Let’s move past the tired Clicktivism critiques, please

Micah White, from Adbusters, has an article up with The Guardian Online, in which he attacks MoveOn.org for “clicktivism” and trots out every half-baked critique of digital activism I’ve ever seen. It’s appallingly bad.

White relies on several glorified fictions of what activism used to be like. ( y’know, back in the good old days of the 1990s, when Adbusters was cutting-edge.) seeing as how (a) the “generation shift” in US political advocacy is kind of my wheelhouse and (b) I’m a crotchety old-school environmental organizer, I feel the need to publicly reply.

Here’s (maybe) the worst passage:”The trouble is that [the MoveOn] model of activism uncritically embraces the ideology of marketing. It accepts that the tactics of advertising and market research used to sell toilet paper can also build social movements. This manifests itself in an inordinate faith in the power of metrics to quantify success. Thus, everything digital activists do is meticulously monitored and analysed. The obsession with tracking clicks turns digital activism into clicktivism.”

Hey Micah, ever hear of PIRG? Started by Ralph Nader in the 1970’s, the Public Interest Research Group is a central piece of the legacy progressive infrastructure on the left. Those canvassers who came to your door last week? Yeah, 90% chance they were part of the PIRGs (technically, employed by the Fund for Public Interest Research), regardless of what organization they were raising money for.

Now, I’m a longtime critic of the PIRG model, so my point here is that the left has been engaging in “the ideology of marketing” since long before Tim Berners-Lee came up with a graphical interface for the Series of Tubes. PIRG does some very good things, but by and large they promote a “vacuum cleaner sales” model of political activism — political action as “doors knocked,” “conversations held,” and. “dollars raised.”. That’s in lieu of political activism as power mapping, public narrative, and relational organizing. As Dana Fisher points out in Activism, Inc, the problem with the organization isn’t so much it’s model as it’s market share — there’s a niche for vacuum cleaner sales-techniques in the universe of political activism, but when that’s pretty much the only entry point for young organizers, you’ve got a problem.

MoveOn isn’t introducing a metrics-based approach to activism. They’re pioneering a better metrics-based approach. Those clickstream e-petitions are the first step in a Ladder-of-Engagement that also includes in-person rallies and other offline actions. The A/B testing means they can listen to their membership better than the older organizations, and often prompts them to take more radical positions than the legacy groups. That’s a very good thing, if well-done. And MoveOn, Democracy for America, the PCCC, Courage Campaign, 1Sky, 350.org and other Internet-mediated groups do it pretty damned well.

That’s not to say there isn’t a ton of bad digital activism out there. An e-petition alone is not a politically powerful act. Joining a Facebook group is not going to create a more Just society. Organizing is difficult, and there has always been plenty of crappy activism out there. The internet enables more of it, and also makes it easier to bump into.

But that isn’t the critique Micah White is making. He’s trying to claim that “a battle is raging for the soul of activism” between MoveOn and non-“clicktivist organizers. He wants to pretend that MoveOn has destroyed “faith in the power of ideas, or the poetry of deeds, to enact social change.” I’m sorry, but “the poetry of deeds???” I’ve been a leader in the US environmental movement for 14 years. I’ve run successful campaigns at the local, state, and national levels, and trained hundreds of young leaders in the process. And I’m primarily an old-school organizer — I’m used to training people using a flipchart and easel, every petition I’ve created has been ink-and-paper, and I used to organize one hell of a phone tree. Actual social justice organizing looks nothing like the fiction White compares digital activism to. Organizing is hard work. We create change by building power and mobilizing relationships, applying pressure on decision-makers that would prefer we went away. Real activism (to use White’s own phrase) isn’t about “the power of ideas or the poetry of deeds.”

There has always been a splinter-segment of social movement activism whose niche is composed of “culture jamming,” or works of subversive art. That’s where Adbusters lives, and vie always had a personal soft spot for those folks. Just as PIRG has it’s niche, it’s role in a broader, many-headed movement to make this world a better place to live, so does the more radical culture-jamming contingent. And those two edges of the spectrum have frankly never gotten along very well.

Micah White is trying to pretend that longstanding divide doesn’t exist. He wants the reader to believe that leftist activism has been his balliwick, but the Internet is dangerously cheapening it all under the guise of metrics-driven digital organizers. That’s sloppy thinking, and completely ahistorical. MoveOn doesn’t just do clickstream petitions, and the sophisticated new tools they’re developing can, when well-used, empower activists to accomplish things at the tactical level that the 1998-version of me wouldn’t have dreamed possible. Rather than attacking the new organizations, White should maybe spend some time studying social movement history. Or attend an organizers training… I could recommend a few good ones.

6 thoughts on “Let’s move past the tired Clicktivism critiques, please

  1. Thank you! I had an almost visceral reaction to Micah White’s post. He missed on so many fronts: the ladder of engagement, creating political pressure from various groups who would never have been politically active before, expanding outreach with cost-effective measures, enabling voices that stayed silent for so many years because of location and resources, etc. And let’s face it: his hyperbole was over-the-top. “Gone is faith in the power of ideas, or the poetry of deeds, to enact social change”… really? Wow, tell that to the 5 million MoveOn folks, 1Sky’s 200,000+ supporters, and the entire 350.org movement.

    Thanks for the mention, too. We appreciate it.

    Garth Moore
    Internet Director, 1Sky

  2. Thanks for the visit, Garth. Glad you enjoyed the post, and keep up the good work! (Hell, maybe one of these days the ladder-of-engagement will help us reach a top-shelf climate bill.)

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