Monday, February 25, 2008

From uni: thoughts on online activism

At my university tutorial today we managed to get onto the subject of social activism, particularly online activism. I was curious to hear an opinion that online activism was a reason for a reduction in physical, more visible, one might even say "real", activism. I can understand the reasoning: the ability to pop up a "Causes I support" application on Facebook or put an e-mail address onto an online petition is much easier and, in theory, has much less impact than a person actually showing up to a protest or putting their verifiable name and address onto an offline petition. The argument seems to be that such actions aren't an indication of real commitment, but a shallow, insufficient one which gets mistaken as sufficient commitment because, hey, at least we're doing something. Consequently no actual sufficient commitment is made.

I'm not sure I agree. Online activism, as opposed to what one might (inaccurately) call "real" activism, has a much lower barrier to entry in terms of participation. What that means is that while the effect might not be as great per person, there is a much greater chance of getting more people onside. Any offset in people's willingness to actually get away from the computer to do some sort of offline activism has to be weighed against the people who wouldn't otherwise be particularly engaged in any kind of activism but can be persuaded to display your little "Cause" app, sign your petitions, join your mailing list, and from there perhaps even become an offline activist as well as on online one. You might actually gain a body at a physical protest rather than lose one.

There were other reasons put forward for what seems to be a decline in offline activism as well, such as the increased competitiveness of everyday economic life leaving people less time and effort away from the rat-race that they can put towards a non-economic agenda. An opportunity for a less time-consuming form of activism is helpful under such circumstances, if admittedly not as appealing to the especially dedicated.

But overall, I think that the decline in offline activism has mostly been from a perception that it isn't working anymore. The signature example is the Iraq war. The mobilisations against that invasion were some of the most impressive protests that I can remember, but the invasion wasn't stopped. In the wake of the US government's intransigence on the issue, people I think have been forced to working at the most basic level of person to person to try and keep people engaged on the issue. The less imposing, lighter form of activism that is online activism is I think a response to the inability of offline activism to readily effect the social change desired.

It remains to be seen whether this form of activism is definitely abetter or worse at that goal than more traditional forms. But I think that in the context of the current Western social milieu, it is necessarily a better choice.

No comments: