by Sasha Massey
Any liquor geek or hipster distillery in Brooklyn will tell you that white whiskey is having a moment. Unlike regular whiskey, it can be created overnight, doesn’t require a lot of investment, and, most importantly, it’s trendy. But its lackluster quality is giving true whiskey a bad name. The rise of this faddish spirit has been accompanied by the increasing popularity of another: activism. But, like white whiskey, it is taking on a new form, one in which the impact may be fleeting.
Malcolm Gladwell characterized high-impact activists as people of passion, willing to take on high risks for high reward. Many of today’s self-proclaimed activists display more superficial tendencies. The growing popularity of social media as a political tool has given everyone the license to declare themselves activists, without having to stick their neck out. Perhaps this is that facebook friend who changes their overlay to every of-the-moment cause and hashtags #persist with every post. What change does this create?
As Stanford sociologist Doug Mcadam argues, change-makers require strong ties to the community impacted by an issue, or deep roots in the issue itself. These roots can emerge from learning, working with or knowing someone who is directly affected by the issue, or experiencing the problem first-hand. Conversely, social media platforms are largely founded on weak ties. A like, repost or tweet does not an activist make.
Yes, citizens of a democracy have every right to and should exercise their ability to advocate for change and make improvements to their society. But a click of a mouse does not make a participatory democracy. As history and research demonstrates, nothing is more effective than deep engagement with the decision-making processes that affect an issue. As Gladwell says, “activism that challenges the status quo—that attacks deeply rooted problems—is not for the faint of heart.” Like any good whiskey, an activist is not born overnight.
Famed economist Anthony Downs’ argues that public attention, particularly in America, rarely remains focused on an issue for long. This is largely because problems are often slow to develop, and new ones are always popping up to divert our attention. This challenge is augmented by social media, where we are inundated with a constant barrage of new topics and information. If this article has made you self-conscious of your social media “slacktivism,” know that it’s not all your fault; surface-level engagement is partially an adaptation to the times.
Social media has great potential to help communities organize, and is particularly useful for fast, frequent distillation of information. However, when it comes to what Gladwell identifies as high-risk activism – the necessary ingredient to enact tangible social change – social media can only be one tool in a larger strategy. So before you press like, re-tweet, or go on that Facebook rant, make sure you are using it as as a springboard to advocate for a cause, rather than a finish line.