#Kony2012, Understanding Networked Symbolic Action & Why Slacktivism is Conceptually Misleading
By now, you probably know the story. A previously little-known group made a slick video with just the right mix of “the triumph of the human spirit” meets deep human tragedy about Ugandan warlord Joseph Kony. The video goes super-viral. In just a few days, it is viewed more than 60 million times on just Youtube alone. Then comes a swift backlash and many people criticize the content of the video–ranging from its factual errors, to questions about the group’s finances, to the implicit “White Savior Complex”. That is indeed an important discussion, one that has been covered in-depth elsewhere and not what I want to focus on here. (I wrote a bit about those topics in my short op-ed in the New York Times here).
Instead, in this post, I’d like to argue that evolution of Kony2012 has revealed how useless –and indeed harmful—the concept “slacktivism” has become to understanding networked symbolic action in the 21st century. I’d like to argue that people interested in social change need to step back and analyze the specifics of what is happening in its full complexity–without dismissing it, either due to their objections to the content or because they erroneously think it means nothing. (On the other hand, if you get your kicks from erudite snarks about how kids in this generation have unruly hair, no manners, and no respect for its elders; well, enjoy. There is a huge market for that—just as huge, if not bigger, than the one for superficial hyping of social media as traditional gatekeepers often love to complain about how the new generations don’t appreciate Little House in the Prairie.)
My argument is this: the concept of slacktivism is not just naïve and condescending, it is misinformed and misleading. What is called commonly called slacktivism is not at all about “slacking activists”; rather it is about non-activists taking symbolic action—often in spheres traditionally engaged only by activists or professionals (governments, NGOs, international institutions.). Since these so-called “slacktivists” were never activists to begin with, they are not in dereliction of their activist duties. On the contrary, they are acting, symbolically and in a small way, in a sphere that has traditionally been closed off to “the masses” in any meaningful fashion.
In other words, slacktivism should be seen as the encroachment of politics and civics into people’s everyday worlds which tend to be dominated by mundane concerns of day-to-day existence–or dominated by the consumerism transmitted through traditional media. It’s also a step in the unraveling of the professionalization of human rights and cause advocacy. [Credit: parts of this argument were developed in discussion with Alaa Abdal Fatah of Egypt and Sami Ben Gharbia of Tunisia].
So, not only are these people not slacking, they are acting symbolically in spheres that previously had higher barriers to entry. Symbolic action is not a magic wand–and its consequences depend on how it interacts with other kinds of power, including institutional power. Symbolic action and symbolic power, however, are not mere “epiphenomenon” of other kinds of power—as if they were a shadow, or an afterthought.
On the contrary, narrative and symbolic action are central forces in human societies. We are a highly-symbolic, group-oriented species and signaling our preferences –to others– is a key dimension of human action. “Public” is a meta-concept; it’s not just about what you know internally, but what you express and what others know that you believe and that you know that others know… …. Hence, the public sphere is formed not just through people’s silently held beliefs, but through overt signaling of ideology and narratives-and this signalling increasingly takes place online.
As social psychology and related fields have long shown, and as any observant person knows –and like it or not– for the human animal, there are no pure facts; instead, there are narratives. We act differently depending on our embedded narratives–even if we seemingly profess to the same facts as others. Humans accept, reject and make sense of facts within narratives. Just the very question of how we get to define what is a fact is a complex and socially-contingent one.
If humans came with a warning label, I’d like it to say: “WARNING: MAY APPEAR MORE RATIONAL AND LOGICAL THAN ACTUAL.”
Further, all human societies operate in a world of socially-constructed norms and ideals. And the changes to those ideals are immensely important. If norms move, than often action also moves—not always in a straight line, and not always in a simple fashion because the world is complex and narrative power is but one kind of power among many. Still, action for change is always entangled with action for norm change, i.e. symbolic action.
Hence, there is no “activism” that does not have a strong symbolic side. Thus, today’s “meaningless click” is actually a form of symbolic action which may form the basis of tomorrow’s other kind of action. Thus, signaling preferences –even seemingly obvious ones like being against child soldiers being abused—can be crucial.
Want some proof? Look at how many obvious –and not that hard– things we do not do globally. Children around the world die of the flimsiest causes. Lack of so little action in that front is no doubt partially due to the fact that there is no strong symbolic infrastructure that makes those children important to us in a manner that is connected to capacity for impact. Clearly, the Kony2012 video is tapping into just that gap—and I cannot imagine a human-rights advocate who thinks that this is irrelevant.
It is well and worthy to discuss the interaction between symbolic power and other kinds of power—and how and when convergence among different kinds of power leads to change and when and how it remains confined or repressed. Still, the incorrect conceptualization encapsulated in the term “slacktivism” is making it harder to have exactly those conversations.
The power of the symbolic action to shape particular narratives is exactly why so many people felt the need to pushback against #stopkony—the video was effectively and powerfully laying down a narrative for a particular kind of action.
Indeed, go back in history, and you see these normative shifts, brought about by words and symbolic action, before or along with major social changes. History is full of such examples. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Anna Sewell’s animal rights story “Black Beauty.” Or take a modern variation, like the clever video, “The Meatrix.” These are examples of symbolic action which helps structure narratives within which further human action occurs.
And social media streams are a new and important dynamic in how those narratives are formed—and, importantly, who gets to have a say. I usually do not like to proclaim new developments as “good” or “bad”—they are often a complex interaction of both. However, contrast the swift pushback against the simplistic and dangerous narrative of #stopkony with the lead up to the Iraq War of 2003. It was clear to many people at the time that the narrative being built up in the rush to war in Iraq was erroneous, dangerous and in many ways, irresponsible. However, opposition voices –while loud, organized and including many —were drowned out by the gatekeepers—big media, Sunday talk shows, political powers…
In contrast the swift backlash against Kony2012 was loud, organized and, most importantly, also able to command attention. In just one day, I saw more human-rights experts and African and Ugandan voices on mainstream media than I do in a month or three. My social media stream was flooded by critical and in-depth discussion about the topic, often from Ugandans or topic experts. This is a key way in which Kony2012 differs from, say, “We are the World” campaign in the eighties in which Africans never got to be anything beyond silent victims. People can now talk back a lot more effectively. Indeed, the spread of Kony2012 is likely going to be remembered as one of the early examples how emergent networked global publics can connect amongst each other and focus their –and everyone else’s—attention in a manner that would have hard to imagine just ten years ago.
It also appears to me that this was, at least at first, spread most strongly by teenagers and young adults, at least at first. I obviously don’t have hard numbers at the moment –and hope we will at some point—but anyone with any experience in activism, organizing and social movements can immediately recognize that most lifelong dedicated activists have a “gateway” moment, often in their teens. It would not be surprising if the intensity of the attention to this video –as well as the intensity of the backlash—did not become just such a moment for many future leaders. The kids are listening, maybe to a simplistic message, maybe to a misguided cause. But some portion of them will keep looking, listening and learning. Such moments have long-terms consequences.
There is much more to analyze in this event in terms of content, politics of the message, the increasingly complicated interaction between our global institutions –such as the International Criminal Court—and increasingly networked global public. But here’s one thing. This is not unimportant. This isn’t about activists who are slacking. It’s symbolic action in a networked world, a complex and important topic for anyone interested in social change.
P.S. (Sorry for the linkless post: I am on a shaky Internet connection at the moment and will add more links later)