The Grey Area of Clicktivism

There is a fine line between spreading awareness about an issue and actually inspiring action, but we have found that leveraging these four mechanisms have had the ability to change the outcome from "clicks" to real world action.
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In a 2010 article in the New Yorker, journalist Malcolm Gladwell expressed concern that we were overemphasizing the role social networking plays in activism. At the time, Gladwell and others had argued that we'd "forgotten what activism is," stating that social media relationships are built around "weak ties," which "seldom lead to high-risk activism." Gladwell, among other opponents of clicktivism, have argued this minimizes people's perception of activism to a mere click, giving people a shallow sense of participation with no incentive to take further action. However, there are some incredible instances of heroic clicktivism successes; the most cited example that immediately followed Gladwell's article was the Arab Spring.

Social media provided citizens a platform for, yes, digital activism, but more importantly, collective activism. The role of social is undeniable: Twitter and Facebook allowed people to organize a revolution. Although the Arab Spring set a clear precedent for the potential and effectiveness of clicktivism, there is still debate. Arguments appear to fall in two camps: either it works or doesn't. It's black or it's white.

Social media is here to stay, so the question should no longer be whether it works or whether it doesn't. We should instead ask how do we best leverage these tools to create real world measurable impact. As a tool, clicktivism can be used in incredibly beneficial ways, specifically in instances where organizations are looking to impact real behavior change, such as with health, social or environmental causes.

These issues require continuous reminders and reinforcements to create "triggers" in order to reinforce new habits. Social media provides a channel for broad consumer reach and consistent engagement, which are key elements to driving long term behavior change. More than 1.73 billion people are expected to use social media in 2013; by 2017, this number will reach 2.55 billion. Whereas some historical movements relied on phone trees and traditional media outlets, social media is the fastest, broadest channel to reach and ultimately mobilize mass numbers of people. We also live in a society with increasingly divided attentions. Getting involved in new causes can be overwhelming and seem difficult, particularly if the problem doesn't have a quick fix. Social media provides an easy point of entry and a channel to continuously engage people along the spectrum of involvement.

Facebook, Twitter and YouTube can build a web that starts with close friends and acquaintances that can quickly create a viral effect if the message elicits an emotional reaction. Social media gives us the ability to package a message with ways to deeper engage - other forms of media like images or video; interacting with additional information; sharing with other like-minded individuals ̶ which can drive a lasting connection and strong ties. University of North Carolina assistant professor Zeynup Tufecki noted while "weaker" connections may start out as such, these social acquaintances can become stronger overtime. An emotional, personal connection is what strengthens these bonds. And that's when change happens.

Take for example Pedigree's Adoption Drive, which set out to raise awareness of the 100,000 dogs euthanized across Australia. In partnership with PetRescue, Pedigree created the highly entertaining "Dog-A-Like" app that matched dogs with potential owners using facial recognition. Once people found a dog-match, they could browse related content and photos of animals in the shelter, and even adopt a dog themselves. The initiative reached more than 5.8 million Facebook users who pledged 200,000 bowls of dog food in the campaign's first month. The emotional connection and ongoing engagement significantly impacted shelter adoptions as well with more than 3500 dogs adopted in the first few months of the program. Approximately 2200 dogs continue to find new homes each month thanks to information being spread by Pedigree's campaign; that's a 36 percent increase since its launch.

Using social doesn't automatically mean long-term engagement, however; to hang a picture, you need the nail, the hammer and the art. At Recyclebank, we've experienced the power that social media and clicktivism can have first-hand. Our tools - a combination of education, gamification and infrastructure ̶ are working together to create tangible, sustained behavior change. For example, after two months of participating in the SCJ Green Choices Recycling Challenge, a six-month online and offline effort to increase nationwide recycling participation, the City of Lake Station, Indiana reported the highest amount of recyclables collected in the town's three-year history of solid waste management. For context, in August 2012, the City collected more than 27 tons of recyclables more than August 2011.

From our experience, social content and campaigns geared towards behavior change should:
  • Inspire, but also provide actionable information
  • Facilitate collaboration that authentically builds a sense of community
  • Instill a sense of urgency and accountability
  • Offer additional ways to learn, engage or act

There is a fine line between spreading awareness about an issue and actually inspiring action, but we have found that leveraging these four mechanisms have had the ability to change the outcome from "clicks" to real world action. We've found that the key to clicktivism is making sure that a click is the first step people take towards making a difference and not the last.

In his criticism of clicktivism, Gladwell references the lunch counter sit-ins of 1960 as an example of a successful movement built on strong ties. It's undeniable that those students drove incredible awareness, but imagine what could have happened if they had social media - nationwide sit-ins, an amplified and continued emotional connection through images, video and real-life testimonials. Social media and clicktivism alone is not the silver bullet, but to discount the power of this as a tool is missing a giant opportunity, especially when trying to activate the masses. When it comes to creating change, we should use everything in our arsenal - and make sure we're always asking the right question.