How the web hasn’t changed as much as you might think

web not changed muchWhen it comes to social activism, particularly in the digital age, a fundamental question has to be: what is enough? Sharing a tweet, changing your profile picture, or signing a petition are key components of a phenomenon known as clicktivism or slacktivism, forms of online activism requiring little more than a single click. It predominantly serves to raise awareness of an issue. While this is obviously important, a main criticism aimed at slacktivism is that it is undertaken at the expense of actually getting stuff done. These fears may be justified given that a recent study demonstrated public displays of support for a charity on social media can mean you’re actually less likely to donate to the cause in the future. Has social media developed in such a way as to encourage association to a cause, rather than an active commitment to it?

 There’s no doubt that slacktivism can be effective in certain instances. E-petitions have been shown to affect political decision making, as the defeat of the Stop Online Piracy Act(SOPA) demonstrated, and the sheer speed with which it can transform an issue from the unknown into a topic of worldwide discussion and debate is unquestionable; you need look no further than Joseph Kony to see this at work. These techniques however constitute updated versions of age-old tactics: informing the public, amassing support, and applying political pressure. Essentially, they’re confrontational. In the past that was all that was realistically possible on a mass scale. You could hardly fit everybody concerned about an issue into a room, let alone expect a coherent conversation to emerge.

Skip forward a few hundred years and the printing press has been replaced by the web, drastically increasing the immediacy with which information reaches a vastly wider audience. Thus the speed at which mass mobilisation and the confrontation that often comes with it can be achieved has grown exponentially.

Is the ability to mobilise and create a climate ripe for confrontation desirable though? Depending on the system in question, outcomes can vary greatly. In the UK, this has been channelled into the guarantee of a ‘parliamentary debate’, in the case that 100,000 people sign a petition (though there’s no guarantee it will lead to any meaningful changes). In other parts of the world, it’s not so cut and dry. Take the Arab Spring; mass mobilisations have in some situations resulted in contested political change, however in others, sharp divisions have emerged, leaving countries torn apart by violent conflict.

The tools of communication are thus more powerful than ever, changing the political landscape of entire regions in years rather than decades or centuries. In of themselves though, they cannot be relied on to maximise humanity’s capacity for constructive transformations. They fail to fully draw on humanity’s core skill, which is collaboration; the ability to develop and co-implement a shared vision of goals and objectives.

Social media in its current form, connects us to each other on a rather superficial level; we can share just about anything, but we can’t as easily or effectively work together in understanding problems and identifying solutions. There’s no scope for genuine collaboration. There is neither the space that brings everyone together, nor the tools that would empower people to collaborate if they did come together.

Consequently, the web is not particularly empowering in enabling us to provide our own input into solving the problems we care about. For example, take the recent flooding across large parts of the UK. Existing social media allows us to share extreme examples of those being affected by the floods, and for others to empathise. What if it facilitated our ability to understand exactly what the problems were in any given location and to get involved in local initiatives helping people out on the ground? What if it brought together people being affected by issues, service providers, policy writers and community organisations? What if it was easy to go directly from reading the news to being directly involved in helping out?

Whilst we can readily imagine the potential of such a web, it is hard to comprehend just how powerful it can be because existing social media is wired in almost the opposite direction: fragmented spaces rather than spaces that bring us all together.

The debate surrounding slacktivism thus represents one manifestation of a broader debate about how can we most effectively use the immense power of the web to achieve genuine and lasting change. What that debate highlights is that if we become reliant on e-petitions, retweets and shares, and the mass mobilisations and confrontations they produce, the opportunity to collaborate will pass us by. Let’s not let that happen.

How the web hasn’t changed as much as you might think