‘Everyone is an activist.’ Is this merely a slogan for the ‘slacktivism’ era or reflective of an age in which employees not only have a voice but also the ability to use it to dismantle existing institutions one Instagram post at a time, Nicola Kemp asks
Are we all now activists in an era when social media has given everyone a voice?
Activism has become a mainstream pursuit. A new era of people-powered transparency is challenging how businesses communicate with staff and consumers alike. Individuals’ amplified voices are reverberating, as employees empower themselves and educate their employers in the process. From the #Metoo movement to the nascent impact on legacy HR systems from apps such as virtual watercooler Fishbowl, the disparity between what a brand or business says it stands for and the experiences of its employees and consumers is becoming impossible to ignore. Activism is a tool through which consumers can define themselves and process the world around them, and it is a shift to which established businesses are struggling to adapt. Indeed, the power of this new breed of collective activism is only just beginning to be understood by brands. Sairah Ashman, global chief executive of Wolff Olins, says that until fairly recently, consumerism was defined from a sense of self and place, but now it is founded on activism. She explains: “The line between who we are at home and who we are at work is invisible, with a general shift away from asserting individuality to expressing authenticity.” At the same time, social media provides the perfect platform to organise and influence at scale and speed. “Enough online protests and ‘likes’ can help bring down institutions and businesses,” Ashman adds. “Doing this from the comfort of your sofa or a coffee shop isn’t lazy if it’s effective.”
Critics have often dismissed this fresh generation of activists as “slacktivists” – a click-bait criticism, which obscures the complex, creative and collaborative nature of this new wave. According to research findings in a recent JWT Intelligence Report, two out of three millennials believe that a person who has become aware of an issue and then spreads the word online is able to create more real change than a person on the street rallying and protesting. Another reason cries of “slacktivism” fall short is that they presume the choice consumers face is a binary one, when, in reality, the art of the street is being hugely amplified by social channels, with the two increasingly interlocked. The protest poster, for example, has found a vibrant new channel on Instagram.