“I am getting increasingly suspicious of the very idea of the internet, and the consequences it has for public conversation, for public debate, for foreign policy.”
These are the opening remarks of the author Evgeny Morozov’s during an interview with The Guardian, in 2012. In a nutshell, you may already have a glimpse of his outspoken criticism of technological utopianism. Morozov, who studies global political and social implications of technology, embraces skepticism when it comes to numerous digital activism campaigns that attempt to change the world for better through Facebook and Twitter.
One of his most impressive articles I recently came across was published more than a decade ago and you are mistaken if you think that its relevance may have faded away. On the contrary, it became even more accurate and compelling to read and write about. While not leaving behind other writing parts of his portfolio, we will particularly focus on ‘From slacktivism to activism’ article, published in Foreign Policy, 2009.
Taking into account that Morozov cannot be skipped when talking about the correlation between technology and its impact in transforming the ‘classic’ form of activism, through this Youth Time article, we will reread some of the ground concepts and key arguments.
The last part of the article will briefly bring into debate a question hard to answer “What is Global Village and when will we become one?”.
You may ask how this question relates or differs from reading Morozov?
What caught my eye in his lines was his warning regarding the different nature of local and global issues when elaborating on how to convert digital awareness into action. So, this dilemma is raised naturally, however answering it requires further and broader analyses.
You may find below three main ideas presented in ‘From slacktivism to activism’ article.
Such a concept was previously discussed by him in another piece titled ‘The brave new world of slacktivism’, as an apt term to describe feel-good online activism that has zero socio-political impact. Morozov describes digital activism as “the end, rather than the beginning of contributing for a good cause.”
In support of this he brings into our attention a very fascinating experiment conducted by Danish psychologist Anders Colding-Jørgensen, in Copenhagen. Studying how ideas spread online, Jørgensen used Facebook to conduct an experiment using the Stork Fountain as his main subject. He initiated a Facebook group “which implied – but never stated so explicitly – that the city authorities were planning to dismantle the Stork Fountain, which was not the case.”
The group started spreading virally. After three days, it began to grow with over two new members each minute. Jørgensen finished the experiment only when the group reached a total of 27.500 members. For this, Morovoz argues “there you have it: almost 28,000 people joined a cause that didn’t really exist! As far as “clouds” go, that one was probably an empty one. “
This online behavior has led to the phenomena of what he calls “slacktivism”.
“Where our digital effort makes us feel very useful and important but have zero social impact.” Morozov points out.
Changing the world through Facebook/Twitter and the campaign gone wrong as well as how (impossible) it is to convert activism into action are just a few arguments building his deep and provoking critique on the spread and real impact of social media activism.
The phenomenon of “social loafing”
One of the most engaging ideas one is introduced when reading this piece is the phenomenon called by psychologists “social loafing”.
It stands for an interesting explanation as to why a million people working together may be less effective than a single person working alone. It was first discovered by the French scientist Max Ringelmann in 1913, when he asked a group of men to pull on a rope. It turned out they each pulled less hard than when they had to pull alone; this was basically the opposite of synergy. Practically speaking, the author asks us to think about the last time we had to sign a Happy Birthday song. The key takeaway is that when everyone in the group performs the same mundane tasks, it’s impossible to evaluate individual contributions; thus, people inevitably begin slacking off. Increasing the number of other persons diminishes the relative social pressure on each person.
That’s, in short, what Ringelmann called “social loafing”.
But, what’s the parallel that can be drawn between Ringelmann’s experiments and the activism flooding our social feeds? Morozov has a say on this as well.
“I realized that the same problem plagues much of today’s “Facebook” activism: once we join a group, we move at the group’s own pace, even though we could have been much more effective on our own. […] Thus, we shouldn’t take it for granted that Facebook activism is the ultimate limit of what’s possible in the digital space; it is just the first layer of what’s possible if you work on a budget and do not have much time to plan your campaign.”
Entertainment versus activism
The idea presented here derives from the previous one. What’s really the primary role of Facebook and Twitter?
Morozov’s readers may have the correct answer right away: Entertainment.
“[…] Facebook and Twitter were not set up for activists by activists; they were set up for the purposes of entertainment and often attracted activists not because they offered unique services but because they were hard to block.” he argues between the lines.
Thus, he continues, we shouldn’t take it for granted that Facebook activism is the ultimate limit of what’s possible in the digital space; it is just the first layer of what’s possible if you work on a budget and do not have much time to plan your campaign.
What is Global Village and when will we become one?
The definition of a global village is becoming more and more relevant as each day passes by. Electronic communications, technology, and mass media are among the key components of what we call today a global village. In global villages all societies throughout the world are easy connected.
We are witnessing the world becoming more interconnected due to the expansion of media technologies. However, does this necessarily mean that we are building or living the very definition of a global village?
If the world, in its entirety, is all connected and to some extent its communities are co-dependent, would that mean that we all would share the same values, beliefs, standings, conditions and many other similarities?
Let’s leave this part of this debate open and wait to hear again from us in another piece discussing media literacy. In one of this TED talks “How the Internet strengthens dictatorships”, Morozov argues with chilling examples about the ways that the internet helps oppressive regimes stifle dissent.
To offer you a different viewpoint regarding the internet and its role in democratization of a society, check out ‘Is It About Time We Recognize Internet Access as a Human Right?’ article, in which Dr. Merten Reglitz, Lecturer in Global Ethics at the University of Birmingham, although admits that having free Internet access alone does not automatically promote democracy, still, he counts all the benefits it could bring.
Photos: Shutterstock / Photomontage: Martina Advaney