Clicking on a Paypal button is not activism

The October issue of The New Yorker has an extensive piece by Malcolm Gladwell on the issue of “on line activism. Gladwell makes a point of presenting the (by now not very novel) argument that online activism is pointless and pretty much diluted. From the piece:

The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960. “Social networks are particularly effective at increasing motivation,” Aaker and Smith write. But that’s not true. Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece. The next biggest Darfur charity on Facebook has 22,073 members, who have donated an average of thirty-five cents. Help Save Darfur has 2,797 members, who have given, on average, fifteen cents. A spokesperson for the Save Darfur Coalition told Newsweek, “We wouldn’t necessarily gauge someone’s value to the advocacy movement based on what they’ve given. This is a powerful mechanism to engage this critical population. They inform their community, attend events, volunteer. It’s not something you can measure by looking at a ledger.” In other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.

But here’s why I think Gladwell misses the mark on the topic: social media was never meant as a tool for activism in the first place. It is a tool to spread ideas, to “infect minds” with new possible ways of thinking. I am well aware of the risks (echo chamber being a significant one), but, if anything, social media is a way of being heard and challenging existing forms of media distribution. Also, as noble and important as a “Save Darfur” project is, I do not think it has the same impact, in people’s minds, as “Save whatever needs to be saved locally, that impacts my community directly”. Unless someone runs a local chapter of Save Darfur, where people have the possibility to meet and discuss local actions, a virtual space to raise awareness on Darfur is only going to “raise awareness” (as tautological as this may sound). It is not a call to action. Donating money, unless in the face of a recent catastrophe is not a mobilizing tool. People suffer from “philanthropic causes fatigue”. It is difficult to convince someone (people who are generally dealing with their own financial issues to begin with) to part with their money. Besides, I do not think there is anything remotely romantic in donating money (which is a basic “feel good” requirement to engage people to donate in the first place). Those who are sensitive to social causes would probably want more than to be seen as a “cash cow” on a Facebook page.

If activism is to succeed using social media it is not by asking people to hit a PayPal button, but by organizing hyperlocal, rhizomatic groups that engage in concrete actions.

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