I participated in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge because it really seemed like Alison wanted to pour a bunch of ice water on my head (turns out that this was true). But what does the controversy around the challenge, and slacktivism, mean to me?
Broadly, the campaign is, I think, the loudest example yet of what the “future” of activism looks like. It’s worth taking a moment to think about the individual motivations of participation in something like this. We -actually- did it because we didn’t want to leave the nomination hanging and it was for a good cause - the classic mini-guilt-trip that most of activism sorta feeds off of, but amplified by the ability to publicly and permanently point fingers at the friends we’re nominating thanks to social media. What does this mean for activism in the future?
Well, the scariest thing about this campaign, to me, is that it’s a fad. I mean, almost every campaign is a “fad”, when you think about it. Over the course of months or years things build up and then die down, only to switch to something new. What scares me is how this process is accelerated through “virality”. What further scares me is how irrelevant my (our?) fear is. These fads are going to become more and more common - and more and more tiring.
I expect that we’ll start to see more “slacktivist burnout”. See, these viral campaigns look a lot like the chainmail of yore. I have no evidence for this, but I’d imagine that chainmail was so prolific in the past because, at some point, it had to work. Then, as email advanced as a technology and more people developed a literacy for it, it died out. We’re starting to see that now as growth slows in the major social media platforms like Twitter and Facebook. People - especially the youngest amongst us - are moving to ephemeral platforms (Snapchat, Secret).
What that means for anyone involved in social change is that we’ve gotta get (stay?) ahead of the curve. The building of movements has always been more important than the campaigns we use to build them; we’re used to building movements, so let’s keep doing that. However, we have to do this with our “markets” in mind. How do we engage people who already feel that they’ve “saved the world” through voluntourism and slacktivism?
I don’t have an answer to that, but I think it’s going to be one of the most important questions anyone interested in social change can answer for this generation and the next.