This book examines how routine social media use shapes political participation in Britain. Since the turn of the century, many commentators have argued that political activism has been compromised by “slacktivism,” a pejorative term that refers to supposedly inauthentic, low-threshold forms of political engagement online, such as signing an e-petition or “liking” a Facebook page. In contrast, this book establishes a new theoretical approach—the continuum of participation model—which illuminates what happens before political action occurs. This is explored in two interrelated contexts, using two different research methods: an ethnography of the UK citizens’ movement 38 Degrees, which has attracted a membership of more than 3 million citizens through its innovative use of digital media; and an analysis of a corpus of individually-completed self-reflective media engagement diaries.
I argue that Facebook and Twitter create new opportunities for cognitive engagement, discursive participation, and political mobilisation. 38 Degrees uses social media to support political campaigns that blend online and offline tactics. This organisational management of digital micro-activism provides participatory shortcuts, enabling large numbers of grassroots members to shape campaign strategy. But, in contrast to both advocates and critics of online participation, I find no evidence of widespread self-expression. Instead, I argue that we ought to think in terms of a typology of citizen roles in social media environments. Civic instigators and contributors engage in digital micro-activism by way of refining their political identity. Listeners use social media to consume political information but refrain from public forms of expression and instead take to private spaces for political discussion. When listeners do act it is not effortless, but carefully considered. While these actions are often formed on information that is focused around private interests, there is no evidence to suggest that this selective exposure leads to harmful audience fragmentation. This personalisation is balanced by moments of collective exposure, as citizens focused their attention on public issues.
Overall, this book argues that slacktivism is an inadequate and flawed means of capturing the essence of contemporary political action. By moving beyond this pessimistic and reductionist critique, I illustrate how social networking sites offer an important space for democratic engagement in the milieu of everyday life.