[Marxism] Clicktivism is ruining leftist activism

David Thorstad binesi at gvtel.com
Fri Aug 20 09:33:31 MDT 2010

Here's another window on the thread "Can Technology Bring on a World 
Wide Social Revolution?" I've long maintained that social movements, 
such as gay liberation, are being sanitized, purified, tamed as part of 
the trend toward marketizing them ("LGBT" being a perfect example of 
capitalist market branding).


August 12, 2010



Cliktivism is ruining leftist activism

Reducing activism to online petitions, this breed of marketeering 
technocrats damage every political movement they touch

Micah White

Digital activists have gone online and adopted the logic of the 
marketplace. Photograph: Stone/Getty

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 

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 <http://www.moveon.org>. Novel 
for its combination 
<http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/12.09/moveon_pr.html> 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 
<http://www.actionkit.com> 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 gone.

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 <http://www.tcktcktck.org>, a purported 
climate change organisation with 17 million members. Widely hailed 
as an innovator of digital activism, TckTckTck is a project of Havas 
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 decries.

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 <http://www.mobilecommons.com/>, 
alternate reality 
and augmented reality <http://theleakinyourhometown.wordpress.com/> 
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.

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