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From slacktivism to activism: Participatory culture in the age of social media

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Social networking sites (e.g. Facebook), microblogging services (e.g. Twitter), and content-sharing sites (e.g. YouTube and Flickr) have introduced the opportunity for wide-scale, online social participation. Visibility of national and international priorities such as public health, political unrest, disaster relief, and climate change has increased, yet we know little about the benefits - and possible costs - of engaging in social activism via social media. These powerful social issues introduce a need for scientific research into technology mediated social participation. What are the actual, tangible benefits of "greening" Twitter profile pictures in support of the Iranian elections? Does cartooning a Facebook profile picture really raise awareness of child abuse? Are there unintended negative effects through low-risk, low-cost technology-mediated participation? And, is there a difference - in both outcome and engagement level - between different types of online social activism? This SIG will investigate technology mediated social participation through a critical lens, discussing both the potential positive and negative outcomes of such participation. Approaches to designing for increased participation, evaluating effects of participation, and next steps in scientific research directions will be discussed.
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From Slacktivism to Activism:
Participatory Culture in the Age of
Social Media
Abstract
Social networking sites (e.g. Facebook), microblogging
services (e.g. Twitter), and content-sharing sites (e.g.
YouTube and Flickr) have introduced the opportunity for
wide-scale, online social participation. Visibility of
national and international priorities such as public
health, political unrest, disaster relief, and climate
change has increased, yet we know little about the
benefitsand possible costsof engaging in social
activism via social media. These powerful social issues
introduce a need for scientific research into technology
mediated social participation. W hat are the actual,
tangible benefits of ―greening‖ Twitter profile pictures in
support of the Iranian elections? Does cartooning a
Facebook profile picture really raise awareness of child
abuse? Are there unintended negative effects through
low-risk, low-cost technology-mediated participation?
And, is there a differencein both outcome and
engagement levelbetween different types of online
social activism? This SIG will investigate technology
mediated social participation through a critical lens,
discussing both the potential positive and negative
outcomes of such participation. Approaches to
designing for increased participation, evaluating effects
of participation, and next steps in scientific research
directions will be discussed.
Copyright is held by the author/owner(s).
CHI 2011, May 712, 2011, Vancouver, BC, Canada.
Copyright 2011 ACM 978-1-4503-0267-8/11/05....
$10.00.
Dana Rotman
College of Information Studies
University of Maryland
drotman@umd.edu
Sarah Vieweg
Technology, Media & Society
University of Colorado, Boulder
sarah.vieweg@coloradu.edu
Sarita Yardi
GVU Center
Georgia Institute of Technology
syardi3@gatech.edu
Ed H. Chi
Google Research
Mountain View, CA
chi@acm.com
Jenny Preece
College of Information Studies
University of Maryland
preece@umd.edu
Ben Shneiderman
Dept. of Computer Science
University of Maryland
ben@cs.umd.edu
Peter Pirolli
Palo Alto Research Center
Palo Alto, CA
pirolli@parc.com
Tom Glaisyer
New American Foundation
Washington, D.C.
tom.glaisyer@gmail.com
2
Keywords
Social media, activism, slacktivism, participation,
design, change
ACM Classification Keywords
H5.m. Information interfaces and presentation (e.g.,
HCI): Miscellaneous.
Introduction
In 1997, 122 countries signed an international treaty to
ban landmines. One of the key drivers of the treaty
passage was the work of the International Campaign to
Ban Landmines (ICBL). The ICBL is touted as one of the
most successful international efforts to promote and
achieve humanitarian goals. The success of the ICBL
would not have been possible without the use of
Internet technologies and computer-mediated
communication [9]. Fast forward a decade. In 2010,
during the aftermath of the catastrophic earthquake
that devastated Haiti, the International Red Cross (IRC)
launched a campaign asking people to donate money
towards relief efforts, via text message. Four days after
the quake, $7 million dollars had been raised. A cellular
carrier spokesperson explained that the ease of using
text messages to donate to charities has ―opened up a
whole new world for philanthropy.‖ [6]
We know technology can be used to help raise
awareness and create change. But does the rising use
of social media to produce meaningful change echo the
same success experienced by the IRC and the ICBL?
Does ―greening‖ a Twitter profile picture (Figure 1)
have the same effect as an email campaign to stop the
spread of landmines? W hen people partake in activism
via social media, are they doing anything meaningful?
Most people might agree that social media participation
raises awareness of, if not k nowledge about, social
issues; however, it is less clear whether raising
awareness translates into more meaningful and
tangible societal benefits.
Technology mediated social participation has been
harnessed for social welfare in a number of novel ways.
Twitter use during mass emergency situations to gather
and distribute timely, relevant information, or creating
a platform for guidance and support of gay and lesbian
teens on YouTube are examples of the potential value
of social media use by large numbers of people that
might lead to wide-scale progress. These, and similar
phenomena, introduce new research opportunities in
the social and computational fields for the development
of methods, analytic tools and metrics, design
approaches and theory.
There is a need for scientific research that examines
the effects of participation through social media at an
individual and collective level, and for design directions
that support social participation in new ways [7]. These
understandings will lead to the development of social
media tools that can work to increase the motivation
and ability of users to participate in social change. The
goal of this SIG is to discuss and debate the merits of
social participation through social media.
Topic 1: Characterizing Online Participation
In 2009 and 2010, awareness and social activism
campaigns flourished via various social media. They
ranged from changes made to users’ online
representation (posting suggestive Facebook statuses
about the location of one’s purse in support of breast
cancer awareness) to acts that extended beyond the
online presence (wearing particular clothing on a
Figure 1. Greening of Twitter
profile picture to support democratic
election in Iran.
3
particular day as a symbolic support of a cause). They
also involved efforts that used social media as a vehicle
to distribute information (e.g. YouTube campaigns) and
offers of social support (e.g. Facebook groups). Figure
2 represents the activity flow that leads to activism or
―slacktivism1‖, and highlights the role of social media as
a facilitator of action. Across these contexts, a number
of questions emerge:
What technologies have successfully motivated or
enabled ―practical activism?2 Are certain types of
technology, specifically social media, better suited
to support practical activism?
What is the relationship between ―practical
activism‖ and activism via social media?
In what ways does slacktivism promote awareness?
Does awareness translate to further action or
productive outcomes?
How is virtual civic-disobedience occurring?
How should social media participation be handled
when activism goes ―rogue‖ as in the case of
WikiLeaks?
Finally, why do people participate in social issues using
social media? Some possible reasons could be ease of
access, speed and efficiency of online mediums, affinity
for a particular cause, observing support from friends
and peer groups, and a positive feeling about oneself
through participation. There is little research examining
these questions. One of the goals of this SIG is to bring
1 We define ―slacktivism‖ as low-risk, low-cost activity via social
media, whose purpose is to raise awareness, produce change,
or grant satisfaction to the person engaged in the activity.
2 We define ―practical activism‖ as the use of a direct, proactive
and often confrontational action towards attaining a societal
change.
together researchers and practitioners to brainstorm
future directions in participatory culture research.
Topic 2: Research Directions
In October 2010, Malcolm Gladwell published a
provocative article in the ―The New Yorker,‖ [4] arguing
that social actions on social media sites are nowhere
near ―practical activism‖ (e.g. Tiananmen Square or the
civil rights movement in the U.S.). Most might agree
that sending a tweet or changing a profile is not the
same as a lunch counter sit-in or a bus boycott;
however, what social media can provide is a way to
facilitate awareness of issues at a much larger scale
which may translate into further action. The goals of
this SIG are to promote a scientific agenda around
technology mediated social participation. Such goals
include aligning this agenda with national and
international priorities such as health, disaster relief,
and climate change, and developing directions for
research on the effects of social media participation.
Research questions may include the following:
How does social media use for activist purposes
compare to use for non-activist purposes?
How are attitudes towards movements impacted by
social media activism?
In what ways are users motivated to promote
activist movements through online or offline
participation?
In what ways are the process and outcomes of
activist movements impacted by social media?
Topic 3: Theoretical Implications and
Evaluating Effectiveness
New theories or refinement of existing theories are
needed to better understand the design and evaluation
Figure 2. A process diagram of
social media based activism and
slacktivism
4
of participatory technologies. This might involve
theories about motivation and persuasion [1, 3] to
encourage participation. T heories about risk and cost
[8] might also help understand motivation to
participate in slacktivism, and how that may or may not
lead to activism. We should also consider where
theories about strong and weak ties [5] work well and
where the fall short. Finally, activism can involve
aggressive struggles to attain rights, establish equality,
or balance power [2]. Social media has proven to be a
useful tool in distributing information that creates and
enhances awareness, giving rise to the following
questions:
How can we gauge and evaluate effectiveness? e.g.
do more women get tested for breast cancer due to
a Facebook campaign?
How does online participation relate to participation
in high-risk, high-cost social participation?
How can we design and evaluate online tools for
effective participation?
Expected Outcomes
This SIG will create a network of researchers who share
an interest in designing and evaluating technologies for
social change. Topics for discussion will include (1)
instances of technology-related activism, slacktivism, or
other social participation; (2) whether these instances
were successful or not, and alternatively - how they
could have been improved; (3) ideas for design,
theories, methods, or toolkits to measure and evaluate
online social participation and how we might extend
evaluations to related practical activism.
We welcome participants who have experience in
designing or researching and evaluating participatory
social media as well as interested newcomers. Our
goals are to initiate critical discussions of the role of
social media in online activism and generate ideas for
next steps in research on technology mediated social
participation. We expect to produce: case studies of
successful online activism, tools and techniques for
measuring outcomes, theoretical frameworks for
understanding online activism, and design ideas for
increasing social participation.
Acknowledgements
We thank participants in the TMSP workshops that took
place in December 2009 and April 2010.
References
[1] Batson, C. D., Ahmad, N. and Tsang, J. Four Motives
for Community Involvement. Journal of Social Issues, 58, 3
(2002), 429-445.
[2] Bennett, W. New Media Power: The Internet and Global
Activism. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD, 2003.
[3] Fogg, B. Persuasive Technology: Using Computers to
Change What We Think and Do. Ubiquity, 2002,
(December 2002), 2.
[4] Gladwell, M. Small Change - Why the Revolution Will
Not Be Tweeted, New Yorker, October 4, 2010.
[5] Granovetter, M. The Strength of Weak Ties. American
journal of sociology, 78, 6 (1973), 1360-1380.
[6] Pepitone, J. Text Donations Raise $7m for Red Cross
Haiti Effort. CNNMoney, January 16, 2010.
[7] Pirolli, P., Preece, J. and Shneiderman, B.
Cyberinfrastructure for Social Action on National Priorities.
IEEE Computer, 43, 11 (2010), 20-21.
[8] Slovic, P. Perception of Risk. Science, 236, 4799 (April
17, 1987), 280-285.
[9] Williams, J., Goose, S. and Wareham, M. Banning
Landmines: Disarmament, Citizen Diplomacy, and Human
Security. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD 2008.
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... Some retweeting activity is sarcastic or uses humour to respond to instances of gendered cyberhate that have targeted feminist activists (Jane 2020). It is increasingly evident that clicktivism is not necessarily low-risk (Rotman et al. 2011), there are safety issues associated with tweeting about feminist issues and women's rights, which have not been considered by scholars who have either not experienced it, or who may not focus on this area of study. ...
... Sian describes the content of a collective of women's experiences as 'this howling pain', indicating an outpouring of trauma, emotion and rage (Phipps 2020). This offers a counterpoint to the perspective advanced by other scholars that engaging in digital political activities or clicktivism is 'easy' (Halupka 2014), 'low-risk' or 'low cost' (Rotman et al. 2011). Many women shared their narratives; ...
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This thesis makes an original contribution to knowledge by demonstrating why it is important to widen our understanding of contemporary political participation to incorporate digital activism and clicktivism, particularly with regard to access and inclusion of a wider range of voices and opinions outside of those who already have access to mainstream political platforms of communication. Existing debates within political science on alternative forms of political participation are limited by comparing them to traditional politics, organisations and processes and ranking them accordingly as legitimate or illegitimate forms of political participation. What is not considered in these debates is that women, particularly feminists, are marginalised from male-dominated political structures, which delimit participation within the bounds of traditional politics. In this thesis, I evidence the significance of feminist digital activism and clicktivism as a means of lowering the barriers to create an inclusive definition of political participation. By taking an interdisciplinary approach, this thesis draws on debates within literature from three fields: web science, political participation and feminist activism. The intersection of these literatures reveals a new perspective on the contested concept of political participation, the motivations for and impact of, labelling digital activism as a form of contemporary political participation, unconstrained by borders, boundaries and citizenship. Accordingly, Twitter is the object of analysis for this qualitative investigation and the specific characteristics and practices that are unique to this platform merit a study of its own, which is currently missing in the literature. Digital feminist activism is explored as a form of political participation through an ethnographic study of feminist activists’ use of Twitter, which demonstrates that instances such as the #MeToo moment in 2017 can raise societal awareness about pertinent issues, which affects political and social change. Drawing concepts from the literature on digital activism, political participation and feminist activism creates the conceptual lens for analysing the empirical data gathered through undertaking a range of semi-structured interviews with feminist activists from Australia, Aoteroa New Zealand, Europe and the United States. The feminist Twitter community was observed as part of the ethnographic study during the year-long interview window, which allowed the researcher to examine feminist activists’ communication, action and connection practices. Further, interview respondents were identified and recruited on Twitter during this observation process. Feminist activists are inherently political; the actions they take, who they communicate with and connect to, are practices shaped by Twitter’s distinct characteristics, which enable feminist activists to interact and connect with geographically dispersed feminists, broadening access to information, resources, and knowledge. A tweet can challenge and critique a sexist headline when it directly addresses the journalist who penned the article and mentions the mainstream media company that published it: I evidence that it is not merely easy, disposable and inconsequential. I argue that clicktivism is a form of digital activism, which enables an individual to be political and to participate. Further, clicktivist practices, such as using a hashtag to contribute to large-scale action are easily replicated, which essentially is what makes this form of digital activism so significant.
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... Jones (2015) insists on a more nuanced slacktivist concept, similar to Rotman et al.'s (2011), which departs from the "zero impact" assumption of Morozov (2009). Rotman et al. (2011) described slacktivism as a "low-risk, low-cost activity" but recognizes its purpose in raising awareness, producing change, and satisfying the person participating in the online activity (p. 821). ...
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... Furthermore, despite the seemingly liberating semblance of the Internet in spurring social change, scholars point to 'slacktivism', or the use of social media for activism requiring little commitment. Consequently, such 'slacktivism' often propagates notions of saviourism and augments the possibility for the co-optation of marginalized folks' struggles (Christensen, 2011;Koopman, 2008;Rotman et al., 2011;Valenzuela, 2013). Under-resourced grassroots movements may lack the capacity to engage in global solidarity, and these power imbalances enable some movements to gain traction in online and offline spaces while constraining the ability of others (Cumbers and Routledge, 2013;Koopman, 2008;Sundberg, 2007). ...
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Text Donations Raise $7m for Red Cross Haiti Effort. CNNMoney
  • J Pepitone
Pepitone, J. Text Donations Raise $7m for Red Cross Haiti Effort. CNNMoney, January 16, 2010.
  • P Pirolli
  • J Preece
  • B Shneiderman
Pirolli, P., Preece, J. and Shneiderman, B. Cyberinfrastructure for Social Action on National Priorities. IEEE Computer, 43, 11 (2010), 20-21.
Banning Landmines: Disarmament, Citizen Diplomacy, and Human Security
  • J Williams
  • S Goose
  • M Wareham
Williams, J., Goose, S. and Wareham, M. Banning Landmines: Disarmament, Citizen Diplomacy, and Human Security. Rowman & Littlefield, Lanham, MD 2008.