Social Media as Slacktivism

So after the Bearing Drift presented some Technorati numbers, followed by the leftosphere’s howls and Virginia Virtucon’s touche on the matter, I did myself the benefit of actually looking at my Google Analytics numbers…

…and discovered that they were disabled after the recent WordPress upgrade.  Great. has come a long way from its heyday in 2005-2006.  Back then, could boast a readership in the neighborhood of 1,000/day and somewhere north of 10K unique visitors a month.  Not bad for one man show.  Sadly, when you are someone else’s voice, you really can’t be your own.  Readership slid, new methods of measuring readers came into view, and what worked for an Atom feed is not replaced by Feedburner, what worked for server stats was replaced by Google Analytics, and what served for an interested readership was replaced by Twitter.

Heck, I have more people reading my thoughts on Facebook and Twitter than I have reading this blog.  140 characters trumps detailed thought.  Go figure…

Of course, there’s no real way for me to validate any of that information.  My stats were kept server side, and I never liked or trusted SiteMeter (it tended to inflate the traffic numbers, so I discontinued using it), and frankly I was much more concerned with quality content rather than racking up readership.  “Influence the influentials” was the mantra of the post-macaca blogosphere… and so most of the “Old Guard” as we were labeled then drifted into the application side of Web 2.0, while another subsection got slick and branded themselves as “new media experts” to find jobs after the 2006 elections.

Some were successful, though I doubt many deserved the transition.  A mere handful made the transition well — Jason Kenney, Ben Tribbett, and a small handful of others whom I will gladly not mention because… well, they’re actively employed and probably don’t want the attention.

There are others who sold the sizzle without selling the steak.  One of the great mistakes anyone can afford to make in any business is to mistake mere activity with results — I don’t care if it’s flipping burgers or marshaling armies.

Remarkably, there are a great number of managers, politicians, and leaders comfortable with the image of activity.  It offers the appearance of motion, of vitality, of any number of things you may imagine yourself to be — or want to accomplish.

What’s worse, new methods of social media offer precisely the tools to offer prospective clients, bosses, or others the mirage of success.

Allow me then to introduce you to the world of slacktivism.  Slacktivism offers the chance to show support while doing absolutely nothing to advance the cause — much akin to the “wear a ribbon” movement in the 1990s.  Does “awareness” (whatever that means) go up?  More importantly, does anything get done?  Heck no… but you have 5,000 people following you on Twitter, 100K people signing your petition, 6,000 people on your Facebook fan page, and 2,500 people a day reading your blog!

Isn’t that success?!

Of course it’s not.

So then why do we sell it as success?

Very early on, after serving as campaign manager on Rep. Marilyn Musgrave’s 2006 campaign win, I served on a panel for the Virginia Young Republicans on blogging (social media had not truly come into the limelight) and online activism.  One participant raved about blogs.  How blogs were the next frontier, how it was the most important thing one could do for a political campaign, and those who did *not* get on board were on their way out.  In fact, we should drop everything and make blogging our primary focus.

I countered quickly.  Direct mail was more important than blogging.  Phone banking was more important than blogging.  Personal contact was more important than blogging.  A whole litany of traditional media methods that were more important than the internet.  I compared the readership of certain Virginia blogs to the readership of Virginia’s MSM outlets — the influentials were (and are) still MSM reporters.  Even with the advent of dynamic online media vs. static online media (presaging the advent of Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and YouTube) that “blogging” and online media will only work if it is a component of a whole.

That outraged my fellow panelist.  To this day, he now runs a financially successful online media firm.  To be sure, he has a handful of successes… but they are not metrics based, they are not repeatable, and they are entirely conditional on environment.  Whether this expert has learned the hard lessons of traditional media as king, I have no idea.

So what the hell am I driving at?

Let me give you a tiny bit of insight as to what I would consider a successful social media campaign, otherwise known as the “bra meme” that found women posting the color of their bra on that particular day:

A few things I learned from the Facebook wardrobe malfunction:

– Awareness does not mean action
– It’s possible to have too much awareness and not enough action
– There seems to be a growing backlash against the breast cancer movement

but, I have to say…. the number one thing I learned from the FB meme:

Awareness doesn’t necessarily translate into Activism

The post is worth reading in its entirety.  How does a “social media expert” — which more often than not is a self titled anachronism — plan to keep those hundreds of thousands of slacktivists engaged?  What is the next step?  How does the one time “money bomb” translate into continued giving?  Does the MSM care?  Are they talking about it?  Reaching out to the millions of people they have collected around them by reputation and time?  What other ways are you touching this newfound audience?

Or are these “social media experts” simply forking over the views, visits, friends, tweets, and hits of an action?  Where is the money, new volunteers, returning visitors, conversion rates, new clients, a shift in poll numbers, MSM reaction, the chance to turn slacktivists into activists — or even donors?

Are we replacing activity with results?

Getting back to raw numbers and last week’s comparisons of who-is-the-top-dog-in-Virginia contest… readers and hits, Technorati and SiteMeter; these are all wonderful tools.  But who is driving the conversation?  Who is talking to these outlets?  Of these intangibles of access and resonance, who is linking and commenting?  Is the voice of a particular outlet tabloid or respectable?  Moreover, what is the effect of this particular outlet?  Is the MSM more fooled than aware of your influence?  Are your clients/candidates/superiors fooled?

Or better, do they know because you can show them more than just stats.  You can show metrics impacting the real world.  Which means a large degree of integration with traditional forms of media and the courage to try it.  After all, 70% of all social media campaigns will fail.  That means for ever 10 efforts, only three will find some degree of success, and while the returns are huge if successful… can you capitalize on it when success comes?  I wonder how many efforts actually do, or are even prepared to do so.

These are all questions that self-styled experts and more modest geeks and wonks who simply enjoy the game (and I’d place myself in that category) get to answer.  The ongoing one-upsmanship in the Virginia blogosphere is symptomatic of greater issues, and depending on what certain outlets want to be, get, or do with online media there are always different measurements of success.  Same with the entire “social media expert” industry.  Most success stories have no idea how they got there, and if they explain it — it’s never in terms of activism, just slacktivism.

This isn’t to say the brave new frontier of social media isn’t worth exploring — I’ve routinely argued that 5% of any political campaign budget should be devoted to SocMedia —  but it requires both a strong and fearless commitment to the new medium united with realistic and measurable expectations for success, and a plan to follow through with traditional methods.

This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.