyond the confines of a town or city, to make others aware of things that might afflict them, too, where they live. It is possible to assemble masses of humanity that simply cannot be ignored so casually. It allows people to put a visible stamp on their activism that they could not before, by encouraging others to join in the cause.

    The down side — and there always are — is when such activism is applied to trivialism or worse, used to cross purposes. Certainly, the Kony example should warn us that nothing is as clear-cut as it seems in an email or Tweet or Facebook status; the individual is still enjoined to use reason and logic, and not to merely take the word of the purveyor of the cause. On-line activism is a tool to bring back together the masses that were walled off from each other by the limitations of communication, that no longer exist.

  7. dave in texas

     /  March 14, 2012

    This is incredibly ungenerous of me, but I think a decent-sized percentage of the hue and cry against clicktivism comes from actual, boots-on-the-ground activists who feel the need to lord it over people they feel to be dilettantes.

    I saw this quite a bit during the 2004 Democratic primary campaign, when quite a few old-guard activists were openly dismissive of the Dean campaign, because it was ‘just an internet campaign’ and not a ‘real’ campaign. Completely ignoring, of course, that we were amassing a small army of volunteers to do the boots-on-the-ground work. Of course it was only a small percentage of the people who engaged the campaign through the internet that went out and knocked on doors and travelled to New Hampshire and Iowa, but the majority of the volunteers we got came to the campign first through the internet.

    • It is always for those who suffered and struggled through the past to look upon those who have embraced new ways of doing things as usurpers. Frankly, it’s to be expected. Heck, when you boil it right down, it is that very mechanism that is at the heart of the Modern Republican Party; the constant charge towards new ways of doing things and new ideas scares them, and so they lash out, trying to drag everyone back to the “good ole days.”

    • I do think there’s some of that — it’s the same impulse that drives people to laugh at someone else’s love of Coldplay (which, BTW: eeesh) or late arrival to a winning team’s bandwagon.

      But there is genuinely something very real to be said for the frustration one feels in the trenches. It can be a lot of hard work, and it actually matters that people understand that that’s important work that’s being done. It can’t be duplicated with a click, and people get justifiably frustrated.

      And as my friend Jen said above, it also really does matter how the activism is shaped and directed.

      The goal I think should be to be as honest as we all can about the possibilities and the realities around us, and to try our hardest to be respectful and engaged as we fight our way forward.

      PS Not actually sure that last sentence means anything. But I’m trying here.

      • Amen, sista.

        • I’m a little worried by how vague my last line was!

          • dmf

             /  March 14, 2012

            certainly how we do things is as important (and not really separate) from what we are doing, so modeling respect in these cases is key, but if everything is flattened out into social networking (and what we “like”) than the truly important things get less attention than they deserve and so we have a duty to make such contrasts as apparent as possible.
            maybe absurdbeats will drop some hannah arendt on us.

      • dave in texas

         /  March 14, 2012

        Oh, you’re absolutely right, and I completely understand about the frustration involved. After all, I am an old, whose first campaign work was with George McGovern in 1972. But I’ll be damned if I’ll throw out this cool new organizing tool simply because some folks aren’t prepared to accept its strengths as well as its shortcomings.

      • dave in texas

         /  March 14, 2012

        Also, too, I should acknowledge that my opinion on this has to be colored by being on the receiving end of that dismissiveness.

    • Neocortex

       /  March 14, 2012

      Yeah, I’m a boots-on-the-ground activist and also a clicktivist (I don’t understand the assumption that clicktivists aren’t boots-on-the-ground activists), depending on the issue and how much time I have to dedicate during the relevant period, and I think this is more or less right.

      I think some of it’s that people enjoy lording it over others, but I also think that people who sacrifice a lot for a cause come to resent people who aren’t doing so. You see this within boots-on-the-ground activism too. I’ve seen a lot of cases where people need to be reminded that the ability to put oneself in high-risk-of-arrest situations is privilege.

  8. the last line made perfect sense to me!

  9. Sorn

     /  March 15, 2012

    So how can a person be sure that the mone one sends via a click is going to a reputable organization? That’s always been one of my fears.

    • That is honestly one of my big fears, too. It can be paralyzing in fact, which is also not helpful.

      I tend to err, as best I can, on the side of organizations with which I have a personal connection, or big, well-established organizations — but we all see where that might have gotten me if I’d been sending money to Komen.

      At a certain point, we can only do as much due diligence as makes sense under our own circumstances (someone with a full time job and young kids at home might find it very hard to chase down annual reports and Charity Navigator ratings, for instance), and do our best. Some of our money will go astray. At a certain point, you can only try.

  10. SWNC

     /  March 15, 2012

    Emily, you are so wise and sensible. As usual.

    (Seriously, can I consult you when I need wisdom?)

  11. LizR

     /  March 15, 2012

    This is completely anecdotal, but my closest activist friend is very skeptical of the value of internet relationships as compared to in-person relationships (as an example – we’re 24 and we mostly communicate by actually sending physical letters to each through the mail). I don’t think that every activist fits this profile, but she’s definitely an extrovert who has to work to understand introverts. Being an extrovert helps with the knocking on doors type of activism, and lets her make a career out of exhausting and emotionally draining work. However, being an extrovert who doesn’t really think that any important or real relationships can develop online really inclines her towards not thinking highly of internet activism. I don’t know how common her exact set of beliefs are among hardcore activists, but if she’s at all representative it could explain some of the disconnect.

  12. When it comes to “clicktivism”, I have found that it seems to be who it is pushing the website to click that makes the difference. If the website is being pushed by people I know who are politically active in real live about issues–as as during the Komen defunding PP–then clicktivism seems to work, and things happened. Komen backed down, heads rolled.
    With Kony2012, I noticed a real lack of those who were political aware in real life paying it the slightest bit of attention. Instead those on my FB feed and twitter who were screaming about it were people who never give politics a second thought and probably couldn’t tell you where Uganda is.
    I thought that was an interesting dynamic, especially since Kony2012 is being held up as the poster child for how “clicktivism” is BS. I know this is just a small sampling from my own life, and not reflective of the population as a whole, but it was still striking.

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