I found a post on Cyborgology of particular interest a number of days ago, posted a reply, which led to an interesting email exchange with Jenny Davis. We agreed to start a dialogue about the new media and the politics of small things, specifically about the case of Occupy Wall Street. Her post today, my reply in a bit when I finish my work at the European Solidarity Center in Gdansk. -Jeff
Two recent posts on Deliberately Considered, one by Scott Beck and the other by Jeffrey C. Goldfarb, examine the role of social media in social movements. They demonstrate the way in which social media allow us to harness the power of the people, contest the interpretations of mainstream media, organize, and mobilize. They show how, through communications on digital networks, physical bodies have come together in physical spaces, protesting both ideological and material conditions.
The points made by Beck and Goldfarb are important ones, yet I believe they should be extended. In particular, we need to address not only the ways in which these new media technologies work to bring together and document the physical bodies who occupy physical spaces. We also must examin the role of those whose activism never goes beyond the digital realm. We must look at how this latter group, colloquially referred to as slacktivists, matter.
Slacktivism matters in two interrelated ways: 1) increasing visibility and 2) generating a particular zeitgeist surrounding social movements.
Not everyone reads and/or watches the news, and in the age of the 24 hour news media, those who do read and/or watch the news must necessarily be selective in what they consume. What we share on Facebook or tweet on Twitter, therefore, works to increase the visibility of particular news items. Moreover, by linking a news item to a familiar other, to someone inside an actor’s personal network, is to imbue the news item with relevance. Status updates and tweets about Occupy Wall Street, for example, not only spread information about the protests, but also locate the protests in the digitally networked space(s) of everyday life, designating them as part of a relevant conversation.
This sharing, of course, is rarely (if ever) done in a neutral manner. Rather, Tweeters and Facebookers accompany shared news stories and web links with commentary that reveals a particular bent, or interpretation of the content. The content is therefore not just made visible, but impregnated with meaning in a web of social relations. When shared and interpreted on a larger scale, this meaning-laden content generates a “feel” or “zeitgeist” surrounding a historical moment and the related social movement. This is clearly seen in the vast international support for both the Arab Spring (and now Arab Fall) and the Occupy Wall Street protests. We understand these as movements by and for the people. We share a sense of anger towards oppression by the powerful few. We applaud those who strive to have their voices heard, and condemn those who wish to stifle the voices of the small and (individually) powerless.
Visibility and zeitgeist are not without material consequences. Theda Skocpol argues that social movements spread through visibility and modeling (see Sarah Wanenchak’s excellent discussion of this on Cyborgology). Just as the nations of the Arab world took cues from each other, the U.S. has now taken cues from the Arab world, resulting in feet on the ground, posters in the air, and bodies occupying lower Manhattan, L.A., Boston, Austin and numerous other cities. By spreading the word, making it relevant, and generating a zeitgeist of freedom and rebellion, slacktivists not only show support for the recent international social movements, but actively augment them in symbolic and tangible ways.