The Big Ideas of 2011

Activism after Clicktivism

How to energize the political left.
Activism after Clicktivism

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For more than a decade revolutionaries and culture jammers have been paralyzed by the computer screen. Trusting the promises of technocrats and digital visionaries, dazzled by the viral hype surrounding MoveOn and the like, we’ve come to rely far too heavily on a particular form of internet organizing. Believing that clicktivism could spark social change, we deployed market-tested messaging, glitzy Ajax websites and social networking apps. We entrusted our revolution to San Francisco techies and put our faith in the methods of advertising. But we have become so dependent on digital gimmicks that our revolutionary potential is now constrained.

Clicktivism is the pollution of activism with the logic of consumerism. Activism is debased with advertising and computer science. What defines clicktivism is an obsession with metrics. Each link clicked and email opened is meticulously monitored. Subject lines are A/B tested and talking points focus-grouped. Clicktivists dilute their messages for mass appeal and make calls to action that are easy, insignificant and impotent. Their sole campaign objective is to inflate participation percentages, not to overthrow the status quo. In the end, social change is marketed like a brand of toilet paper.

The fundamental problem with this technocratic approach is that metrics value only what is measurable. Clicktivism neglects the vital, immeasurable inner events and personal epiphanies that great social ruptures are actually made of. The history of revolutions attests that upheaval is always improbable, unpredictable and risky. A few banal pronouncements about “democracy in action” coupled with an online petition will not usher in social transformation. As Malcolm Gladwell put it recently, “activism that challenges the status quo – that attacks deeply rooted problems – is not for the faint of heart.” Clicktivism reinforces the fear of standing out from the crowd and taking a strong position. It discourages calling for drastic action. And as such, clicktivism will never breed social revolution. To think that it will is a fallacy. One that is dawning on us.

The demise of clicktivism is rebooting activism. It is setting off a paradigm shift in social change that opens the door to a new generation of activists. This rejuvenation is emboldened by three tactical insights: revolutions spring from epiphanies; the internet is best suited for memewar; and daring real-world actions are the indispensable foundation of social change.

Gone is trust in watered-down talking points and the “best practices” of keyboard messiahs. Metrics are being forgotten, website logs deleted, analytics ignored. Instead, passionate poetry is regaining precedence. The challenge of sparking epiphanies is the new revolutionary priority. But this does not mean we shut our eyes entirely to the potential of technology.

On the contrary, the next generation of activists will readily acknowledge that the internet plays a crucial tactical role. In the battle for the mind, the speedy dissemination of mindbombs, image-ambushes and thought-viruses is strategically essential. This is memewar, after all, and the web levels the battlefield against the propagandists of consumerism.

Still, real-world action is the only way to achieve social revolution. Clicking a link can never replace taking to the streets. Nor can we rely on digital technologies to get people off the screens.

Activism is scary. Social change is initially unpopular and insurrection always starts with disobedience. Trepidation is, therefore, the healthy response to the realities of culture jamming. Moments before victory, every revolutionary has felt the gut-pang of anxiety. But clicktivism encourages us to shirk these emotions, to hide behind the mouse, to embrace the inaction of passive clicking. Against this tendency, let us welcome butterflies back into our bellies.

Activism will be reborn when culture jammers find strength in the exhilaration of resistance, the intensity of protest and the emotions unleashed by taking part in upheaval.

Micah White is a Contributing Editor at Adbusters and an independent activist. He lives in Berkeley and is writing a book about the future of activism. www.micahmwhite.com or micah (at) adbusters.org

48 comments on the article “Activism after Clicktivism”

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Hack the planet

When a botnet of a couple of million slaves start attacking what has now become vital infrastructure the "power of the internet" will feel very real.

"Physical action" as seen in the development of a virus to attack nuclear reactors can very much be started from a computer

Hack the planet

When a botnet of a couple of million slaves start attacking what has now become vital infrastructure the "power of the internet" will feel very real.

"Physical action" as seen in the development of a virus to attack nuclear reactors can very much be started from a computer

Anonymous

Why is it that people on this site would rather argue about the rights and wrongs of the various types of activism than actually work together to determine how these differences could be combined to co-create the change everyone appears to desire? Maybe part of the reason why change is slow to happen is because activists spend more time finding gaps in each others arguments instead of highlighting the strengths each side has to offer. Is the challenge not to find a solution to the individualism and socioeconomic dysfunction that capitalism appears to create? I ask why the cooperation between groups continues to be so isolated. Wouldn't change be more effective if some form of cooperative action was taken and people actually organized a movement that utilized the strengths of many rather than a few?

Just a thought...

Anonymous

Why is it that people on this site would rather argue about the rights and wrongs of the various types of activism than actually work together to determine how these differences could be combined to co-create the change everyone appears to desire? Maybe part of the reason why change is slow to happen is because activists spend more time finding gaps in each others arguments instead of highlighting the strengths each side has to offer. Is the challenge not to find a solution to the individualism and socioeconomic dysfunction that capitalism appears to create? I ask why the cooperation between groups continues to be so isolated. Wouldn't change be more effective if some form of cooperative action was taken and people actually organized a movement that utilized the strengths of many rather than a few?

Just a thought...

Mirza

People think that terrorists are crazy and irrational. That is far from the truth. Terrorists are terrorists because they are too logical - and this is a bad thing. Obviously terrorism is not a good thing.

How are terrorists too logical? If you are a Muslim who believes that USA is waging global war against Muslims and killing millions of Muslim children, what would you do? If you are Christian who thinks that abortion is murder of babies, wouldn't you do what ever you can to save innocent unborn babies? If you believe that global warming will destroy the planet, than obviously you need to stop that at all costs, right?

Soon the fallacy of terrorism becomes obvious: If we all acted this way, civilization would be impossible. Human society depends on people obeying societal norms even when you think that the direction humanity is taking is wrong.

That brings us to this article. In short: keep advocating your position, signing petitions and working within system. But if something makes you uneasy because it is illegal, than don't do it! Maybe small acts of vandalism or cultural jamming and resistance are not terrorist acts but the principle is still the same.

You would not want some religious nut dragging you by force into the river and baptizing you to save your eternal soul from damnation, so what right do you have to restrict other people and vandalize their property to impose your world view?

Mirza

People think that terrorists are crazy and irrational. That is far from the truth. Terrorists are terrorists because they are too logical - and this is a bad thing. Obviously terrorism is not a good thing.

How are terrorists too logical? If you are a Muslim who believes that USA is waging global war against Muslims and killing millions of Muslim children, what would you do? If you are Christian who thinks that abortion is murder of babies, wouldn't you do what ever you can to save innocent unborn babies? If you believe that global warming will destroy the planet, than obviously you need to stop that at all costs, right?

Soon the fallacy of terrorism becomes obvious: If we all acted this way, civilization would be impossible. Human society depends on people obeying societal norms even when you think that the direction humanity is taking is wrong.

That brings us to this article. In short: keep advocating your position, signing petitions and working within system. But if something makes you uneasy because it is illegal, than don't do it! Maybe small acts of vandalism or cultural jamming and resistance are not terrorist acts but the principle is still the same.

You would not want some religious nut dragging you by force into the river and baptizing you to save your eternal soul from damnation, so what right do you have to restrict other people and vandalize their property to impose your world view?

Anonymous

If people didn't act in defense of their own beliefs then things would never change. People must follow their convictions and act accordingly, even when it means breaking the law. Especially when horrible things are happening. Laws are not always just.

Anonymous

If people didn't act in defense of their own beliefs then things would never change. People must follow their convictions and act accordingly, even when it means breaking the law. Especially when horrible things are happening. Laws are not always just.

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