Clicktivism is ruining leftist activism
A battle is raging for the soul of activism. It is a struggle between digital activists, who have adopted the logic of the marketplace, and those organisers who vehemently oppose the marketisation of social change. At stake is the possibility of an emancipatory revolution in our lifetimes
The conflict can be traced back to 1997 when a quirky Berkeley, California-based software company known for its iconic flying toaster screensaver was purchased for $13.8m (£8.8m). The sale financially liberated the founders, a left-leaning husband-and-wife team. He was a computer programmer, she a vice-president of marketing. And a year later they founded an online political organisation known as MoveOn. Novel for its combination of the ideology of marketing with the skills of computer programming, MoveOn is a major centre-leftist pro-Democrat force in the US. It has since been heralded as the model for 21st-century activism.
The trouble is that this model of activism uncritically embraces the ideology of marketing. It accepts that the tactics of advertising and market research used to sell toilet paper can also build social movements. This manifests itself in an inordinate faith in the power of metrics to quantify success. Thus, everything digital activists do is meticulously monitored and analysed. The obsession with tracking clicks turns digital activism into clicktivism.
Activism after Clicktivism
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.
A Vision of Post-Clicktivist Activism
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.
The world is in desperate need of a cultural revolution. While some of us slave to produce objects we will never be able to afford, others toil to consume luxury items they do not need. Neither lives a fulfilling life, neither is happy and both play a role in the continued desecration and evisceration of the earth. Consumer society is founded in this vicious cycle that chains some to the factory workbench and others to the screens in cubicles. It is an increasingly inhumane cycle that is spiraling out of control, dragging humanity into the abyss of climate wars and cultural insanity. That much we know. But what remains unclear is how to change the situation.
One answer that has come to dominate all others is that the future of activism is online. Dazzled by the promise of reaching a million people with a single click, social change has been turned over to a technocracy of programmers and “social media experts” who build glitzy, expensive websites and viral campaigns that amass millions of email addresses. Treating email addresses as equivalent to members, these organizations boast of their large size and downplay their small impact. It is all about quantity. To continue growing, they begin consulting with marketers who assure them that “best practices” dictate crafting a message that will appeal to the greatest number of people. Thus focus groups, A/B testing and membership surveys replace a strong philosophy, vision for radical change, and cadre of diehard supporters.
It is no wonder that their campaigns soon resemble advertising: email messages are market tested and click rate metrics dominant all other considerations. In the race for quantity, passion is left behind. But with each day they find it harder to elicit a response from their “members”. Soon, they hit the pitiful online-activist industry average: less than one in twenty of their members are clicking on their emails, the rest just hit delete. (It is a well-known secret within Bay Area progressive organizations that a 5% response rate is the norm.) Thus, despite their massive, gargantuan list size, they can only count on rallying a minuscule response for any of their actions. To increase click rate, they water down their messages and make their “asks” easier and “actions” simpler. Soon, the “click to sign” deception is rolled out and simply opening an email link is treated as signing a petition. And yet, while their membership list grows larger, the active portion of their base disappears. And what is worse, as well-meaning digital activists soon discover, they are being outdone by disingenuous advertising campaigns posing as true agents of change.
Why Gladwell is Wrong
A couple of months ago, in a polemic for the Guardian website, I lambasted the folly of clicktivism. I accused digital activists of jeopardizing the possibility of social revolution by accepting the logic of marketing. Clicktivism’s “ineffectual marketing campaigns spread political cynicism and draw attention away from genuinely radical movements,” I wrote before warning that, “political passivity is the end result of replacing salient political critique with the logic of advertising.” Now Malcolm Gladwell, in this week’s New Yorker, has added his voice to the debate.
In the first part of Gladwell’s essay, he tells the uplifting story of how four college students sparked a wave of protest against racial segregation. He draws an important distinction between high-risk activism that flies in the face of social mores and low-risk activism that is socially accepted. Anti-segregation sit-ins are a powerful example of the former and Gladwell’s retelling of those events are deeply inspiring. He then concludes that digital activism encourages low-risk activism while what is needed is high-risk actions.
On this point Gladwell and I agree. Where we disagree is on the cause of digital activism’s propensity to demand very little. In the Guardian piece, I explained that this tendency is due to clicktivism’s adoption of the logic of advertising. Clicktivists are obsessed with metrics, I pointed out, and this “results in a race to the bottom of political engagement”. Because, “to inflate participation rates, these [clicktivist] organizations increasingly ask less and less of their members”. Gladwell concurs. As he puts it: “But how did the campaign get so many people to sign up? By not asking too much of them.” But when Gladwell tries to explain why digital activist organizations ask so little of their members, he takes his argument in the wrong direction entirely. This is because Gladwell fails to make the crucial connection between digital activism and advertising.