Social Shedding the Slacktivist Tag

5/9/2012 5:37:07 PM

Social networking has changed a lot, from the way we communicate to the way we consume news. And last year, a new face of social networking emerged; that of bringing about change.

Social media and social networking are the new buzz words. It's a phenomenon that has quite literally swept the world. A social platform to connect with people, it was lapped up by the masses as it allowed them to connect with the world through a digital medium. Smartphones gave it a further fillip and social networking scaled new heights. Everyday, we witness innovative uses of social networking sites and one that seems to have become hugely popular is online activism or social activism. But the question is how effective it really is. Does this online chatter translate into ground realities or is it just symbolism?

Description: Facebook page

Activism or Slacktivism?

Critics of online activism have coined the word slacktivism, as they opine that online activism is nothing but a feel-good factor and one which doesn't translate into anything concrete on-ground. An example of this can be the breast cancer awareness campaign on Facebook. A couple of years ago, a particular status update saw female users updating their status with the name of a colour. And the fact that the reason behind the status update had to be kept a secret from men only added fuel to the fire, so much so that it garnered media attention and what it turned out to be was a breast cancer awareness campaign. It hoped to create awareness amongst the women and they chose the social networking medium, where they started a chain message urging women to list the color of their bra as their status update.

Come October, which is the Cancer Awareness month, and we will again see an onslaught of such status updates. Every year, it’s something different. This, they say, is to keep the men guessing!

But how many women who updated their status actually went ahead to get themselves tested or even cared to read about breast cancer remains largely unanswered. The same goes for the numerous 'likes' or #hashtags about certain causes. Ruben Mascarenhas, who handles social media for Anna Hazare's India Against Corruption (IAC), says, "I think people underestimate the social network as a place where young people are wasting their time in frivolous activities like updating status, like, hashtags, commenting on pictures etc. But I think it's also their way of interacting with a large number of people whom it is impossible for them to meet in a personal sphere. I know there is a lot of criticism, but we should at least appreciate the fact that people are doing something, even if they as much as 'like1 a page. This reflects that people are entering the thought process and though it isn't enough, it's definitely good."

Slacktivism making way for activism


Description: "like" button

If we ignore a couple of these misgivings, we have also witnessed the power of social networks, and a great example of this is the Egyptian revolution. Social networks have evolved from being just a platform to connect with people to something more meaningful. The world watched as the mass non-violent protest in Egypt successfully overthrew the tyrannical Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak and further paved the way for what is now known as the Arab Spring. As the civilians in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen and other such countries fought for their rights social networking sites became their weapon.

In Egypt while Tahrir Square was the epicenter of the revolution, it was the social networking sites that guided people there. For the first time, people realised the full potential of these sites; that they could connect people was well know, but the fact that they could go largely undetected was something that came to the rescue of the protesters. It also provided them with the safety of anonymity. A little later in the revolution, the authorities did try to unsuccessfully block the Internet, but it was too little too late, and the damage was already done.

Closer to home, Anna Hazare's campaign against corruption has employed social networking quite effectively. Ruben admits that it is very easy to get people to like something online, but beyond that, you need offer people with tangible results that they can work towards. Citing the example of the IAC campaign, he says, "Social networking is good to actually start off something, as you can reach a large number of people in a very short period of time, and it's also financially viable. Facebook was used to the hilt during the August round of Anna's campaign and got overwhelming people on the streets from Bandra to Juhu. And that was on the 11th day of Anna's fast. If you have got people excited over an issue, then they will come once and they will come twice, but they really want to see a result. People need to understand how they are making a difference in a tangible way that makes sense."

He explains, "If you are looking at activism via the Internet, then it is not an end in itself, but it's actually a means to communicate about what you feel towards a particular cause. Secondly, you need to create awareness amongst people, get their attention and initiate some sort of discussion. Thirdly, there should be a point of convergence, which should actually boil down to the real world because everything can't be virtual. The virtual world can be a trigger or a spark, but it can't be an end in itself. It has to ultimately culminate into something tangible on the ground."

And what's heartening to know is that the youth today is very much aware of this fact. This is validated by a survey conducted by Indiabiznews to understand youth behaviour in these times of social media.

Rohit Sharma, Indiabiznews & Research Services, says, "The survey found that social media has given a strong platform to the youth of India to voice their choices and opinions, which in a way, empowers them to bring a change in the world they live in. The survey findings informed us that the youth is aware that merely joining a 'page' of the cause will not help on a larger scale. What is interesting and in many ways rebukes those that think that the youth believe only in symbolism best described by clicking on the 'like' button of a Facebook group, is that about 70 per cent believe that ground realities cannot change by merely being part of a group. A lot more on ground is needed, they have inferred."

 Road -'blocks' ahead?


Description: social network

After the Egypt uprising, many governments around the world started taking steps to control the online medium. India have already witnessed Government issuing warnings to social networking sites and even Google to remove objectionable content. There is talk of putting a censorship in place and if reinforced, then this move by the Government can even affect many of these causes online, especially campaigns like the one against corruption as there are bound to be anti-government sentiments.

Ruben, who believes in freedom of speech and expression, is against any such meddling by the Government and believes that it can only have adverse effects. He says, "The Internet was made to survive the nuclear attack and I think it's working brilliantly. And any attempt by the Government to censor it or get some sort of regulatory mechanism is first of all is impractical. And secondly, a large number of young people will be isolated from the Government because they are completely for Internet. Even though we encourage debate, at times we find that people tend to go overboard and make objectionable comments. We moderate our page and remove any such content. Having said that, I believe that people have the right to say things, but at the same time, they need to keep in mind that it can be said in ways that are not objectionable to others. We need to take responsibility and ensure that we do not upload something that will hurt the sentiments or offend others."

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