Tag Archives: social media

Why the ‘Activism vs. Slacktivism’ Debate is Irrelevant

Activism vs. Slacktivism

Social media campaigns have been widely critiqued for reducing activism to hitting the retweet button or sharing a Facebook post. This article suggests that slacktivism can be counter-productive, as sharing on social media might lead you to feel like you’ve done your part and absolve you of the responsibility to do any more. Similarly, Sarah Ross challenges her readers to be critical when they see online activism and asks, “are you willing to go further than the click of your mouse?” Zachary Sellers is also a critic of social media campaigns, claiming that they are ineffective, that they spin messages to their advantage, and that they are more about advertising than action.

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Photo Credit: Elijah via Compfight cc

I think these critiques are valid and often true, which makes me critical of my own participation in social media campaigns. Is my retweeting and online support always backed up by concrete action? And does it always need to be? Isn’t is also important to speak out about issues to show that they are important and need to be addressed? I know that what I choose to say (and not say) sends a message, so I wonder about the implications of refusing to participate in social media campaigns. Does that silence send the message that those causes are not important? These are questions I’m still wrestling with, and I welcome feedback in the comments section below.

Despite criticisms, it is obvious that some social media campaigns have been critical in raising awareness of issues, creating discussion, generating political will, and bringing about action. 40 million tweets from #BlackLivesMatter were analyzed and found to have been essential in driving conversation about race, criminal justice, and police brutality. The #BlackGirlMagic movement has led to debate, discussion, and supportive communities, which has furthered the topic of representation of Black girls. #MMIW has been used to share stories and to put pressure on the government to launch a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

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Vigil for Missing & Murdered Indigenous Women on Parliament Hill, Oct. 2015

Photo Credit: patimbeau via Compfight cc

So, the main distinction between powerful social media activism and ‘slacktivism’ that I’ve seen emphasized is that online activism is powerful only when coupled with real world activism. I wonder about this. Is it like a formula?  

social media campaigns + real world action = meaningful activism?

I’m not so sure.

Problematic Real World Action

Although I understand the importance of retweets being backed by real action, I think it’s also important to point out that “real world action” can also be problematic. Volunteering and charity work can sometimes perpetrate racist, sexist, classist, ableist attitudes and reproduce stereotypes about the very people the work is supposed to be helping.

Examples of this:

Recently, 5 Days for the Homeless took place at the University of Regina. For this campaign, five students slept outside for five nights to raise awareness about homelessness and to collect donations for Carmichael Outreach. It faced a great deal of criticism for sensationalizing homelessness and reproducing stereotypes about homeless people. You can read Carmichael’s response to these critiques here.

My point here is that the activism vs. slacktivism debate is basically irrelevant, as both online and offline activism can be equally problematic and oppressive. Instead of choosing sides, we should be critical of all types of activism campaigns so that we can work to break down oppression and avoid contributing to it. I will be the first to acknowledge that we will often fall short, make mistakes, and contribute to oppression without meaning to. The important thing is acknowledging this when it happens and not say things like: “But I didn’t mean to reproduce stereotypes about homeless people…” or “But I was only trying to help those poor children in Africa!”

Good intentions don’t matter when they are coupled with oppressive actions. In order to do anti-oppressive work, we have to acknowledge our implicitness in oppression and work against it at every turn. This means being critical of ourselves and the way we structure or take part in activism campaigns, in both online and offline spaces. 

So how do we move to meaningful activism (online or offline)?

I’m not pretending that I know exactly how we do this or that there are clear steps to “doing activism right.” But I think the most important thing here is that we must operate in solidarity with the people we are advocating for.

Whether it’s through participating in social media campaigns online or taking action in face-to-face spaces, we need to focus on the experiences of those who are marginalized. Instead of focusing on ourselves – our feelings, our good intentions, the cookies we receive – we need to make marginalized voices and stories the driving force behind the work we do. If we don’t listen to these voices and stories, how can we understand the issue or know what work needs to be done?

We need to continuously educate ourselves on the issue we are working against but not expect those who are marginalized to do the educating. They already have enough burdens without us making it their responsibility to teach us about the oppression they face. We also need to continuously educate those who share our identity. For me, that might mean engaging White people in conversations about race or engaging able-bodied people in conversations about how disability simulations can reproduce stereotypes.

Many of these ideas about how to move to meaningful activism came from these great articles:

So You Call Yourself an Ally: 10 Things All ‘Allies’ Need to Know by Jamie Utt

How to Tell the Difference Between Real Solidarity and ‘Ally Theater’ by Mia McKenzie

The Case Against ‘Allies” by Mychal Smith

I’ll end with this quote, from Jamie Utt’s professor:

“If you choose to do social justice work, you are going to screw up – a lot. Be prepared for that. And when you screw up, be prepared to listen to those who you hurt, apologize with honesty and integrity, work hard to be accountable to them, and make sure you act differently going forward.”

These are our responsibilities – to be critical of all the social justice work we do (both online and offline), to focus on and work in solidarity with those we are advocating for, and to learn from our mistakes and do better going forward.

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Social Media Is Not A Brainwashing Monster

As I engage with my classmates’ posts regarding digital identity and building online networks, I find myself continually coming across a strange paradox. People are acknowledging how important it is to build a positive digital identity and how beneficial it is to have a supportive PLN yet simultaneously framing social media as this evil, wraith-like entity that threatens to brainwash us and take over our lives.  

It sounds like a great plot for a horror movie. We’ve created a monster, and it will destroy us! (Oh wait, that’s Frankenstein. Give up on the horror movie; it’s been done.) It sounds silly, but posts and videos demonizing social media in this way are extremely prevalent.

Posts on Disconnection

My classmate, Larissa, wrote this post describing how she is able to disconnect from the craziness of social media when she travels. She encourages readers to live in the moment rather than be constantly attached to social media via our smartphones.  

Inspired by Larissa, Ryan wrote this post about the importance of “unplugging” and the need to find a balance between technology/social media and what’s happening right in front of our eyes. He challenges readers to a “digital detox,” or a commitment to take a break from at least one form of social media.  

His post also included the popular “I Forgot My Phone” video, which I’ll embed here:

This video sends the message that as a society, we are far too attached and addicted to our phones. It accuses us of being more focused more on capturing moments than enjoying them or fully engaging with them.

Ryan received many comments on his post as others affirmed his beliefs in the power of disconnecting:

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Similarly, Matthew’s post “Enjoy the moment and put that phone away!” describes the disconnectedness that social media causes during daily interactions with others. He also criticizes concertgoers who forget to watch the performance they are at because they are so busy trying to capture it through pictures and videos.

And finally, Gillian describes herself as a “slave to her cell phone most days of her life” in her post “The Ambiguous Balance.” She states her belief that constant indulgence in cell phone use is changing the face of society and ends with this spoken word poem by Prince Ea.  

This piece asserts that social media is controlling our lives as we spoil our precious moments by recording them, take pictures of all our meals, and “perform in the pageantry of vanity.” It encourages listeners to disconnect so they can be closer to humanity.

Social media as Frankenstein’s monster

Evidently, the idea of social media taking away from our ability to fully participate in life resonates with many of us, and I think there is some truth behind it. However, I wonder.. What if social media, much like Frankenstein’s monster, is being misunderstood? What if its purpose and all of its possibilities are being horribly misconstrued?

Remember that I am thy creature; I ought to be thy Adam, but I am rather the fallen angel, whom thou drivest from joy for no misdeed. Everywhere I see bliss, from which I alone am irrevocably excluded. I was benevolent and good — misery made me a fiend. Make me happy, and I shall again be virtuous.” –The monster to Victor Frankenstein (Frankenstein, Mary Shelley)

The monster had the potential to be good; however, continual rejection and isolation drove him to seek revenge on his creator. Now, I’m not saying that social media is going to seek revenge on us if we reject it and choose to disconnect. What I am saying is that we are making problematic distinctions between what is “real, authentic, human” connection and what is “virtual, inauthentic, less human” connection.  

This critique of the “I Forgot My Phone” video helps to illustrate my point. Nathan Jurgenson asserts that the whole premise of the “we are connected but alone” idea is false, citing research that states that people are using social media to connect more with others, even face to face. He then exposes the real problem with the video – the obsession with the real, human, and connected. This obsession positions those who disconnect as more human and more alive than those who use mobile devices/social media, who are positioned as less-human-unthinking-robot-zombies.  

I think it all goes back to the idea of performance vs. authenticity. People see the way social media can force us to “perform in the pageantry of vanity,” as evident in stories like this one. Although this type of performance can be very harmful, I think it’s important to remember that the conflict between performance and authenticity did not start with social media. Because identity is fluid, not fixed, performance happens IRL just as much as it happens online.

The performers of this amazing spoken word piece describe it better than I can:

The point is that we are constantly enacting particular discourses as well as changing the way we portray ourselves to suit the social situation we find ourselves in; however, people often attribute this idea of performance solely to social media.

As this important piece states: “The disconnectionists see the Internet as having normalized, perhaps even enforced, an unprecedented repression of the authentic self in favor of calculated avatar performance.” But I have to ask – what is authenticity? Is authenticity authentic? Is it really a thing?

What’s the point?

Instead of fully disconnecting, maybe our goal should be to use social media productively. Maybe the new “digital detox” could be identifying what types of social media use are beneficial to us and what types are serving the purpose of comfort blanket or distraction.

Online interactions are not repressing our authentic selves. You will still be performing your ever-changing identity whether you decide to disconnect or not.

Social media is not an evil monster that brainwashes and enslaves us, or a mysterious entity that blinds us to the beautiful, authentic, human things we used to enjoy. Rather, it is another space where we can make powerful connections with others – connections that are just as real as our face to face interactions.

Why we cannot stay silent: performing online to build networks of solidarity

Digital Sleuthing and Context Collapse

In my ECMP 355 class, we recently engaged in a digital sleuthing activity, where we were put into groups and challenged to find out and record as much information as we could about an individual in about 7 minutes. This activity launched discussion around the importance of having a strong, positive digital identity in today’s world. This article even suggests that digital profiles, including professional Twitter, YouTube, and blog accounts, will soon replace the paper resumé.

Naturally, after digital sleuthing Alan Levine, I felt compelled to Google myself and check out my digital identity these days. When I did, I was pleasantly surprised (and slightly uncomfortable) with the results. Everything that came up on Google’s first page was actually about me. It came up with my portfolio, my Twitter account, pictures of me, my profile on the Regina Cougars Athletics site, my Storify account, an article about Katia and I presenting at an education conference in London, my YouTube channel, and my Pinterest account.

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What freaked me out a little more was looking through the images associated with my name: 6 pictures of my face; a bowl of the delicious honey lemon chicken I pinned on Pinterest last week; pictures from #TreatyEdCamp; STARS Regina logos; and pictures of my friends, classmates, and profs.

Google knows me very well… (and therefore, anyone with Internet access potentially knows me that well). It creates an interesting and strange dynamic. I can no longer control who knows what about me (context collapse); I can only control what is out there for people to know about me.  

Performing Online (and IRL)

I like to refer to “what is out there for people to know about me” as how I perform online. To me, ‘performance’ means mean the way I choose to portray myself in certain online spaces (ie. the topics I deem important enough to tweet/write about, how I choose to respond or not respond to controversial articles, whether or not I share that picture of the super healthy salmon, quinoa, and broccoli dinner I had last night, etc).   

I like to use the word ‘perform’ for a couple of reasons:

  1. It felt a bit like acting when I first started sharing on social media. I was unsure of myself, I was overthinking my hashtag use, and I was constantly wondering what others would think about what I was sharing. However, I sneakily pretended I knew what I was doing over and over again until I actually felt like I knew what I was doing. 
  2. I’m taken to the Butler/Foucault idea of performativity – that everything is performance, that we are constantly enacting particular discourses, and that identity is fluid rather than fixed.
  3. I think performance is a constructive starting point (and sometimes the only possible starting point), as I describe in this blog post and Arthur Chu describes in this critique of #NotYourShield.

Performing as Anti-Oppressive Educator

I perform the role of anti-oppressive educator online in many ways:

I include #starsregina, #socialjustice, #treatyed in my Twitter bio, and I identify my location as Treaty 4 Land.

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I tweet about social justice issues.

I write (not often enough) about privilege, racism, sexism, and mental health.

Why engage with these difficult topics in online spaces?

  1. Because they are important. Plain and simple.

It can be terrifying to share about these topics, as Kendra describes in her beautiful post, The Untold Story; however, silence often means complicity in the dominant narrative.

Audre Lorde challenged others on their silence in an incredible speech she gave way back in 1977:

“What are the words you do not have yet? What do you need to say? What are the tyrannies you swallow day by day and attempt to make your own, until you will sicken and die of them, still in silence?

She also warned against staying silent due to fear:

“For we have been socialized to respect fear more than our own needs for language and definition, and while we wait in silence for that final luxury of fearlessness, the weight of that silence will choke us.”

And finally, she emphasizes that speaking out bridges differences:

“My silences had not protected me. Your silence will not protect you. But for every real word spoken, for every attempt I had ever made to speak those truths for which I am still seeking, I had made contact with other women while we examined the words to fit a world in which we all believed, bridging our differences.”

You should probably just go read the whole thing. It’s amazing.

  1.  Because sharing and bridging differences in this way builds powerful networks.

We talk all the time about the importance of building a PLN and how these connections provide us with invaluable resources and relationships, but it’s even more than that. Our networks help sustain us when we feel we are falling short, when we lose ourselves in fear and drift back toward silence.

As Sherri Spelic eloquently describes in this post:

Pooled with other folks’ resources, the radical can grow, the imagination nurtured, a collective power set free. Precisely when I am feeling small, deflated or unheard, when I am asking myself that critical question: “Who am I to do this work?”, this is when I have to see that I do not and need not walk alone.”

So I will continue to perform in real life and online, aiming to maintain and strengthen my positive digital identity. When sharing, I aspire to overcome my fears, reject my silences, and respect my need for language, definition, and discussion around important, sometimes discomforting topics. In doing this, I hope to build a network that will support, encourage, and challenge me, but most of all, remind me that I’m not alone.

Has your PLN ever helped you through challenging times or times when you felt isolated? Has your network ever encouraged you to break your silence on an important issue?  Comment below – I’d love to read your thoughts on this!