Slacktivism, Transparency, and the Measure of Success

Now I for one thought the connections between Invisible Children and Fundamentalist Christianity became quite apparent when co-founder Jason Russell went on a naked rampage. This, if nothing else, served to underscore the trite and, frankly masturbatory nature of slacktivism: the decentralized, interconnected, 21st century’s stand-in for real brick-and-mortar (or rather megaphone-and-placard) activism. Strikes, demonstrations, and happenings, however, have not so much been replaced by web-friendly alternatives as supplemented by them.

Invisible Children lies at the far end of the spectrum: internet activism is also responsible for facilitating the coordination of protests, both in the US and abroad. Spanish Indignatios, Egyptian protesters, and Occupy Wall Street above all, have relied on social media to raise awareness and to widen the impact of these movements in general. Raising awareness alone, however is not enough.

Let’s look at this phrase: what does it mean to “raise awareness?” Does making people aware that an injustice is occurring change anything at all? Does it work to bring change to the injustice? It’s very easy to click “like” on Facebook, it’s a little bit more difficult to spend $15 and buy a KONY2012 package deal; what is really difficult, however, is ensuring that the actions you take actually go towards helping the cause and not, as the KONY2012 campaign did, support violent anti-gay legislation and inadvertently fund right-wing extremist Christian groups.

More important than whether an action in the abstract is bringing change is whether your specific action is making a difference. As we have seen from WikiLeaks, the internet can be a monumental tool for promoting transparency, but this cannot be utilized to its full extent so long as a conventional market-capitalist model continues to be adopted.

And Invisible Children, above all, is ‘nonprofit’ cultural capitalism at its finest: the product being sold is a feel-good sense of ‘social justice-achieved,’ the currency traded for it is donations which indirectly fund the very forces we are trying to weaken, but even more so it is exposure and popularity: raising awareness writ large, which serves as nothing more than the means by which the process is continued.

Slavoj Zizek explained in an RSA Animate the pitfalls of capitalist charitable giving: we cannot progress so long as we are destroying with our left hand what we create with our right.

The Occupy Movement has often been accused of lacking direction or purpose, but this misreading perfectly exemplifies the tensions between the potential roles of the internet in social activism and the burden of passé frames of reference. OWS is not linear, it does not have structure as an older generation might define this word; it has multiple points of access and like Shiva revealing his thousand-faced form has manifold facets expressing themselves, or being expressed by the media covering it.

What is notable, however, is the emphasis on presence, on thoughts occupying physical space and not existing in the netherworld of the web: the internet works for organization, for distribution of information, but all of the real action takes place on the ground. Rather than being derided, as certain critics cannot help but do, the Occupy model should be hailed as something uniquely organic, fluid, and suited to the new tribalism of the 21st century world.