Slacktivism: Do Networks Make A Difference?

Have you ‘liked’ a political group on Facebook lately? Retweeted for a cause on Twitter? Shared a link to KONY2012 or another advocacy video on Youtube? Think you’re making a difference? Well, hold on to your armchair, because you might just be a slacktivist.

What is a slacktivist? A Slacktivist is someone who engages in “political activities that have no impact on real–life political outcomes, but only serve to increase the feel–good factor of the participants.” “Political Activities on The Internet: Slacktivism or Political Participation By Other Means is an academic article by Henrik Serup Christensen that explores whether or not  online activities  really have an effect on political change and actually lead to political participation in ‘the real world’

I wonder if we’ve become a little numb lately to all the causes, issues, asks, promotions, petitions, campaigns, and e-newsletters that flood our inboxes and social media feeds on a daily basis. I know I have.  It’s easy to question the potency and ultimate outcome of these activities- as really, any self-repecting activist should. Critiques of slacktivism say that not only is online political activity less effective than direct action of demonstrations and protests, for example, but that it actually leads to lower levels of political participation overall, as online activities tend to replace ‘real life’ ones.

These critiques make me think of a reading from week 1, Malcolm Gladwell’s article “Why The Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted.” Effective social justice movements, Gladwell says, are formed with ‘strong ties’ that involve a clear risk, a personal connection, and most importantly, a central location and organizational hierarchy. Today’s networks, on the other hand, are loose, disorganized networks that promote many-to-many communication models.

In his article, Christensen seeks evidence that slacktivism can change things. What he found is that tracking the effectiveness of online activities such as signing petitions on political decision making is not easy. Many organizations such as Move On claim that policies have been changed because of their mobilizing campaigns, but it is difficult to quantify. Although there is a weak link between online activism and other forms of political participation, it is mainly in the form making donations to a specific cause or campaign.

The one area where online political experiments can work is in building awareness around an issue. The Occupy movement is an example of this. The initial attention it garnered through a decentralized network of people occupying public spaces and confronting police built media attention around the issue of wealth and economic injustice in America, but failed to build a stronger movement that was able to enact real political change on these issues. Other examples of successful ‘slacktivist’ online websites and campaigns include, a constituency building site that was able to generate real-world results through massive global mobilization.

Christensen concludes that online political actives are “at worst harmless fun and can at best help invigorate citizens.” In today’s networked world where people are flooded with information, “ and offline activities are not necessarily mutually exclusive forms of engagement.” The best campaigns recognize that online activities should be treated as a catalyst to direct action, and do not just aim to generate media and public attention. One example I found of this that I think could really work is a site called Carrotmob is a site that organizes “buycotts’ to reward local socially responsible businesses. Businesses compete to make a difference in their communities and are in turn supported by community members.

I think this model of participation works because it a) aims for a local approach. It’s not signing a petition about a national issue or watching a video about a place far away, but can be directly experienced by a community, and b) uses incentives and encourages a specific real-world “action,” (in this case, spending money).

Can you think of other models of online activism that “work”? Do you think ‘slacktivism’ changes the nature of political protest in a negative or a positive way? What’s better, a decentralized but large network, or a specifically organized group that relies on a structured approach and has a geographical location?

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  1. Session 3, Digital electioneering and advocacy « UW Digital Democracy
  2. Slacktivism: Armchair Activists or Effective Networks? « Digital Infinity
  3. Christy's Houseful of Chaos » Blog Archive » Creating Political Change: activism and slacktivism

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