During the recent holiday break, I was asked several times by family and friends some variation of the question “What do you think of Occupy Wall Street?” or, more specifically, “What do the activists want?”, “What is Occupy’s next step?”, “Is Occupy changing anything?”, “Will the Occupy movement impact the 2012 elections?”. As the conversations unfolded, it became clear that there were more substantial, though largely unstated, underlying questions regarding whether Occupy Wall Street (OWS) is a bona fide movement in the tradition of the Vietnam-era anti-war movement or the Civil Rights Movement or is OWS simply the latest cause célèbre for those dissatisfied with and disaffected by prevailing social, political and economic forces. While these questions were specifically targeting OWS and its supporters, they parallel similar questions directed at other activist networks, particularly those that rely heavily upon the Internet to facilitate their formation and coordinate actions.
These conversations caused me to consider how activism is perceived and critiqued by those communities not involved in activism as well as by communities involved in more traditional modes of activism. A common criticism made by skeptics is that activism has become too easy, that people who align with activist causes but do not directly participate ‘on the ground’ are engaged in a less serious, less significant and, ultimately, less “real” form of activism. In fact, a whole series of new terms have been constructed to identify and, too often, denigrate such activism.
Evgeny Morozov, visiting scholar at Stanford and Schwartz Fellow at the New America Foundation, used the term slacktivism to describe the “feel –good online activism that has zero political or social impact” , which is, Morozov argues, “the ideal type of activism for a lazy generation”. Morozov’s point is that slacktivists are not personally invested beyond the fleeting clicks of their mouse and that such slacktivism efforts have yet to demonstrate any concrete power or effect.
Similarly, Micah White, senior editor at Adbusters, contends that clicktivism– a model of activism that “uncritically embraces the ideology of marketing” to build social movements by signing petitions and forwarding emails “results in a race to the bottom of political engagement” – is, in fact, ruining leftist activism. White, like Morozov, is troubled that slacktivism and clicktivism is creating a false sense of accomplishment among digital activists; however, White goes further by calling into question whether slacktivism and clicktivism are diminishing the power of activism in general. Of particular concern is whether these manifestations of digital activism are discouraging calls for drastic action, undermining demands for social revolutions and bolstering an uncritical adherence to the status quo. As White writes in a different article, “Clicking a link can never replace taking to the streets. Nor can we rely on digital technologies to get people off the screens”.
Not surprisingly, digital activist organizations and their members offer a different perspective. Rather than using the pejoratives of slacktivism and clicktivism, these organizations and activists prefer to frame their efforts as Activism 2.0 – a new form of social activism for the Millennial Generations where “people integrate activism and supporting their causes into their regular routines”. Far from a wasteful and self-gratifying form of activism without demonstrable effect, proponents and practitioners of Activism 2.0 point to the success of online petitions in freezing Rupert Murdoch’s acquisition of British Sky Broadcasting Service (BSkyB), securing Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s release from prison, and halting Bank of America’s $5 debit card fee among others. Despite the criticisms of Activism 2.0, those who endeavor to undertake such social transformations can point to concrete accomplishments as well as to aspects that are more intangible, such as the creation of community and the raising of social awareness. As Scott Henderson writes on his blog Rallying the Cause,
“For those with causes rooted in systemic problems, changing your avatar (and its sibling actions) is just one type of engagement. But it isn’t a trivial action. Rather, it is a social signal that an issue matters to you. It opens up the door for others to ask about it. It also allows for those who were fearful to state the same opinion to join you publicly.
That’s a powerful force – when an individual takes a stand and knows he or she is not alone.”
This then brings us back to Occupy Wall Street (OWS) and how those initial questions surrounding the nature, performance and future of OWS can be informed and understood in light of slacktivism, clicktivism and Activism 2.0.
A fundamental incongruity for people trying to make sense of OWS is that they are familiar with traditional modes of activism (protests, marches, sit-ins), some of which they see in the OWS movement (e.g. the encampments). However, to some observers, OWS appears to be missing a common components found in more traditional modes of activism – that is a stated grievance and a defined set of changes sought to provide remedy. For example, during the Civil Rights Movement in the United States, activists objected to the institutional discrimination of African-Americans and demanded equality before the law through amendment to existing legal statutes. OWS has clearly articulated their grievances – influence of major banks and multinational corporations over the democratic process and the role of Wall Street in creating the ongoing economic turmoil in the United State and across the world – yet, OWS has been less clear in communicating what changes they seek to remedy their stated grievances.
Similarly, a disconnect exists when people watching or reading the news see a hundred or so people encamped in Zuccotti Park with another 600-700 participating in demonstrations at the park, yet thousands more people are associating with the OWS movement in New York City through Facebook, Twitter and other social media. This is not a phenomenon unique to OWS – New York; rather it is repeated time and time again throughout the various OWS sites across the country and throughout the world. While it is difficult to determine precisely how many people are ‘occupying’ in a particular OWS location, it is fairly certain that it is only a fraction of the 3,028,171 people of have ‘liked’ various OWS pages on Facebook. Here the Activism 2.0 side of OWS comes in contact with the traditional modes of activism (i.e. the encampments and demonstrations) that have garnered the greatest amount of attention from the public and the media alike.
Ultimately, I believe the underlying questions and confusions that people – whether they are scholars of social movements, casual observers or someone in between – have about OWS is rooted in the difficulty of placing OWS along the spectrum of social activism because OWS is something that is new and different yet simultaneously old and familiar. Most people are acquainted with some sort of social movement either through experience or education and therefore it is easy to categorize OWS as yet another social movement.
However, OWS doesn’t behave like many of its social movement predecessors and I suspect this is where confusion sets in. The combination of traditional modes of activism with new modes of activism, be it slacktivism, clicktivism or Activism 2.0, may perplex even the most erudite critic. On the one hand, OWS has the sort of on-the-ground, experiential qualities that should prove satisfying to Evgeny Morozov and Micah White – at least one would hope that Mr. White would be satisfied given his involvement in organizing OWS. On the other hand, OWS has relied heavily upon millions of individual clicks or tweets of support through Facebook, Twitter and the like to spread its message and efforts well beyond the confines of a particular OWS encampment.
This dual nature of activism, where traditional modes of direct social protest interact with emerging expressions of virtual activism is not unique to OWS. As such, considerations of how activism is expanding and morphing should apply to how we engage activism, whether traditional, virtual, local or transnational, as a whole.
Originally published in Anthropology News.