Yes, Social Media Activism Is Superficial -- And That's Okay

As soon as social media activism became a thing, it was inevitably subjected to criticism by skeptics who hurried to point out that, well, it doesn’t necessarily achieve much in the way of concrete results.

No surprise, the spread of the marriage equality meme has some columnists and bloggers raising this profound -- or is it profoundly obvious? -- point yet again. The Rundown blog on the PBS Newshour site asks: “If millions of people share a message on social media, is that enough? Or is it just a form of lazy ‘armchair activism’ that results in conversation but no action?”

As some readers may recall, Malcolm Gladwell made this same point, at tiresome length, back in 2010, in a New Yorker article comparing social media activism with “real” activism. Gladwell noted that showing support for a cause on social media is so easy as to be almost meaningless: “Social networks are effective at increasing participation -- by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires.” He goes on: “In other words, Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.”

There are several logical flaws in this line of argument, but the one that jumps out at me now, in the context of the gay marriage debate, is simply this: I don’t think anyone expects to change the world by replacing their profile picture with the Human Rights Campaign’s logo, or some variant thereof. They are merely expressing support for a cause, and doing so in a simple, effective manner.

No, they’re not storming the steps of the Supreme Court: plenty of people, on both sides of the issue, already have that covered. No question, the protesters in Washington D.C. are obviously more committed and willing to sacrifice for the cause, at least in the sense of spending time and money to travel to the capital and hold up signs and scream themselves hoarse. But does that mean there’s no role for people who voice support through social media? If nothing else, they are letting friends, acquaintances, and co-workers know that they support marriage equality. By letting their acquaintances know that they support a cause, social media users encourage their acquaintances to do the same, prompting their acquaintances in turn, and so on, setting in motion a chain reaction. As social media users publicize their affiliations and loyalties, the aggregate effect is kind of like a spontaneous, self-organizing opinion poll.

This is not meaningless. After all, when it comes to social causes, there has always been a distinction between a small group of hardcore activists and a much larger, diffuse group of basically passive supporters. And while the small group does the heavy lifting in terms of activism, it is the attitude of the general population that decides if this activism is finally successful. By affirming their support for a cause, and encouraging their social media contacts to do the same, social media users are participating, in some small way, in the national dialogue -- the process whereby we, as a society, tell ourselves what we are thinking. And that is achievement enough.

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2 comments about "Yes, Social Media Activism Is Superficial -- And That's Okay ".
  1. Bruce May from Bizperity , March 29, 2013 at 6:30 p.m.
    This is more than just a “spontaneous opinion poll”. Official opinion polls don’t tell you what your friends and neighbors think. Social media does. Cause marketing is all about changing opinions first and foremost. Real change in laws, customs and behavior always follows changes in attitudes and beliefs. Knowing that your friends and neighbors don’t share your ideas can do more to change your opinion than all the official polls in the world. That is the only way we could have ever seen the rapid evolution of ideas and opinions about marriage equality. That level of social change is unprecedented. The reality is that all those who exhaust themselves in protest movements may be unnecessary now. No protest movement has ever changed my mind about much of anything but my friends and family can… and often do. Malcolm Gladwell’s deep insight into social media aren’t really that deep after all.
  2. Tom Goosmann from True North Inc. , March 30, 2013 at 10:33 a.m.
    The right to vote is a cornerstone of our democracy. But that vote is private. When people make the decision to make that vote public, whether with a button, sign on the lawn or bumper sticker, they step out of the comfort of privacy and make a statement. Those willing to voice their opinion via a changed profile picture are stepping out, in front of family, friends, and friends of family and friends. Calling such a vote of support "Armchair Activism" is pretentious and elitist.