Let me start by telling you a little about myself – I admit I’m not what you might call an “activist.” I believe strongly in racial and gender equality, putting an end to all forms of discrimination and violence, and I strive to be an active participant in pursuing social justice. But, I’ve never marched for Black Lives Matter and I’ve never worn a pink pussy hat. As a parent I think about strapping my kids to my back and joining a march – teach them young, right? – but to this day it’s still just an idea.
Nevertheless, I am invested in social justice issues. I’m an international development professional whose work has been singularly focused on supporting development programmes that empower women and youth through access to sexual and reproductive health products and services. As a woman and a mother, I’m a bleeding heart that believes every word of our mandate and I aim to contribute in any way I can. But being an international civil servant can place certain limits on your political activity.
So I often wonder – what actually defines an activist? And in a larger sense, what can be considered activism?
To complicate the question further, activism is now something that happens in online spaces; our Facebook feeds, Instagram stories, Tiktoks are filled with resources and messaging. And nearly everyone we know is involved – our old high school or college friends, our coworkers and bosses, our parents (even grandparents!), our neighbors, etc.
I, too, have dipped my toes into the digital activism space, following Instagram accounts like @impact and @so.informed who seek to parse political and social issues, and occasionally sharing links and information. It can be satisfying to put yourself out there, drawing a clear line for your followers as to where you stand.
But much in the way I question whether my work in development makes me an activist, I pose the same question about online activism. What is performative versus what is true activism?
According to Merriam-Webster activism is “a doctrine or practice that emphasizes direct vigorous action especially in support of or opposition to one side of a controversial issue.” Dictionary.com adds that it is often “a means to achieving political goals, sometimes by demonstrations, protests, etc.” In other words, yes, participating in activism can mean taking to the streets en masse, but it can also be interpreted in other ways.
While it’s hard to sum up in one blog post how activism is carried out across different social media platforms, let’s look at one in particular – Instagram.
Instagram is a mobile app for photo-sharing that wears many hats. It’s the birthplace of hashtag photo challenges and the “instagram influencer,” and has evolved over time into a sophisticated marketing tool for individuals and businesses alike. At the same time, it is now a site of digital activism – especially since last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests when our feeds and stories were filled with black squares, lists of activist and non-profit organizations open to donations, and the names of black-led accounts to follow and support.
For sharing information, activists often use the Instagram carousel function to post what are essentially bite-sized PowerPoint presentations with multiple slides (up to 10) that users swipe through. The posts are visually pleasing, employing minimalist design and using a soft color palette (think: variations of millennial pink), or using background images that generally garner more likes to try to beat the Instagram algorithm. These posts seek to reach people where they are (i.e. on their phones) and to make the information approachable and palatable, so that users will re-share the post and amplify its reach.
For some people, this online interaction may represent “direct vigorous action.” At the same time, this can be criticized as performative and unproductive. It is easy to share a post from the comfort of your home, but where is the physical engagement with the struggle? And what end does it actually achieve? Such “clicktivism” is easily dismissed.
However, I take a different stance – While I agree that sharing such posts on Instagram or social media platforms alone does not make one an activist, I do believe these sites play their intended purpose of creating communities of like-minded people who share information. Instead of being the site where social and political change happens, it is where, in the process of reading, sharing, posting, fielding comments and engaging in debates, people define, negotiate and communicate their activist identities and stances on social justice issues.
So, yes, online activism is performative, but it is through this performance that we construct identities that ultimately carry over into the real world. And it is where activist organizing now takes place. Zeynep Tufecki, author of Twitter and Tear Gas, points out that many protestors with whom she has spoken “cite their online political interactions as the beginning of their process of becoming politicized.”
I am, however, not so naive as to believe there is no downside – there is much mis-information circulating in social media under the guise of stylish posts. And because of algorithms the information we see tends to mirror and reinforce our existing values. This means we find ourselves in an echo chamber, without any real opportunity to be challenged or develop nuance, and potentially diving further and further into an abyss of questionable information.
Still, I cannot say it any better than Tufecki herself who writes,
“Symbolic action online is not necessarily without power either— rather, the effect depends on the context. When Facebook friends change their avatar to protest discrimination against gay people, they also send a cultural signal to their social networks, and over time, such signals are part of what makes social change possible by changing culture.”
Social media platforms are imperfect, but they have a role to play in building activist awareness, social movements and challenging social norms. The struggle, of course, will be transforming that online engagement into sustained in-person engagement.
The final point I’d like to make is that our dictionary definitions are missing an important aspect of activism – the need for organization, coordination, and the involvement of parties with different capacities. To me, the sum of activism can be greater than its parts thanks to the contributions of online activists, who support the arduous work of communication and mobilization, and boots-on-the ground organizations who work with governments and communities to lay the groundwork for social change.
Let me know below in the comments what YOU think.
Do you define yourself as an activist?
What does activism mean to you?
And what do you think about digital activism?
Tufekci, Z. 2017: Twitter and Tear Gas-The Power and Fragility of Networked Protest. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Yes, we obviously share an admiration for Zeynep Tüfekçi… 🙂
I was wondering now for how long we will continue to discuss this in terms of online and offline as two separate worlds? The online is such a huge part of our lives, of course it differs according to differences in connectivity around the world. But why are we thinking of a young boy’s virtual birthday party in Minecraft with his friends from all over the world as less real than a regular birthday party with his classmates? The abbreviation IRL, in real life, reinforces this view. And now when the pandemic regulations in Sweden are history, people talk about how nice it is to finally meet for real. Well, I think our online meetings the last year were pretty real…
I think we need to reconsider this. The online world is not disconnected from the offline one. 15 years ago I heard people like “I bought this shirt online”. That is not the case anymore, now it’s only “I bought this shirt”, and it just happened to be online. It is not important anymore whether you bought it online or in the physical store.
Are we perhaps soon there when talking about activism as well? That there is no online or offline activism, but discussing activism with other perspectives?
Hi Viktor, I think the IRL vs online binary is part of the problem, but it does seem to persist no matter how much is written up. I wonder if it is still a generational thing and that the majority of those committed to the binary are of the age when they still remember life without these networked technologies?
Hi Kasia and Viktor! Thanks for takes on this. I may myself be a little stuck in the binary, because I do remember life between the internet and smartphones, and those do feel like really distinct spaces to me personally, since I don’t put my whole life out on there on the internet.. Still, I agree that – especially since this past year – it seems more and more like our online lives and “IRL” are one in the same. And for me, this is even more so due to my professional status and the fact that I am living and working far from family and friends. So much of my life and interactions are carried out in online spaces, and it is no less real than the face-to-face interactions..
At the same time, in this post, I was building a bit off a point from the FFF post where we discussed the protestors, even the younger ones, felt like in-person action was needed to really support a social movement and incite change. In a way, I feel like no matter the number of likes or shares on a post, it can never compare to power of an entire city square, for example, filled with people representing a shared desire for change. But I think the online component is absolutely critical for organizing, communication, education, etc, and in-person and online activism cannot be separated from each other.
Right now I’m looking into some readings about more discreet or discursive activism, and I hope in my next post to get into this idea that in new media, activist messaging is now embedded and threaded throughout many online communities that are not necessarily obviously activist by nature. Still under development, though. 🙂
Excellent take on an interesting topic, Lauren.
I’d like to add to your thorough article the definition of activism provided by Cambridge Dictionary: “the use of direct and public methods to try to bring about esp. social and political changes that you and others want”.
We can notice here that no indication on how to bring about social and political change is specified.
I don’t define myself as an activist, but in the past I marched and protested in more than one occasion. Although marches and protests are exactly what we usually associate with the word ‘activist’, I must admit that at that time, maybe due to the more local nature of the protests, I didn’t really feel I was bringing about social or political change.
With new media new forms of activism have emerged and just like the way we interact and communicate has changed, so did activism. Digital activism can globally raise awareness and spread massages out in a more effective and powerful ways, making those social and political changes a more achievable goal.
I do agree, nevertheless, that digital activism alone might easily turn into an inconclusive “clicktivism” and a more presential component will always be essential.
Thanks for your two cents, Lorenzo! Really interesting the way you approach from a different direction – that is, you have participated in activist marches, but also don’t identify as an activist. It’s a really elusive word and I think maybe the meaning is really personal for each individual. Maybe it is also about trying to work a bit outside of the system, or to try to stand face to face to the system and point out its flaws (something not mentioned in any of our dictionaries :)) – whereas when you work in development, you are kind of working on things from the inside out, though still towards the same goals. If that’s the case, then maybe that what’s the need for the in-person action comes from, because you achieve power in numbers. But like I said above, I also don’t think you can separate the online aspect of activism from the in-person aspect anymore. Still, a truly interesting debate, and thanks for joining in!
Hi Lauren, great post and very interesting questions you are raising. I massively enjoyed reading it and the comments here. I would actually agree with your last comment, to me activism is bound to happen outside of an established system or structure, it is a change agent that pressures existing structures. In comparison, most professional development work is as you mentioned from the inside out. There is also an interesting aspect to look at desired outcomes, activism often is connected to revolutionary change, whereas working within an established system often is connected to evolutionary change. Similarly, change comes with friction – if the change is desired to happen fast it will most likely lead to loads of friction. To me, both can happen online and offline, often whether we share things online or march the streets is connected to our own preference, as long as we back up the standpoint we support through our own actions, I would believe it to have equal value.