We can click hundreds of thousands of times to Like our favorite artist, a silly cat video, or a good cause online. But when it comes to activism we need to be able to turn our Likes into real engagement. Otherwise our activism is just Like activism.
In January 2014 a small contemporary art gallery in Helsinki hosted the second exhibition by a Finnish street artist Sampsa. Not unlike Banksy, Sampsa is also a pseudonym for a subversive street artist (perhaps a street art collective), who sees his work more as activism than art.
The pseudonym Sampsa refers to a character in the Finnish folklore Kalevala, “the national epic of Finland”, in which Sampsa Pellervoinen is the character who sowed all that grows on earth. The street artist Sampsa, then, wants to sow life and activist spirit into passive, apolitical people.
In his manifest, distributed at the exhibition, Sampsa says that “at the belly of the beast lies the belief that together we can change everything and anything”.
“Because”, Sampsa continues, “I believe when we click 670,000,000 times to like Eminem and Rihanna – those same clicks could stop the next rape, the next death in a mine or prevent mining companies from decimating land and water reserves.”
Now, we know that social media has been used extensively in various social protests. The Arab Spring, the Occupy! movement, the Russian opposition protests since Putin’s re-election, or the 2013 protests in Turkey are all good examples of how social media can be in a key role in the mobilization of massive political protest.
And why not: the internet, like protesting, is about networks of people coming together over a common interest or a common concern.
But to what extent are we actually able to turn our online activism into political changes? We can, for example, Like #amnesty hundreds of thousands of times, but how many of those Likes actually turn into participation in Amnesty’s campaigns?
Has our activism receded into clicking? Into Like activism, or #activism.
Of course all the Likes and hashtags are good in spreading the word. By Liking #amnesty one’s Facebook friends or Twitter followers might discover something meaningful to engage in.
And of course real political campaigns can manifest online just as well as online campaigns do manifest into real-life movements.
A good example of this is, for instance, Kallio-liike, a city ward initiative in Helsinki that started out as a Facebook community of people who did not want to see their surroundings nimbyfied. It gained so much popularity on Facebook that it quickly evolved into a real-life movement of people organizing swap meets, block parties, and street kitchens.
If we feel threatened and if the community ethos to take action is strong enough, we do commit ourselves to a cause.
But if we do not really feel threatened, do we then just click Like and go on with our lives?
For Bauman sporadic outbursts of protests or campaigns do not change anything. Things will revert back to the way they were as long as we live in a global ethical void.
Along the same lines Dean sees that no real change can come from wired citizens as our activities only suggest engagement, but in fact lean towards passivity and disengagement. The problem is that shopping and political activism are manifest in one and the same action: clicking.
The ease of Liking a good cause makes us feel satisfied with our actions. It makes us feel that we are contributing to a better world, when in fact we are doing nothing short of what Bauman and Dean criticize us for.
Liking should be merely a starting point. We can fill the global ethical void by turning our support into taking ownership of the causes we Like. Into becoming activists.
Sampsa uses street art as his tool as an activist. His stencils are subversive and persuasive pieces of art aimed at making people stop and take some time to think about, for example, the human rights issues in Russia or corporate (ir)responsibility.
Like Sampsa, I believe that we could turn our Like activism into something tangible. I do not believe that we are merely bowling alone because I do not believe that online participation should stop at shopping for satisfaction.
But it is up to each one of us to take that next step from clicking into engagement.
Bauman, Zygmunt (2002) Society Under Siege. Polity, Cambridge.
Dean, Jodi (2007) Feminism, Communicative Capitalism, And The Inadequacies Of Radical Democracy. In Lincoln Dahlberg & Eugenia Siapera (eds) Radical Democracy And The Internet. Interrogating Theory And Practice. Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke.
McCaughey, Martha & Michael D. Ayers (eds) (2003) Cyberactivism. Online Activism In Theory And Practice. Routledge, New York.
Häkkinen, Ari & Sirpa Leppänen (forthcoming) YouTube Meme Warriors: Mashup Videos as Political Critique. eVarieng.