Last week, the New York Police Department learned the hard way that once something is on Twitter there is no taking it back. Last week, NYPD sent out a request for New Yorkers to send in photos with their friendly neighborhood cops accompanied with #myNYPD, but what they got instead were hundreds of photos showing instances of police brutality and harassment. The hashtag trend spread like wildfire and inspired parallel #myLAPD and #myCPD campaigns, offering powerful commentary on the way the public perceives the police.
But like many Twitter campaigns, #myNYPD will probably be short-lived. The campaign has sparked conversation, but whether it will contribute to a sustained movement to combat police violence is doubtful. The problem is that next week or even tomorrow there will be a new hashtag that takes Twitter by storm—another cause to tweet and retweet about.
Socially conscious media sites such as Upworthy, ThinkProgress, and PolicyMic display a similar tendency to provoke an immediate emotional response that produces short-term anger but not necessary long-term momentum. One scroll down my Facebook feed and I see countless headlines promising to “change the way I see x” or “reveal the horrible truth about y.”
While sites like Upworthy can be hard to hate on—who is against drawing massive amounts of attention to topics that really matter?—I am not alone in my slight aversion to them. Speaking to ThinkProgress in particular, Cameron Bills, a Columbia College sophomore, says “I've honestly gotten really sick of it ... I actually stopped reading it because I got so tired of these linkbait headlines that are just meant to make you feel really outraged, like so and so Republican says that women aren't people'—just like really crazy things that I don't find really productive. I think they appeal to people who already believe in these things and enrage them further, but without any sort of direction.”
Given the constant characterization of our generation as apathetic, as complacent, as lacking the anger of our activist forefathers, I can't help but think we have reason to be critical of the sensationalizing tactics of online activism and the culture of online “slacktivism” they promote. And the thought that online activism creates anger without an outlet is worrisome. When so much online content is being created simply for the purpose of being shared and re-shared, are we merely reproducing outrage for the sake of outrage? Furthermore, at what point do we become immune to feeling this anger at all?
Jacob Boeri, a Columbia College sophomore, argues that it is not so much that millennials have become desensitized to upsetting or provoking content. Rather, the cost of participating in on-the-ground activism has risen. “The way that career mobility works, the legal system, the competitiveness of getting into school, all of these things really forbid any activism,” Boeri says.“People are afraid of getting arrested and the consequences it will have later on.” Furthermore, Boeri claims that because of online activism, “You don't necessarily need to be on the streets to, quote, make a change.' You can get the satisfaction of making a difference' by just sitting at your computer, changing your profile picture, typing up some very large rant on Facebook, or making a hashtag.”
At first glance, there certainly seems to be a tension between increased availability of information and the sort of general complacency that many critics note. Boeri and Bills are far from the only ones critical of online activism; as Larissa Faw notes in an October 2012 Forbes Magazine article, “many older activists dismiss Millennials as slacktivists for their preference towards digital advocacy rather than hitting (or sitting on) the pavement.”
Yet the truth is, online activism has completely changed the game. While perhaps it's true, as Faw claims, that “gone are the days of massive sit-ins and letter-writing campaigns championed by older activists,” maybe we should be evaluating online activism on its own terms instead of holding it to a potentially outdated standard.
Ultimately, conversations with Reina Gossett—the membership director at the Sylvia Rivera Law Project and the current activist-in-residence at Barnard's Center for Research on Women—and with writer, Twitter activist, and 2013 Columbia College graduate Andrea García-Vargas left me feeling much less cynical about online activism. Both Gossett and García-Vargas point to Twitter as not only a means of spreading information, but also a site for building an activist community. Twitter, like Upworthy, provides a platform for education and raising consciousness. Beyond that, though, Twitter is a place where individuals—particularly marginalized individuals—can put out their own content and make their voices heard.
As a writer for PolicyMic and a future curator for Upworthy, García-Vargas appreciates these sites' “efforts at teaching and raising consciousness that is something that general media does not do,” as well as their journalistic commitment to factualism. However, she appreciates the activist community she has found on Twitter for its “self-regulating” nature, saying, “The one place I can go where everything is called out and examined thoroughly is on Twitter among the activists.”
García-Vargas argues that in this context, a viral hashtag can have many implications: “There is sometimes a purpose to get attention from mainstream media, but there are also so many hashtags that don't reach mainstream media, and that's OK because it's putting folks in conversation that is really helpful for them.”
Writer and trans woman advocate Janet Mock's Twitter campaign #GirlsLikeUs is a prime example of this. Today, two years after its creation, #GirlsLikeUs is still going strong, providing a means for trans women of color to share life experiences and amplify their voices. This, Gossett says, “speaks to the forms of isolation that a lot of trans women are navigating kind of every day, and the need and desire to connect with each other over the Internet.”
Gossett and García-Vargas both push back against the idea that online activism and on-the-ground activism preclude each other. Gosset brings attention to the fact that the people “who aren't able to participate [in activism] in real life because of a lot of different forms of oppression” are left out of this binary. She says, “Some people are in prison and can't come. Some people have warrants and can't come to a protest or a rally. Other people are dealing with disabilities, and that's a reason they can't come out. So things like tweeting are a way of engaging them with the work.” García-Vargas also refutes the idea that education via online activism is insufficient, saying, “Twitter is a great way for people to really learn and to find other people with different life experiences.”
The Internet, like any medium, comes with benefits and disadvantages. In terms of activism, whatever the platform may be, it brings a myriad of complications. On the one hand, there is a massive, overwhelming new capability for sharing information, that is sometimes accompanied by complacency or shock. On the other hand, there is the unprecedented ability for people to connect, to bring visibility to marginalized groups, and to create more inclusive movements. Reconciling these contradictions—balancing outrage and empathy, education and direct action, true empowerment and visibility—is what will ultimately define the unique style of our generation's activism.