#occupywallstreet vs Avaaz

Avaaz vs #occupywallstreet
I wonder how many people at Avaaz saw the irony of their email calling on people to sign a petition in solidarity with protesters on Wall Street.

Adbusters, who put out the original call for #occupywallstreet back in July, are vocal critics of ‘clicktivism‘, the derogatory term for the growing industry of organisations (like Avaaz and 38 degrees) who try to mobilise people around clicking petition links. Don’t get me wrong, I sign many of Avaaz’s emails, but there are significant issues with their model.

Micah White – Senior Editor at Adbusters – has written a series of scathing but brilliant articles attacking clicktivism for sapping the energy out of grassroots activism and fuelling the illusion that change can come from the click of a mouse.

Dazzled by the promise of reaching a million people with a single click, social change has been turned over to a technocracy of programmers and “social media experts” who build glitzy, expensive websites and viral campaigns that amass millions of email addresses. Treating email addresses as equivalent to members, these organizations boast of their large size and downplay their small impact. It is all about quantity. To continue growing, they begin consulting with marketers who assure them that “best practices” dictate crafting a message that will appeal to the greatest number of people. Thus focus groups, A/B testing and membership surveys replace a strong philosophy, vision for radical change, and cadre of diehard supporters.

He’s right. As someone who works in digital campaigning, I find it a constant struggle to fight the marketing world’s view of what the digital medium should be about: selling products.

Everything out there is telling you to focus on the colour of your action buttons, the alignment of your forms or the optimal number of emails to send per month.

None of it is about stoking the outrage you need to get people to act, and then mobilising them together in the real world.

That’s why #occupywallstreet is a refreshing burst of genius.

Occupy Wall Street

Adbusters’s call out comes in a continuing line of social media mobilisations this year that have shown how the internet and its related tools can be used to change politics.

From Tunisians to Egyptians, #occupywallstreet to @ukuncut, all of these groups have used social media to educate and engage, giving people real-world outlets for their new-found online rage. None of these groups wasted their time in the pseudo science of digital marketing.

That’s because as soon as you obsess with the control-freakery of the metrics world you sacrifice the most exciting part of online mobilisations: not knowing where they’ll go.

Nobody knows where a protest organised around a hashtag will go. My guess is only a tiny proportion of those who’ve heard about the #occupywallstreet protests know where the call originated from – as it should be. The result is that lots of people feel equal ownership over the cause, no doubt related to why #occupywallstreet has sprouted 928 local and independent groups across the US so far.

Avaaz’s model of mobilisation – in contrast – positions itself at the core of all activity. At no point in any of its campaigns are its 10 million members communicating together directly or plotting independently of Avaaz.

And ultimately that’s what has to happen if you want to tap the potential of a mass movement. If you don’t enable people to organise directly together in the real world, it doesn’t matter how many millions you have on your mailing lists – people are still waiting for a petition to sign or a message to retweet. In essence that’s traditional media campaigning, one to many – there’s almost nothing social about it at all.

So as #occupywallstreet continues and rolls into the upcoming international #globaldemocracy occupations called by the Spanish for October the 15th (follow @occupylsx if you’re in the UK), it’ll be interesting to see how Avaaz and other organisations respond. More petitions or something braver? Maybe this time they’ll call on their subscribers to leave their laptops and hit the streets. We’ll see.

But one thing is clear: #occupywallstreet proves Adbusters’ critique of clicktivism. It’s never enough to sign an online petition, real movements are built on the ground.

Update 9 Oct: Seems @Adbusters agrees …

10 Responses to “#occupywallstreet vs Avaaz”


  • I’m not sure I agree. IMHO, online petitions do help in 2 ways… 1) I can’t imagine that 100,000 online signatures wouldn’t have at least some impact on the Congressman, President, Corporation, etc. If nothing else to inform them that opposition exists. 2) It is an effective way to inform a lot of people of a specific issue. It can also energize people to see that a petition got some amount of signers in X amount of time & let them know that their view is not an isolated one. Having read the petition can give people a clearer understanding of the issue.

    I agree that “the street” is the best place to effect real change but leading up to someone making that decision can be facilitated in different ways for different people. Seeing that simply informing the culprits/politicians/corporation with mass signatures has no impact, the people that are willing to take the next step will do so.

  • Moi !

    I live in real worls hier in Arctic Circle and was one of the first to sign Avaaz .

    Guess why ; )

  • Thanks for the replies.

    As I said I sign Avaaz emails sometimes. But I’d be interested to see evidence that proves this assumption that people who click links will go on to take action in the real world.

    There’s another hypothesis – which Adbusters argue – which is that far from leading people on a path to activism, clicking a link makes you feel like you’ve taken action and therefore you’re less likely to take action in the real world. If that’s true, mass petition models of mobilisation could actually work against the cause.

  • I can’t say that I have a ton of data to prove my theory. In fact, there are exactly 2 cases that I am aware of that signing an online petition worked to get someone into the street. Me, for 1 & you for 2 (I’m assuming that there must have been an occasion that you signed a petition and ultimately went to a demonstration on the same issue), lol.

  • I liked this! For me, the power of a hashtag is that it is a link. It connects, and connects people as well as content. Moreover, it does so ‘horizontally’ (peer to peer), rather than more traditional ‘vertical’ media interaction of big name group to an audience.

    Have you read Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture? You might like Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture. Or you might hate it. Bit out of date now maybe.

  • There’s always someone to say what you’re doing is no good, isn’t there?
    So everyone should sit around doing nothing?
    This type of comment stops good things happening.

  • Adbusters starts a counter-clicktivist campaign against MoveOn for trying to hijack #occupywallstreet http://twitter.com/#!/Adbusters/statuses/126698284029976578

  • I think the Adbusters’ argument only works if we are all potential on-the-street campaigners. Shame on me perhaps, but I have never actively campaigned on any subject. I’d guess there are millions like me, with commitments getting in the way or distance or some other excuse/reason for not doing so. Supporting organisations like Avaaz, has not stopped me getting involved, it’s informed me and offered me a way of getting involved that does not adversely affect those close to me, who may disagree or, more likely, just don’t want to know. Although I am frequently checking other sources that Avaaz are what they say they are, I want them to be what they claim, to represent the silent majority, to inspire/support the activists and scare the hell out of those abusing power.

  • @PeterW- Well said. The fact is that I have participated in direct on-the-street protests and have never felt that signing an online petition was a replacement for personal involvement. Like now, I am abroad so I have been supporting OWS through various other means. I have made contributions, signed petitions, called city officials about police abuse, emailed my “representatives,” written blog posts, tweeted and re-tweeted about important events, etc. Taking action online to support a cause may fall short of sleeping in the rain but sometimes it just isn’t possible to live up to that high standard of action. There are many reasons why someone may support an idea and not be able to “take to the streets.” What of a person who isn’t physically able to take part in direct action, should they feel guilty & think of themselves as a slacktavist?

    We all should do what we can in support of making our world a better and sustainable place for everyone. That being said, people are seriously suffering right now. I do think people should at least be willing to be inconvenienced and take a stand if and when they can.

  • Hey,

    Just to say, from one half Iranian to another I think you blog is great! I’ve only just bravely started my own but ye, I think your topics are great! 🙂

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