William A. Jacobson comments about the success of Upworthy in channeling support for various issues at his decidedly conservative/Republican blog, Legal Insurrection. He is unapologetic about his worldview, and subtly praises Upworthy for capitalizing on the desire of “low-information liberals” or “The Daily Show generation” to conduct slacktivism by passing around and viral-izing 3 minute videos.
Although I doubt Mr. Jacobson and I agree on much, we see eye-to-eye on the damage that this sort of “slacktivism” is doing to the activist impulse.
First, as Malcolm Gladwell pointed out several years ago, the revolution will not be Tweeted. In a nutshell, activism is hard and if an action is trivially easy, like “Liking” something or watching a video clip, it probably does little beyond raise awareness, if even that. Stated differently, significant change within entrenched systems with competing, usually powerful interests is highly unlikely to be affected without sacrifice on the part of the weaker party. That sacrifice is what the minority or weaker group has to compete with: their time, their energy, their presence, their livelihood. While raising awareness is certainly an important first step, clicking on things or watching things is no sacrifice at all. I would go so far as to imagine that the bulk of the folks watching these videos don’t need to be convinced of whatever the takeaway might be; there’s a lot of preaching to the choir happening.
Even more problematic than its ineffectualness, however, is the overall dumbing down of the complexity of these ideas. Closely associated is the related idea that many have that two-minute video clips playing in the background are an adequate substitution for taking 15 minutes to read 1000 words about a subject.
Contrast the following Upworthy post about the use of the n-word by an obviously racist public official with this article by Ta-Nehisi Coates in the NYT about the same. The video illustrates nothing beyond what is well known, which is that there are racist people who don’t realize they are racist. If I had to summarize the purpose of the video, it’s to make people laugh and possibly angry. In contrast, the Coates article is an exploration of embedded racism and context. It covers the scenario portrayed and then some, and discusses in depth various situations where the use of slurs can vary in appropriateness depending on community and historical context. The video will be forgotten immediately; the article might change a mind.
I know comparing these two side by side isn’t completely fair because there’s not an implicit choice that needs to be made between the two. But there are only so many free minutes in the day and an awful lot of stuff to read, watch, and listen to on the internet. I think that videos are preferable for some because they can be “listened to” while something else is in progress. I am not going to defend it here but I think the idea that deep thinking about complex subjects can happen in the background while you type emails or scan Facebook is patent nonsense. The passing around of these videos rather than substantive discussions gives legitimacy to the idea that they are an adequate substitute for real thinking and engagement.
It could be argued that the videos are more useful for changing the minds of segments of society that are only likely to watch videos. While this might be true, it is on-balance not a good thing if minds are changed with over-simplified memes that rely on overly emotional responses to make the needed connection. What needs to be encouraged is the recognition that social and cultural conflicts are complex and multi-faceted, that we are all blinded by our emotions, that there is no right way to think or feel about certain things, that there are many perspectives on these issues, that there is endless background to be learned about any given situation, and so on. This recognition is what has been destroyed by the fast-food nature of modern conveyors of information.
It can be argued that they both have some value, or maybe there are some Upworthy videos that rival the article in depth and meaning. This I agree with. I would go a step further and say that there are some ideas that are best expressed in this medium. What I am criticizing is the wholesale substitution of, or rather, the filling of our available minutes with easy-to-digest videos rather than substance. It’s the same old criticism that I’m sure was leveled about TV when it began to become popular.
I don’t want to be overly critical of what Upworthy has accomplished. It is better than no engagement with the issues at all, which is probably the state of affairs they hoped to address:
That’s what you can expect here: no empty calories. No pageview-juking slideshows. No right-column sleaze. Just a steady stream of the most irresistibly shareable stuff you can click on without feeling bad about yourself afterwards.
But I maintain that oversimplification of complex is very dangerous no matter which side of the aisle it’s occurring on. If I had to briefly sum up what the biggest problem with Rush Limbaugh and Fox News is, it would be first and foremost, oversimplification (followed by glaring omission and distortion). The strength of many progressive viewpoints is that (a) they don’t rely on magic beings for their moral foundation and (b) they at least attempt to engage with all the facts. That is why I always find myself on the left side of things, not because of how I personally feel about gay-marriage or poverty or government. There is something to be said for those kind of arguments, but I believe the internet (and the Daily Show) have elevated the to a certain kind of primacy and that needs to be squashed by the left because it can just as easily squashed by the right.
And by the way, thanks to Mr . Jacobson, I now know of at least one right-leaning answer to Upworthy, Twitchy. The right does toxic messaging much, much better than the right is able to counter it. Twitchy, if it finds the sweet spot in UX and context that Upworthy has done for the right, will do an order of magnitude more damage.