A Vision of Post-Clicktivist Activism

Get innovative for #OCCUPYWALLSTREET

Markus Burke, 2008

Clicktivism is a Trojan horse, a tactical malware, deployed by a dying American empire. What better way to cripple the revolutionary potential of a whole generation than to embed the logic of the marketplace within the very tools that would-be revolutionaries use? Forget infiltrator "Anna" and the plague of agent provocateurs. The cop we need to worry about is residing in the computer code.

If #OCCUPYWALLSTREET fails, it will be because we've blindly adopted "best practices" put forth by wealthy Californian techies turned reformist campaigners. Their methods now dominate the way many organizers believe activism should be done, privileging a data-obsessed, metrics-oriented, technocratic approach which is closer to advertising than resistance.

Most clicktivist organizations today can be traced back to the $13.8m (£8.8m) sale in 1997 of a software company located in Berkeley, fifty miles from the heart of Silicon Valley, whose claim to fame was an iconic flying toaster screensaver. The husband-and-wife team behind the company, Wes Boyd, a computer programmer, and his wife, Joan Blades, a vice-president of marketing, became overnight millionaires. With an excess of leisure time, they founded MoveOn, the ur-polluter of activism with a combination of computer science and techniques of advertising such as focus grouping, market testing and banal copywriting.

Clicktivism uses invasive databases to meticulously track which members are opening emails, signing petitions or donating money. Instead of sending the same email to every person, digital activists tweak response rates by A/B testing subject lines and messages to determine which email will be most frequently opened. Goodbye passionate prose, the focus here is simply on the clicks. The effectiveness of these methods is declining each year but that hasn’t stopped them from becoming the basis for digital activism around the world.

Former and current MoveOn employees have colonized activism internationally with behemoth second-generation clicktivist organizations, like Joan Blades’s MomsRising, Eli Pariser’s Avaaz, and Ben Brandzel’s GetUp and 38 Degrees. It is worth noting that past MoveOn employees communicate via a private email list and thereby accomplish one of their greatest deceits of all: using their organizations as mouthpieces to celebrate each other publicly without disclosing their back-room personal ties. Even those without direct connections to MoveOn often share the common feature of being wealthy technocrats whose startups were bought by a mega-corporation. Into this category fall individuals like Aaron Swartz, early developer of Reddit (now owned by Condé Nast) and founder of the Progressive Change Campaign Committee. And some, like James Rucker, are both former MoveOn employees and rich technologists. Rucker co-founded, with Ian Inaba, the Citizen Engagement Laboratory, also in Berkeley, the umbrella organization that has adopted the ethically dubious approach of using a shared technology platform and overlapping staff to target niches while maintaining the illusion that there is no connection between the subsidiary organizations: ColorOfChange for African-Americans, Presente for Latinos, GetEQUAL for LGBT people and Food Democracy Now! for the organics movement. Many brand names, same company. Clicktivists leverage market segmentation and economies of scale to neutralize real dissent.

Clicktivist organizations grow like the capitalist cancer we are fighting. They choke out the less technically adept organizations and suck up substantial mainstream praise, typically by celebrating each other without disclosing their personal ties. Budgets bloated by philanthropic grants... "asks" watered down... emails written like bus stop marketing... uninspiring, mundane and frankly counter-revolutionary political agendas. Worse still, clicktivists export internationally the de-politicization malware that has decimated the radical left in the United States, transforming countless millions from activists into screen-addicts who want their political change to be as easy as signing an online petition.

The difficulty for rebels today, especially American radicals, is to disambiguate clicktivism from innovative digitally-inflected activism that brings us closer to sparking a global cultural insurrection against consumer-capitalism. And that is precisely the challenge we face as we gear up for #OCCUPYWALLSTREET, an event that many of us believe could be the political spark that finally releases the democratic fury of the people.

On the 17th of September, 20,000 nonviolent civilians will swarm Wall Street and set up an indefinite occupation -- complete with free kitchens and doctors, tents and communal childcare -- until their demand for real democracy is met. Imagine the revolutionary beauty of Tahrir mixed with the radical democracy of the Spanish acampadas. If we can pull it off, then this just might be the breakout moment that saves our democracy from the combined threats of plutocracy, oligarchy and corporatocracy. And with global climate change accelerating, there isn't a moment to lose.

How are we going to make #OCCUPYWALLSTREET happen? Not with clicktivism... not with fancy eye candy websites... not with waiting for others to organize for us... and not by following the tired tactical script that hasn't worked in a decade. Instead, it is time we risked being totally creative.

Look at #OCCUPYWALLSTREET upside down. What if it was a real world game, played by thousands, whose sole objective was to slip past the police lines (double points for parachuters) to touch the Wall Street charging bull on September 17? What if it was the largest synchronized flashmob ever organized? Or if #OCCUPYWALLSTREET was an aesthetic experience in the heart of the financial district -- a masked ball, a zombie walk, or a costume party in 18th century attire? No one can say in advance what will make the occupation last. So, may it be all these tactics and more.

Calling all culture jammers, augmented reality game designers, live action roleplayers, revolutionary flashmobbers, clandestine street artists and activists from the future: on the 17th of September, we need you to show us that what comes after clicktivism is a people's revolution.

Micah White, micah (at) adbusters.org, is editor at Adbusters. He gained an insider perspective on the folly of clicktivism after a brief stint with the Citizen Engagement Laboratory. He resigned in disgust.

Learn more about Clicktivism at clicktivism.org