I decided to venture forth last Friday, September 25, for the day of the scheduled height of G-20 activity — both sanctioned and otherwise.  Like much of downtown Pittsburgh, the Bayer Center offices were closed, and I was unsure how difficult it might be to get in.  We are located in the Regional Enterprise Tower in what was designated as a restricted access zone.  In addition, our lobby was the media welcome center.

As it turned out, access to my office was shockingly easy.  My wife dropped me off on her way to her office on the North Side, and we were able to get to within about 2 blocks of the building.  Other than a slightly circuitous walk from there,

Photo by Scott Leff

Photo by Scott Leff

it was no problem at all — in fact, due to a lack of traffic, it was easier than on a normal work day.  I’m sure if I had to worry about parking or took a rerouted bus, it would have been a little trickier — but not much.

Upon reaching the city around 10 a.m., what I found was some limited access, some evidence of security — most strikingly in the form of mounted police whose powerful steeds completely blocked off Grant Street —

Photo by Scott Leff

Photo by Scott Leff

and a decided lack of people.  Businesses were closed, some windows were boarded up (no apparent logic as to who boarded up and who didn’t), and just no people.  It was downright eerie.  I walked in the middle of the streets.  Pittsburgh on a Friday morning was emptier than a western ghost town selling tickets to tourists (maybe we should have tried that).

I spent some time in the office, then headed out around noon for what turned out to be a 4-hour hike.

As I walked deeper into town, there was one overwhelming impression — force.  The more I walked, the more intense it became.  Cops on every corner, Pittsburgh police, then state police, Erie police, Indianapolis police… they were brought in from all over.  And soon it wasn’t just regular police.  More

Photo by Scott Leff

Photo by Scott Leff

mounted police, cops on motorcycles, SWAT units, humvees, and various forms of riot gear — shoulder pads and knee pads and sticks and helmets and shotguns and body armor and utility belts that would make Batman salivate.  They looked like a cross between Darth Vader’s Storm Troopers and the Michelin Man.  And let me tell you, when you see these guys up close, they are intimidating.

Photo by Scott Leff

Photo by Scott Leff

Police in force, and police in numbers.  Riot-garbed security in groups of 100, shoulder to shoulder, moving in formation and leaving no doubts.

Eventually, I made my way as close to the Convention Center — the meeting place for the G-20 — as I could get.  I did this by passing through a security checkpoint, then walking a few blocks along Penn Avenue.  On my right were businesses, including some stores and restaurants that stayed open, although I can’t imagine they were happy about that decision.  On my left was the

10-foot steel fence, running unbroken along the curb and caging me in as completely as it caged in the roadway that was a feeder to the Convention Center.

I wandered down to the Point where a tent city was supposed to have been erected.  It was totally vacant.  Not a tent, not a sign, not a protester in sight.  Just a large lawn.  Where was everybody?

Photo by Scott Leff

Photo by Scott Leff

It got to be time that the main body of protesters should have been reaching downtown from the start of their march in Oakland, so I headed out in search of them.  I found them at the City-County Building where they had gathered for some speeches and music.   After listening for a little while, I left to find a place on Fifth Avenue to watch their ensuing parade.

I use the word parade deliberately, for, to me, that’s largely what it was.  There was almost a partying, paradelike atmosphere as they passed by.  I found myself just past Macy’s (appropriate for a parade) at, coincidentally, my regular bus stop.  5,000 or so of them passed — drummers and costumed dancers, anarchists and

Photo by Scott Leff

Photo by Scott Leff

socialists, those concerned with climate change and capitalism, freedom for Tibet and jobs for everyone, advocates for the Falun Gong (these were the most quietly elegant among the marchers) and for the Pittsburgh Penguins (where were the Steelers fans?).  It was a complete cacophony of issues.  And it left me feeling frustrated and a bit perplexed.

This was not 250,000 people gathered to end the war in Vietnam.  This was not 1,000,000 indignant human beings demanding civil rights for all.  It was a mishmash, a general objection to, well,

Photo by Scott Leff

Photo by Scott Leff

just about anything that might be institutionalized or established.  To the extent that there was a unifying theme, it was the black-garbed, bandanna-faced anarchists, followed by the socialists.  Amazing to me, even the Philadelphia Democratic Socialists of America (who knew?) found their way to Pittsburgh.

Photo by Scott Leff

Photo by Scott Leff

“Down with everything!  Up with anything else!” was the message of the streets.  This is not to diminish the fact that there were many passionate, principled, committed people in this crowd.  But with no focus, what were they accomplishing?  Who, that mattered, was really listening… or, for that matter, could even if they wanted to?  When there is so much noise — both figurative and literal — how can your voice be heard?  This was protesting in the internet age, when all voices are equally loud and fragmentation of micro-interests is global.  The protesting equivalent of Twitter – tweating by marching.

On the flip side, I found the whole experience to be rather inspirational.  This was truly democracy at work.

Photo by Scott Leff

Photo by Scott Leff

Corny as this may be, I am proud to live in a country where this kind of dissent is possible.  This was also a remarkably harmonious event.  The protesters were self-controlled and peaceful, the security phalanxes were restrained.  Were there problems in some of the outlying neighborhoods, notably in Oakland where student density is high?  Sure.  But, given the scale of the event, they were minor.  Were mistakes made?  Of course.

With so much hype and so many people, mistakes are inevitable.  Yes, I know that Rush Limbaugh and Keith Olbermann will have much to complain about.  Yes, I know that the Thomas Merton Center alleges mistreatment of protesters and, I’m sure, there are police who are outraged by things that were “tolerated.”  Both the NRA and the ACLU may feel the need to weigh in.  But, let me tell you, I was here, and it was remarkable.

Some have suggested that the show of force was excessive.  Well, maybe, but I think the proof is in the pudding.  Pittsburgh did not

Photo by Scott Leff

Photo by Scott Leff

end up like Seattle.  Pittsburgh did not end up like London.  And we did not end up like Kent State.  I respect and admire the restraint of the police.  I respect and admire the restraint of the protesters. When a protester marched down Fifth Avenue jabbing his finger at the face of each cop he passed, hissing, “Fascist!  Nazi!”, the police remained stoic.  When the young man riding his bike down Fifth Avenue did not move off the street as quickly as the police wanted and they grabbed his arm and he fell over, the crowd groused, but that was all.  No one was harmed, the cops weren’t rushed, the young man was fine, bricks didn’t fly.  And the marchers continued to march.

I was a skeptic, but I’m impressed.  I think we accomplished something for Pittsburgh (a city I appreciate more and more the longer that I live here).  My hat is off to the protesters for how they behaved.  My hat is off to the police for how they behaved.  And my hat is off to the planners of this event for a remarkable job.

Photo by Scott Leff

Photo by Scott Leff

Have you heard of the term “slacktivism” yet? Even if you haven’t, I bet you’ve been a participant in some form or another:

“Slacktivism (sometimes slactivism) is a portmanteau formed out of the words slacker and activism. The word is considered a pejorative term that describes “feel-good” measures, in support of an issue or social cause, that have little or no practical effect other than to make the person doing it feel satisfaction. The acts also tend to require little personal effort from the slacktivist.

Examples of activities labeled as “slacktivist” include signing internet petitions, the wearing of wristbands (“awareness bracelets”) with political messages, putting a ribbon magnet on a vehicle, joining a Facebook group, posting issue-oriented YouTube videos, altering one’s personal data or avatar on social network services, or taking part in short-term boycotts such as Buy Nothing Day or Earth Hour.” (Wikipedia.com)

Now let’s look at some quotes from critics of slacktivism, who shall remain nameless:

“[Slacktivism is] feel-good online activism that has zero political or social impact. It gives those who participate in “slacktivist” campaigns an illusion of having a meaningful impact on the world without demanding anything more than joining a Facebook group.”

“Slacktivism allows stupid, apathetic people to con themselves into believing they are helping make the world a better place.”

“Slacktivism is fun, easy, and builds self esteem in a cheap way.”

Now here’s my opinion on the subject, whether you want it or not.

I think it is premature to completely dismiss activities that have been classified as slacktivist. I think slacktivist activities, though different from traditional change-inducing activities, can have value.

In my mind, there is nothing different about gathering to protest in a public square or gathering in a Facebook group to support an opinion. If anything, the online gathering is safer, more cost effective, more environmentally friendly, and has the ability to draw more people. In either case, the objective is getting the attention of the people who have the ability to create the desired change.

Another popular activist activity involves creating and distributing flyers, advertisements, and op-eds. I have to ask: is a written piece any less effective if it is digital? Can a YouTube video not have as much (if not more) impact on a person’s mindset, voting habits, and opinions as a traditional print item? Here again, there are similar benefits to be found in the digital format – greater reach, cost-effectiveness, and environmental friendliness.

A slacktivist is not necessarily a lazy person. I know this because I am one, in large part. Yes, I do participate actively on two nonprofit boards and give to charity occasionally. But in large part, I do not have time or money to spend on getting involved, no matter how supportive I feel about a cause. I work full-time, do web design on the side, am working on my second master’s degree, commute 3 hours per day, and do some board service. I am also married and have a household to keep up with. I eschew most social activities and hobbies because of my schedule. It is unlikely that I will come to a protest or party (though I will wholeheartedly tell other people I know about events). I am environmentally concerned as well, so when someone on the street hands me an informational flyer, I ask if the information is available online and ask for the URL. I do not take a flyer so that I can read it and put it in the trash later.

What I do digitally to perpetuate organizations of my choice is to join and promote Causes on Facebook, tweet and re-tweet interesting information on Twitter, and connect other people to the causes I care about. The main thing I can do for any cause is to draw other people. I have larger social networks than many individuals and, while I may not be your volunteer or donor, someone I know may be. Therefore, I think there’s something to be said for simply standing up for a cause and spreading the word.

To further explore this idea, I created a continuum of activism (below) to compare and contrast levels of participation vs. levels of technology usage in regards to activism:

activismcontinuum

When considering the various aspects of activism in this light, there seems to be less difference between slacktivists and people of low involvement (which I have labeled “passive activists” for lack of a better term) than one might think. If a person is going to get involved, he or she is going to get involved. Those who are not, will not. Our challenge, as nonprofit organizations, remains the same as it always has: how do we increase the level of involvement within our base of supporters? I think what throws us off is that we have answered this question for traditional methods of activism. We know how to gain support and there is historical data to show what works, who participates, etc.

I think we have yet to figure out how to effectively engage people using technology, or at least I think that we are mostly infants in these particular skill and mindsets. I also don’t think there is a simple or fast solution to the issue – I think we will have to experience growing pains and pay for our knowledge with our mistakes as is typical of the human condition.

So my final thought, all things considered, is that we should refrain from bashing people for slacktivism. Figure out what your organization can do to increase their involvement in ways that they are able to handle. Ask me to participate in a one-time online focus group. Ask me to donate $5. Ask me to email my senator (and make sure you give me a way to look up the address easily).

A slacktivist might just be the pebble in your organization’s pond that sets off desired change. Don’t ignore or dismiss him or her because of an inability or lack of desire for high involvement.

I have decided.  I want a Fail Whale of my very own.

When Twitter experiences an outage, users see the following image and an error message “Too many tweets! Please wait a moment and try again.”

Instead of making excuses or blaming others, Twitter accepts its failures gracefully and with a sense of humor.  Hence, my idea of having my own personal Fail Whale.  I love this image – the birds representing support and someone kindly lifting up the whale after his failure.  The whale looks relieved, doesn’t he?

Too often, we are so rigid with ourselves and so afraid of failing that we never try anything new.  The “what if’s” start eating at us and before you know it, we’re sticking to things that are safe and familiar.

Clay Shirky, author of “Here Comes Everybody” and one of the keynote speakers at NTEN’s Nonprofit Technology Conference in April, addressed our (as in nonprofits) fear of failure in his speech.  Some quotes from that keynote:

  • “We spend more time figuring out whether something is a good idea than we would have just trying it.”
  • “Fail informatively – Fail like crazy.”

I recall him saying that it’s better to have five good ideas then one great idea…and even better to have 20 okay ideas than one great idea or five good ideas.  That we nonprofits tend to over-analyze and over-plan instead of just jumping in and giving new ideas a try.  Sound familiar?

Why do we spend so much time in the analysis and planning phase?  I think it’s because it puts off the implementation phase…the phase where you actually have to do something rather than just thinking about doing something.  See, when you are simply thinking about doing something, that’s failure-free.  (If you daydream about failing, please call me and I’ll Google a therapist in your area.  That’s just not normal.)  It’s when we take action that the possibility of failing becomes a reality.

This is not to say that failing should go unnoticed or unaddressed.  We just need to be less harsh with ourselves when we fail.

Ever beaten yourself up about anything?  I have…loads and loads of times, for days and days, even.  Sample mental self-talk:  “You are such an idiot.  Why did you do that?  Why did you say that?  Why didn’t you say this?  People are going to think you’re a total moron.”  And so on and so forth.  What we should be doing instead is dealing with ourselves in a nurturing manner.  Accept the failure, glean the lessons from it, and move on:  “Yes, I made a mistake.  Yes, I see where I could do or say that differently next time.”  Put up your Fail Whale and keep at it.


Watch the entire Clay Shirky keynote here:  http://blip.tv/file/2148546/