Jillian C. York

Jillian C. York is a writer and activist.

Month: December 2012

Why I’m sticking with Flickr

After the recent (and hopefully, ongoing) uproar over Yahoo!’s failure to implement encryption on its Mail app and other sites, it might seem surprising that I’d write this post. And yet, while I will continue to push for Yahoo! to get its act together and secure its sites, I want to give a bit of praise where due, to Flickr.

In the wake of Instagram’s “suicide note” (as one publication called it)—that is, its new TOS—folks are quitting the service en masse. For a simple understanding as to why, you might check out actor Wil Wheaton’s excellent blog post. As a side note, I think it’s fascinating how celebrities have so quickly picked up on and rallied around this issue (if only that were true of other civil liberties violations).

So that brings me to Flickr. Surely it’ll come as no surprise that Yahoo! innovation has stagnated over the years. And the site is not without its problems. But in my view, the benefits of Flickr—beyond the mere aesthetics, which I’ve always loved—outweigh those, assuming we keep the pressure on. So what are they?  Three primary things:

  • Integration with Creative Commons.  When you upload to Flickr, it’s easy to select a Creative Commons license with which to release your photos.  It’s also easy to search Flickr by various CC types.  This is something that, as Ryan Singel wrote this week, Facebook has failed to notice the appetite for.  And while that may never be important for Facebook as a platform, it is most definitely an important choice for Instagram users.
  • Pretty good Terms of Use.  Mind you, I’ve criticized these before and I’m sure I will again.  But Flickr’s Community Guidelines are filled with intent to ensure photographers get credit for their work (regardless of the license they choose).  This is most apparent in their requirement that users who embed Flickr photos link back to the site:
  • Flickr makes it possible to post content hosted on Flickr to other web sites. However, pages on other web sites that display content hosted on flickr.com must provide a link from each photo or video back to its page on Flickr. This provides a way to get more information about the content and the photographer.
  • Ownership.  I can’t stress this enough.  To photographers, ownership matters.  And Flickr is fully aware of that, as laid out in a 2011 blog post, which stresses the following:
  • We feel very strongly that sharing online shouldn’t mean giving up rights to your photos. Our Terms of Service clearly spell out that Flickr/Yahoo! doesn’t own the photos that you upload. You, as a member, maintain all ownership rights to the photos that you upload to Flickr

And now, with the latest iteration of Flickr’s app, the service is becoming infinitely more useful.  And that, my friends, is why I’m sticking with Flickr.

Mere Slacktivism

Originally published in the Centre for Internet & Society’s Digital Natives With a Cause newsletter [PDF]

Be it online or offline, successful citizen movements are approached through careful planning and foresight, and not merely by paying lip service to popular imaginings of protest campaigns, says Jillian C York.

Digital activism—that is, collective action tactics conducted online—has often been derided as “slacktivism.”  The premise is simple: “Armchair activists,” those too lazy to take to the streets to protest, click the Facebook “like” button or re-tweet something, assuming their mere approval, or sharing of content, will have a real impact.  The slacktivist is assumed to contribute minimal effort to a cause, to take undeserved pride in his minimal accomplishment.

It’s certainly true that some online actions, when unaccompanied by strategic vision, are the very definition of slacktivism.  But the term has become overused, thrown at anyone who raises a voice instead of a picket sign.  We discard online action as useless while simultaneously feeling nostalgia for the tools of our predecessors: the leaflet, the cassette tape, the samizdat.

Last year in Egypt the world watched, stunned, as a city, then a country rose up against the twenty-year dictatorship of Hosni Mubarak.  Indeed, what the world saw was a mass of humans converging upon a city square in protest.  But what they missed was everything else: Offline actions—such as labor strikes—and online ones, such as the years of collective blogging about police brutality, torture, and other human rights violations.  The online actions in particular served a dual purpose: They raised awareness amongst a certain subset of the population, certainly, but perhaps more importantly, they confirmed for many what they always knew but couldn’t talk about.

When expression is stifled, either by government censorship or self-censorship, what often occurs is a phenomena known as “pluralistic ignorance,” a situation in which a majority of group members privately reject a norm, but assume that others accept it.  The lack of public opposition to Mubarak may have left many activists feeling as though ousting him was impossible; it was only when they were able to come together—both through online communities and offline ones—that they were able to see how widespread their beliefs were.

On the blog of Egyptian activist Hossam Hamalawy, there reads a quote: “In a dictatorship, independent journalism by default becomes a form of activism, and the spread of information is essentially an act of agitation.”  In Egypt, this was certainly true.  It took years of writing, organizing, and yes, activities deemed by many to be “slacktivism” to reach the beginnings of revolution.

It has also proven to be true elsewhere: In Tunisia, where in the mainstream media’s absence, the mere act of blogging enabled activists to gain global support for their cause, perhaps even sparking a domino effect throughout the region.  In Sudan, where weeks of offline protest would have gone ignored had it not been for the Twitterati of Khartoum, who ensured with their tweets that their government’s crackdown didn’t go unnoticed.  In Pakistan, where global organizing—most of which took place through online channels—defeated government plans to install a large-scale online censorship system.  Similarly, in the United States, the “blackout” of dozens of websites to protest the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) got enough attention—and enough people to pick up the phone and call their elected officials—that the bill was ultimately quashed.

But these examples all have something in common: They were all pushed ahead by dedicated groups and individuals who knew how to rally support for their causes.  Indeed, a Georgetown University study published in 2011 looked at American interactions with online activism and found that those who engage in social issues online are twice as likely as their “offline” counterparts to volunteer and participate in events.

There are, of course, plenty of counter examples as well.  One prominent one is the early 2012 release of the STOP KONY 2012 campaign, in which a group of naive young Americans promised that watching and sharing their video would somehow enable them to capture Joseph Kony—a worthy target for sure—by the end of the year.  Similarly, the “Save Darfur” campaign—which spent millions of dollars on PR alone and has been criticized for having minimal impact on the ground—relied upon selling ubiquitous green bracelets in the hopes that “raising awareness” would be enough to solve a problem.

The right conclusion, then, is not that online activism is inherently “slacktivism” (nor is offline action inherently effective).  Rather, it is that a mere click of a mouse here or there, without any focus to a particular cause, is the online equivalent of throwing a few quarters in a donation jar, wearing a bracelet, or marching once in a rally and calling yourself an “activist.”  The problem is not, however, the medium; as it has been demonstrated time and time again, online action coupled with strategic vision works.


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