What Ever Happened to Slacktivism?

Will Rinehart
Jan 12, 2017 · 6 min read

In the days after Obama had taken the White House, a buzz surrounded the campaign’s organization and its online presence. Howard Dean was the first to incorporate the Internet into his fund-raising efforts, but it was Obama that had leveraged new digital tools for his broader campaign. Online political activism had become mainstream.

In the months that followed, a reactionary view began to coalesce. Rather than augmenting politics and extending its reach, technology was making it less potent. What had actually erupted was the rise of slacktivism. Evgeny Morozov explained,

“Slacktivism” is an apt term to describe feel-good online activism that has zero political or social impact. It gives those who participate in “slacktivist” campaigns an illusion of having a meaningful impact on the world without demanding anything more than joining a Facebook group.

Morozov’s derision of online activism echoes those of Robert Putnam, who believed that the social glue of society was becoming less adhesive in the digital era. And yet, the evidence for Putnam’s and Morozov’s view was highly contested at the time.

In a series of articles and a book, Morozov made his worry very specific,

Let’s not get into trying to find answers to purely speculative questions like whether the utility of the very public work of 1000 “slacktivists” equals that of the very quiet and often unattributed work of one traditional activist. The real issue here is whether the mere availability of the “slacktivist” option is likely to push those who in the past might have confronted the regime in person with demonstrations, leaflets, and labor organizing to embrace the Facebook option and join a gazillion online issue groups instead. If this is the case, then the much-touted tools of digital liberation are only driving us further away from the goal of democratization and building global civil society.

Consider what Morozov is saying here. His worry is that the option for online demonstrations give individuals the ability to opt out of more committed versions of protests. This might be true. But it is equally as true that spaces online give people the ability to demonstrate, resulting in spillovers to more committed forms of social engagement later.

Marshall McLuhan first popularized this way of thinking. Technology gives the human body certain kinds of extensions, allowing it to act in new spaces, but it also forces upon it amputations. Morozov focuses on the technological amputations, especially in the sphere of political organizing, and in doing so commits to a moral judgement about these communication technologies, a line of criticism that runs throughout the book “To Save Everything, Click Here.”

At its core, “To Save Everything, Click Here” is an argument against a kind of method. Internet-centrism is his term for the totalizing worldview that understands human relations through the lens of the Internet. Instead of more robust moral conversations, argues Morozov, Internet-centrism aligns its conversation along the prime values of the Internet. Openness, transparency, efficiency, and connectivity frame this world and guide it towards specific solutions, or what he calls “solutionism.”

What does solutionism look like in practice? Well, politics is inefficient and messy; it needs to be reformed to be efficient, orderly and connected like the Internet, says the solutuionist. And so, the open data movement is launched.

In contrast, Morozov thinks technology needs to be made adversarial, forcing us to confront moral issues. Parking meters that transfer extra time would allow us to realize the gifts of previous travelers. Search results that force us to reveal something intimate about yourself would make us consider the privacy implications. Morozov wants us to experience a kind of moral dialectic through these objects. He wants us to have a different conversation about politics. Internet slacktivism needs to be understood within this broader context, of which he has been explicit,

That radical critique of technology in America has come to a halt is in no way surprising: it could only be as strong as the emancipatory political vision to which it is attached.

Emancipation through technology isn’t a new idea. Quite the opposite. It is suffuse in the history of Silicon Valley and the Bay Area. Deliberate and unintentional interactions among military researchers, academics, and corporate scientists helped to form the technical features of the medium. Meanwhile, the region was the center of the countercultural movement in the 1960s, and thus has always had a sort of broken optimism of emancipation. As Hunter S. Thompson deftly explained not long after the Summer of Love in 1968,

So now, less than five years later, you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark — that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.

The failings of this aborted revolution were wrapped into a technological optimism for the power of the networked computer. Howard Rheingold, who would popularize the medium as the first executive editor of Wired, often used the space to explore the ties running between computer technologies and “the granola-eating utopians, the solar-power enthusiasts, serious ecologists and the space-station crowd, immortalists, Biospherians, environmentalists, [and] social activists.” Another seminal figure in the space, John Perry Barlow, is both a former lyricist for the Grateful Dead and a founding member of the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Although it is his distinct brand, Morozov advances a vision that’s now pushing 50 years.

The intervening years haven’t been especially kind to the slacktivist viewpoint of technology. Mohamed Bouazizi sparked Tunisia’s uprising in 2011 after a video of him on fire spread online, an act of self destruction to protest the police who had confiscated his things. Soon after, Tunisians took to the streets to demonstrate against their government.

Inspired by Tunisia, a wave of self-immolations swept Egypt, driving people to take to the streets. At least in its beginning stages, there is little dispute that the Arab Spring was sustained by the new technologies and the visceral images that they were able to share.

In the same way, the Black Lives Matter movement in the United States exists as a direct result of the online organizing around Ferguson. Those who were concerned and conversing about the events at Ferguson, connected with each other online and began to organize for change, separate from the local protests. And with Black Lives Matter, one can easily see the impact of slactivist crossover into actual activism, disrupting presidential candidates, and driving the conversation. And perhaps, with the election of Trump, these ne

The real hole in the vision of an emancipatory politics is that it tends to overlook the gradual change. In looking for that grand restart, it misses the hard work being done in communities by organizations that are overworked and staffed with brilliant individuals. It doesn’t have the vision to notice the lawyers driven by their ethical and moral sensibilities, working on thankless cases in obscure districts. The vision skims over the efforts to educate policymakers by think tanks and advocates both in the states and Washington DC. In all of the work I have ever done in Washington DC, I only rarely see Morozov. Instead, you see countless others that don’t have multiple book titles to their bio, working well below their pay grade to make the world better.

Morozov is smart, well read, and has thought extensively about the promise and peril of technology. There is no doubt about that. But in that knowledge there is a distance. It is a distance which Richard Powers captured when talking about virtual reality,

The reason why the public is seduced by virtual reality, why it has embraced this fantasy of the disembodied self, is the desire for the ahistorical, the disembodied will. There is something in us that loves the idea of placing ourselves into immortal space, where our wishes can be met without the drag and impediment of stuff.

The kludgey world in which we live is filled with that stuff; it is filled with impediments. But if we want to actually make a difference, we have to inhabit it. Morozov’s vision isn’t political, an art of the possible. It is merely critical.