A battle is raging for the soul of activism. It is a struggle between digital activists, who have adopted the logic of the
marketplace, and those organisers who vehemently oppose the
marketisation of social change. At stake is the possibility of an
emancipatory revolution in our lifetimes.
The conflict can be traced back to 1997 when a quirky Berkeley, California-based software company known for its iconic flying toaster screensaver was purchased for
$13.8m (£8.8m). The sale financially liberated the founders, a
left-leaning husband-and-wife team. He was a computer programmer, she a
vice-president of marketing. And a year later they founded an online
political organisation known as MoveOn. Novel for its combination
of the ideology of marketing with the skills of computer programming,
MoveOn is a major centre-leftist pro-Democrat force in the US. It has
since been heralded as the model for 21st-century activism.
The trouble is that this 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.
Clicktivists utilise sophisticated email marketing software that brags of its "extensive tracking" including "opens, clicks, actions,
sign-ups, unsubscribes, bounces and referrals, in total and by source".
And clicktivists equate political power with raising these "open-rate"
and "click-rate" percentages, which are so dismally low that they are
kept secret. The exclusive emphasis on metrics results in a race to the
bottom of political engagement.
Gone is faith in the power of ideas, or the poetry of deeds, to enact social change. Instead,
subject lines are A/B tested and messages vetted for widest appeal. Most
tragically of all, to inflate participation rates, these organisations
increasingly ask less and less of their members. The end result is the
degradation of activism into a series of petition drives that capitalise
on current events. Political engagement becomes a matter of clicking a
few links. In promoting the illusion that surfing the web can change the
world, clicktivism is to activism as McDonalds is to a slow-cooked
meal. It may look like food, but the life-giving nutrients are long
Exchanging the substance of activism for reformist platitudes that do well in market tests, clicktivists damage every
genuine political movement they touch. In expanding their tactics into
formerly untrammelled political scenes and niche identities, they
unfairly compete with legitimate local organisations who represent an
authentic voice of their communities. They are the Wal-Mart of activism:
leveraging economies of scale, they colonise emergent political
identities and silence underfunded radical voices.
Digital activists hide behind gloried stories of viral campaigns and inflated
figures of how many millions signed their petition in 24 hours. Masters
of branding, their beautiful websites paint a dazzling self-portrait.
But, it is largely a marketing deception. While these organisations are
staffed by well-meaning individuals who sincerely believe they are doing
good, a bit of self-criticism is sorely needed from their leaders.
The truth is that as the novelty of online activism wears off, millions of
formerly socially engaged individuals who trusted digital organisations
are coming away believing in the impotence of all forms of activism.
Even leading Bay Area clicktivist organisations are finding it
increasingly difficult to motivate their members to any action
whatsoever. The insider truth is that the vast majority, between 80% to
90%, of so-called members rarely even open campaign emails. Clicktivists
are to blame for alienating a generation of would-be activists with
their ineffectual campaigns that resemble marketing.
The collapsing distinction between marketing and activism is revealed in the cautionary tale of TckTckTck, a purported climate change organisation with 17 million members. Widely hailed as an innovator of digital activism, TckTckTck is a project of Havas Worldwide, the world's sixth-largest advertising company. A corporation that uses
advertising to foment ecologically unsustainable overconsumption, Havas
bears significant responsibility for the climate change TckTckTck
As the folly of digital activism becomes widely acknowledged, innovators will attempt to recast the same mix of
marketing and technology in new forms. They will offer phone-based, alternate reality and augmented reality
alternatives. However, any activism that uncritically accepts the
marketisation of social change must be rejected. Digital activism is a
danger to the left. Its ineffectual marketing campaigns spread political
cynicism and draw attention away from genuinely radical movements.
Political passivity is the end result of replacing salient political
critique with the logic of advertising.
Against the progressive technocracy of clicktivism, a new breed of activists will
arise. In place of measurements and focus groups will be a return to the
very thing that marketers most fear: the passionate, ideological and
total critique of consumer society. Resuscitating the emancipatory
project the left was once known for, these activists will attack the
deadening commercialisation of life. And, uniting a global population
against the megacorporations who unduly influence our democracies, they
will jettison the consumerist ideology of marketing that has for too
long constrained the possibility of social revolution.