Greenpeace has been using online activism for quite a long time. That type of activism has come under a lot fire lately though, and while some of the criticisms are based on justified assumptions, I feel like I’ve read too much easy diss-the-fad-of-the-day cheap shots. I would like to add my two cents to the debate – as we owe a few successes to the intertubes.

One of the most common criticisms against online activism is that it can’t replace old-fashion, offline activism[i]. To which I’d like to answer: Duh.

The Nestle story has turned Greenpeace’s online activism into a sort of case-study of how to do things right when it comes to online activism. Yet, does it seem to you that Greenpeace has completely stopped the kind of non-violent direct action we have done in the past? I don’t think so. Even if we found the magic silver bullet that made all our online campaigns work (we haven’t), we wouldn’t stop taking direct action to defend our planet. And let’s not pretend that retweeting a message we sent, as nice as it is, is on the same level as hanging off the side of an oil rig, freezing in the Arctic for two days. The point is, no one said it was.

Following Greenpeace on Twitter, or liking us on Facebook might be a “weak tie” as Malcom Gladwell puts it, but it’s a tie nonetheless, and every little bit helps.

Weak ties can become stronger. I first got involved with Greenpeace reading a blog entry in passing. Then I wrote a comment. Then I joined an online forum, and became a volunteer in a local group, collecting signatures in the street, and convincing people in the street to give us the five eurocents that were left in their wallets. I became an online volunteer for Greenpeace International, then got an internship, and then got a job. I consider myself extremely lucky to be able to work for good like I do every day. And I don’t forget that what hooked me in all this is a simple blog entry, 5 years ago.

It just happens that bigger bits help more, but on issues the importance of which we face (combating Climate Change, as far as I’m concerned, is one of the most important fights facing my generation), we can’t afford to turn anyone down. So dismissing weak ties because they’re not strong would be about as stupid for us as turning down a kid wanting to empty his piggy bank to donate to us because we need more money than he can give. That would be insulting, callous, irresponsible and frankly counterproductive.

Dissing things that produce weak ties, like Twitter, Facebook and blogs means closing yourself to people who might just want stronger ties later on. And that would be counterproductive too.

Social media is a constantly moving tool, in evolution, and we have no better idea than anyone else where it’s going. Sometimes we do it well, and a campaign where we heavily used online activism becomes huge. When I started at Greenpeace, GreenMyApple was presented as the best example of that. Now, all you hear about is Nestle. Next year, I’m guessing we’ll have something else.

It’s easy, at the end of a campaign, to see the bit that made a difference. Of course, now, it feels that the Nestle campaign was all about loads of supporters asking Nestle to change their sources of palm oil on their Facebook page. Before the launch, though, we thought Orang-Utans outside Nestle headquarters and a clever (if slightly gross) video that would do it. We were taken by surprise when supporters from everywhere started taking on Nestle’s Facebook page. We don’t have a crystal ball, and honestly have no idea if we would have won the Nestle quite so fast if our amazing supporters hadn’t stepped in like that. So do I think, as Micah White does, that “Clicktivism is ruining activism”? No. Actually, it’s helping. (And by the way: I hate the word “clicktivism”).

I am a strong believer in online activism. I don’t think for a second it will replace offline activism for good. What social media offers us is more tools in activism. Let’s use them.

UPDATE: The debate continues in the Guardian.

Photo: © Greenpeace / Alex Hauri

[i] That would be protesting, sit-ins, banners etc.