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Activism After Clicktivism by Micah White

For over 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.

[See Gabe Lyons’ interview with Micah at the Q gathering in Austin.]

The fundamental problem with this technocratic approach is that metrics only value 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.

[Another perspective: Read “Digital Activism” from Orion Magazine.]

The demise of clicktivism is rebooting activism. It is setting off a paradigm shift in social change that opens the door to a new generation of activists. This rejuvenation is emboldened by three tactical insights: revolutions spring from epiphanies; the internet is best suited for meme-war; and daring real-world actions are the indispensable foundation of social change.

Gone is trust in watered down talking points and the “best practices” of keyboard-messiahs. Metrics are being forgotten, website logs deleted, analytics ignored. Instead, passionate poetry is regaining precedence. The challenge of sparking epiphanies is the new revolutionary priority. But this does not mean we shut our eyes entirely to the potential of technology.

On the contrary, the next generation of activists will readily acknowledge that the internet plays a crucial tactical role. In the battle for the mind, the speedy dissemination of brain-bombs, image-ambushes and thought-viruses is strategically essential. This is meme-war, after all, and the web levels the battlefield against the propagandists of consumerism. Still, real world action is the only way to achieve social revolution. Clicking a link can never replace taking the streets. Nor can we rely on digital technologies to get people off the screens.

Activism is scary, social change is initially unpopular and insurrection always starts with disobedience. Trepidation is, therefore, the healthy response to the realities of culture jamming. Moments before victory, every revolutionary has felt the gut-pang of anxiety. But clicktivism encourages us to shirk away from these emotions, to hide behind the mouse, to embrace the inaction of passive clicking. Against this tendency, let us welcome butterflies back into our bellies.

Activism will be reborn when culture jammers find strength in the exhilaration of resistance, the intensity of protest and the emotions unleashed by taking part in upheaval.

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In your opinion, does Micah overstate the demise of clicktivism? Is there still a place for internet organizing? What is the best way to inspire people to “real world action?”

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Editor’s Notes: The article above appeared in Adbusters issue #93, and was printed here by permission. The photograph featured above is “Twirling Wires” (2001) by Roger Ballen from his Shadow Chamber series.