Preaching to the Choir

Image from www.yetanotherengineer.blogspot.com
Image from http://www.yetanotherengineer.blogspot.com

I just re-stumbled across an article by Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker Magazine about the feebleness of online activism. I’ve found myself having similar discussions over and over with friends here in Indonesia and also in Australia for the past three or four years now. About the feebleness and superficiality of social media activism on one level, but also the possible links between seeming decline of physical activism and the rise of social media activism (or clicktivism as it’s often called).

In the year between the end of high school and the beginning of university, I spent a lot of time engaged in non-violent direct action at a forest blockade in East Gippsland. The area was eventually recognised by the government as requiring protection because it was a water catchment area, which was what the activists organising the campaign had argued all along.

I feel that if we had the monolithic forms of social media that we have now I don’t believe this task would have been made any easier, nor would the process have been any more rapid. In fact, I doubt the movement would have had the success it did.

The campaign process, along with non-violent direct actions in the forest areas which were at threat from logging were concerted campaigns over years and involved a dedicated movement of people with structure and roles to ensure the battle to protect the forest was being waged on multiple fronts. From policy, to the physical protection of the forest, to gaining public support.

We also engaged and lobbied industry, the CSR sector, and sometimes used street art as a tool (as you can see in the image below, the work one of my old housemates and fellow campaigners).

My old housemate scaled this smokestack and painted it as part of our idealistic street art campaigning vision. he was arrested for it. Image www.flickr.com
My old housemate scaled this smokestack and painted it as part of our idealistic street art campaigning vision. It was dangerous, probably very silly, and he was arrested for it. He’s now an environmental scientist at Melbourne University and focusses his concerns about environmental issues through other channels. Image http://www.flickr.com

We did this also in an alliance with several organisations and groups with interests in preserving this water catchment area.

After a few months in the forest I found that frontline activism was hard for me, and that in turning 18 I probably didn’t want to get an adult criminal record, so I joined to government lobbying and political pressure side of the forest campaign world. What I learned from all of this as a young person is that activism works, especially when it is engaged with the real world and approaches problems with realistic goals and measures.

What I see increasingly now though is the rise of the online armchair activist. Always, alwaaaays sharing the problems of the world with their social networks, engaging in hashtag chittering and chattering online about the latest moral outrage of the world. Always preaching to the frigging choir.

Gladwell makes some pretty good arguments about why social media driven activism might not be all its’ hyped up to be.

Basically, that effective “activism” is fought mostly in the physical world. Historically and also in the present.

He notes the reasons social media activism is so appealing mostly for the “feel good factor”, and that social media activism only appears superficially to work “because it doesn’t ask too much of you”.

Clicking, liking, sharing and so on “doesn’t involve financial or personal risk; it doesn’t mean spending a summer being chased by armed men in pickup trucks. It doesn’t require that you confront socially entrenched norms and practices. In fact, it’s the kind of commitment that will bring only social acknowledgment and praise”.

“Activism that [actually] challenges the status quo—that attacks deeply rooted problems—is not for the faint of heart. But in the outsized enthusiasm for social media, we seem to have forgotten what activism is”.

“Social Media activism does not motivate people to make a real sacrifice, but by motivates them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice”.

“We are a long way from [sit-ins of] the lunch counters of Greensboro”

Read the article “Small Change: Why the revolution Will Not be Tweeted” here – http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2010/10/04/small-change-3

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