‘Dry Holi’ Campaign: Is Digital Activism Slacktivism?

Maharashtra is worst hit with drought this year since 1972 as 13 out of 35 districts are facing acute shortage of water. The situation in Vidarbha and Marathwada is dire. People don’t have enough water to drink. Every village is not lucky enough to get water tankers on time. It won’t be long before we start hearing reports of cattle and even people dying due to lack of water.

This has created ripples in the urban areas of Maharashtra, such as Mumbai and Pune, especially in the digital arena. People have decided to show solidarity with the drought-hit region by not wasting water in the festival of Holi. They are urging other people to play ‘dry Holi’ through Facebook statuses, tweets and WhatsApp messages. Even celebrities have joined the chorus. This has generated a fair amount discussion about the issue on various social media forums and even off these platforms; and most of the people have agreed to the pledge of not wasting water.

But there are some dissenting voices too, who like to call this whole exercise tokenism. According to them, this digital activism farce is not going to change anything. It doesn’t take much efforts to post a comment or share or like a post (a post can be a text message, an image, a link to an article, a video, etc.) and most of these clicks are half-hearted. According to them, this is not activism, but slacktivism. (Read this New Yorker piece by celebrated author Malcolm Gladwell, which made this argument famous).

I disagree. Participants in digital activism are mostly students and young professionals. If they did not have an outlet like social media, what other options would they have? Rallies, protest marches, hunger strikes, public gatherings or distributing pamphlets on the railway platforms? How many of the participants could give either their time or efforts for such activities, balancing college or workplace commitments? Is it fair to expect them to become full-fledged activists? Social activists have their own commitments and resources and they are fighting their own battles somewhere else. But does that mean, we, normal citizens can’t play any role in changing our society?

Calling digital activism slacktivism is outright derogatory. Though it basically tries to ridicule netizens who participate in such campaigns as lazy, it also unconsciously assumes that digital sphere is a separate entity. Nathan Jurgenson terms this argument digital dualism (you can read his critique on digital dualism here). I am a staunch opponent of digital dualism, as it bifurcates digital and physical into two different worlds. It makes us believe that there is no interplay between the two, while I believe that they are enmeshed and affect each other’s behaviour.

People who participate in digital campaigns are not serious activists, but that does not mean they do not care about the society. They may not have studied the issues they are talking about thoroughly. Their solutions to the problems may be half-baked. But their intentions and the desire to do something meaningful is very genuine. And I believe, some of these very people are going to be tomorrow’s Medha Patkars, Arundhati Roys and Harsh Manders.

The major benefit of digital campaigns is that they create awareness about the issues they are espousing. The movement that emerged after Delhi Gang Rape is a case in point. Now we are at a better understanding as a society as far as women rights, violence against women and sexism is concerned than before and internet played a major role in this. Even the dry Holi campaign will not give water to the people suffering from drought, but it has at least brought their plight in limelight. I consider it a valuable contribution to the cause. (Here is an article which lists five other functions new technology plays in activism).

Internet offers a lot of resources to study a particular issue. Everybody who likes a post on Facebook about saving water on Holi will not go and read about drought in Maharshtra in another tab, but there will be a small bunch of people who will. This small bunch mostly consists of people who are influencers and leaders in their own way, as they shape the opinions and lead the debates in their own circles. And I am banking on these people.

-By Tejas Harad


88 thoughts on “‘Dry Holi’ Campaign: Is Digital Activism Slacktivism?

  1. It is infact the era of Digital activism that has helped us gain increased access to publications, discover information about issues normally suppressed, and last but not the least disseminate information. Digital dualism is just a word used to criticize it, thought its absolutely wrong because its still at its nascent stage. And as you mentioned in the end there are a bunch of people who realise the vitality of internet as a public sphere and try to mould opinions and brings about changes allowing activists to reflect on common opinions, discuss and interact due to these open narratives.

  2. I would appreciate the save water effort if the Government actually had a plan to utilize the water we save in metros for the drought affected villages. There’s no plan, yet and Mumbai has various fixed sources of water for a year ( and that water hardly goes to any other district). So saving water on a particular day wouldn’t make a difference.

  3. people got the word out, protested, handed out pamplets decades before the digital age, i believe digital does make some lazy and by liking feel, “Well, I’ve done my part,” i leave you with that thought.

  4. I agree with the idea that the digital world and the physical world are intertwined and forever influencing each other. I know from my experience that what I read or see online changes how I behave and interact with others in the physical world. I am also forever talking about what I read taking ideas from the digital world and sharing them around. Thanks for the great post.

  5. Thank you for your post. I agree with it, mostly.

    That being said, it’s interesting to take note of a more global perspective. Social media played a key role in actually getting people on the streets during the “Arab Spring.” There’s no dualism–if anything, it has become a dialectical relationship wherein both real people inform the world while the world informs real people, thereby creating moments and plans of “real life action,” while also allowing the foresight of future planning

    To people–myself include–who use social media to do exactly those things that are denigrated by this concept, I simply laugh. And then I go to a bike rally, organized by social media, and help shut down lots of streets to the detriment of cars trying to speed their way home.

    You miss the fact that it isn’t just about awareness. It’s about getting bodies on the street.

    We do that here in Minneapolis, MN, USA; you should get to it. Start a page and surprise people!

    DO NOT FORGET THE ORGANIZING POWER OF SOCIAL MEDIA. It’s not all about just learning about movements.

    • Yes, I agree. And I agree that it isn’t just awareness, but that is the most visible function social media performs and hence I highlighted that for the illustrative purposes.

  6. It also helps those in remote or widespread communities lend their voice to issues that may not affect their local community [yet]. Previously they would be merely one individual ranting to an indifferent crowd.

  7. Very crisp and to-the-point. I thank you for the the reference articles as well – especially the gladwell one on the Newyorker. It puts the ‘dry holi’ idea in context, raising the question: if it were a 5-year long commitment to cut water-usage (i.e. high-risk), what kind of activism would it see?
    And I agree that the virtual and physical worlds in such movements actually collide. An unfolding example is the Shahbag Movement in Bangladesh. It is informing, engaging, consulting and coordinating on digital platforms – and maintaining its strong on-ground presence of protesters at 40+ venues.

  8. I agree! Thank you for bringing this up, I had a similar debate with fellow volunteers when I served for Americorps. Several people said that giving money to a charitable cause was a lazy way to serve the community, but I disagree… activism and volunteerism are beneficial regardless of the degree to which someone is able or willing to give.

  9. You’re spot ON with every, single thing you said. Far be it for the naysayers to take note of the true difference, in ALL arenas, that the Net has played..I’m willing to bet that the use of the Net helped to get President Obama elected the 1st time..Without a doubt. It was the first time in history the Net was used by a Presidential campaign in such a vast manner. And it worked! Alot of us can find time at odd hours to read, read!, read, write, WRITE and yes write..on the Net than we have time to get out and hand out literature(on any certain topic) or join in marches/protests..Simply said the Net is more convenient. It doesn’t mean that those who use it are lazy or slackers! What it does mean is they’re passionate enough about something; to still want to take a stand..even though they can’t physically get out on the streets and do so. Continue to “bank” on the small bunch; with enough keystrokes that small bunch can GROW. >Very well written & expressed write @Getting Loquacious. I love the name of your blogsite. Creative indeed. I truly dig the content of your words as well. You’ve gained a new follower. Stay UPlifted, encouraged & blessed

  10. Nice post,
    Personally I embraced ‘dry Holi’ (like your title) and a Diwali without firecrackers over 10’yrs ago, maybe I woke up and smelt the air early.
    However, getting the message to the masses apart from the social media platform, that’s another thing altogether.

    Drought in Maharashtra na!, ”India Drought’ed” is more likely, the way we are letting things run, I foresee our fate as shown in the movie ”the book of eli”.

    A swimming pool tax?, ha interesting..


  11. i so agree…social activism cannot be ousted as insignificant. as the youth of today, we believe much more in information received through the social media as against the traditional one. we understand the solidarity expressed within this community more than physical activism like bandhs, or hunger strike or public violence.
    true, there will be few who will actually go on and do something about the issue but the contribution of these few is substantial. there have been instances in the recent past to show the strength, the online space possesses (girl’s update on bala saheb’s demise, the nirbhaya case, the obama campaign etc)
    a brilliant piece and very informative at that. congratulations!

  12. You do realize digital-dualism is real and the most recent example is the firing of Adrian Richards because she twitted about two guys who made a joke about forking and dongle. http://venturebeat.com/2013/03/21/breaking-adria-richards-fired-by-sendgrid-for-outting-developers-on-twitter/

    What dualism you may ask is at play here? Well, the internet up-roared and showed a dark side of it in this case. Adria was threatened with rape and death by anonymous. The same anonymous that helped spread the revolutions on twitter. The website and services provided by the company that employed Adria was attacked with DDoS and was threatened that it will continue until they fired Adria. Ultimately the company had no choice but to fire her.
    How is it that the people who didn’t even knew Adria or anyone close to her, created a shockwave that ultimately ended up as racist, misogynistic, threatening with death and rape? Were these people terrorist? Were they a special group that just hated Adria? Were they antisocial groups? Nope. These were the same young professionals and students and 13 year olds with a DDos script. Would they do the same thing in real life as opposed to what they did in the digital life? I hardly doubt.

    The dualism will always exist until one is able hide as anonymous in the digital life. If you want to experience the dualism, then lurk around 4chan and reddit websites. And no these are not exceptions. They are very well a part of the whole meme culture.

    I am not arguing the positive role that social websites play in creating awareness. But one should not forget about the other side too. More than half of the people participating in such online activism are just to pretend and broadcast that they care, but how many actually do something about it?

    Your argument about banking on a small group of influential people who will read such online petitions and do something about it is absurd. The influential people, by definition, will already be aware and probably are doing something about the issue. They don’t need internet to open their mind. You should in fact be banking on the people who are ignorant about the issue and end up reading and influencing a step towards the resolution of the issue.

    oh well, just my thoughts. Hope you yourself are not in the “pretend” culture.

    • You talk about people indulging in crime and nasty things on digital platforms, because these people feel secure by the fact that they are anonymous. But does that not happen in physical world too? Most of the crimes are committed, because the criminals know that they can either remain anonymous or get away with it somehow. So then where is the difference?

  13. I think it’s about math. What is the population of Maharashtra currently? I don’t know, but Google says the current population is now 18 million. It says Pune is 3 million. Let’s presume the message never spreads outside of these major metros and those living in suburbs and villages go on wasting water. We’re talking then only about 21 million people.

    What percent of the population participates in Holi? I don’t know that either, but let’s say it’s a lot of people. Let’s say it’s half. Older people perhaps have perhaps outgrown this. Conservative members of other religions won’t play. So half of 21 million is 10 and a half million.. Now, let’s say each person might have otherwise used a liter of water on Holi if it weren’t for this campaign. I think that’s probably conservative. I think people sometimes use a lot more water than that. But let’s just say it’s only a liter.

    Now let’s presume with the campaign they don’t use that liter of water. That’s 10 and a half million liters of water. I’d say it counts.

    And that’s only one day.

  14. when i first saw the fb message for dry holi i thought it was a joke i live in Nepal and am not very informed about India affairs but later there were so many i had the feeling and did indeed have a dry holi i don’t think i did much in fact anything for the situation but i did save some water 🙂

  15. Great article….the digital world still needs the pysical world and there is a great dependency between the two. The momentum build by social media can only be effective if materialized in the real world.

  16. Your reasons are quite convincing and are strong..
    Got me thinking coz this year I was of the view that playing dry holi won’t give water to those who don’t have it… I did play, but refrained from throwing water on other people, but I did consume double water to take the damn colour off.. So i am guilty.
    As i said before, i am thinking over the topic more than just liking pics which urge people to conserve water.. and you made me go refer the dictionary again.. 😀

    So well done Tejas!

    • Prachi, I don’t take pride in sending people to the dictionary. 😛 I like to use as simple, but precise words as possible. Thank you so much. You are my constant support system. 🙂

  17. We must be careful not to put too much emphasis on the “active” side of social media. While it is a good starting point, it must continue in other places in order for things to happen and change to become manifest. Arab Spring happened in conjunction to/with the digital world, it happened in a multiplicity of places/spaces at once. It is important to keep this in mind…and to rhizomatically branch out like weeds.

  18. Hi,
    I am glad to read your article. It is extremely to the point and very influencing. In fact you introduced me to many new terms and ideas that I was not aware of before. And the name of your blog is pretty out of the box.

    Would like to read more from your end 🙂

  19. our newfound ability to share ideas with each other has a profound implication. problem is its a quiet and maybe slow moving one. each blogger seems to have their own theme- mine is often orientated around homeless and an issue i was trying to advocate through blogs, letters to the editor, and indy media sites is that my town (portland) has multiple organizations recieving donations (millions of dollars), yet is also the one town in the northwest where the homeless don’t have a place to sleep at night (they line the streets especially today cuz their putting an end to the 80 winter mats at the rescue mission). I was trying to tell them to start making a call or write a letter when they give cuz their giving blindly and the middle men are profitting and the job is not getting done!

    Today I decided to go about it in person and actually held a sign downtown – first time I’ve ever done this. No one looked exept a homeless man who told me I have too much to read but it looks like its important and that i must have something to say. most people just want the short version. people on here are the people listening to each other and actually groupthinking. and its going to change things…..

  20. Digital activitism is like double edged sword…but i think it somehow creates a pseudo intellegent crowd who don’t know the roots of issue…This phenomenon is dangerous for the world…Mob can be ignited by false and morphed images and this has happened in many countries…This scares me lot

    Though well written !

  21. A good read! very well written! I am just curious, did this campaign help save some water? Do you know if it had an impact on the way people typically celebrate holi? Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed 🙂

  22. Actual most of the time the Digital Activism is nothing more than creating a mountain out of a mole hill.

    Why take away small pleasures of life from the masses, majority of them are struggling for survival every day and there are so few of these opportunity where they can forget it all and enjoy a bit. That is the purpose of these festivals in Indian context. These are the opportunity for people to meet-up with friends and family and have a good time.

    In India it is now very fashionable (and convenient) to target festival/ cultural events of majority Hindu population – because if a similar suggestion is made towards any minority group, one will be branded as narrow minded communal and a huge backlash will follow.

    The rich and famous of India who are the first to adopt such causes do not need one specific day – their rain dance parties happen throughout the year. Can you raise your voice against that. We all know there is a drought in Maharashtra, farmers have committed suicide there in the past. But has anyone tried to go beyond this headline and understand the reasons for the drought why the the people are suffering so much in there – compared to a higher than national average agriculture growth rate in the neighboring state of Gujarat.

    So what else we all digital activist (yes we all present on these forums are that) sitting comfortably in our air-conditioned rooms, travelling in air-conditioned cars, shopping in air-conditioned malls and eating out in air-conditioned restaurant doing towards making the life of people in Rural Maharashtra a little better, For a start, switch off your pc/laptop/internet – a lot of water is wasted in keeping the power plants cool.

    Personally, Holi has never been my favorite festival, but I want to respect the wishes of majority of people in India who wants to live their personal life there own way, without breaking any law under the constitution of India, without intruding on the freedom of others. In confines of their home, within the group of their friends, family and relatives, please let them enjoy their life the way they want to. I want my kids to know about the festival, how and why it is celebrated and to carry this cultural heritage forward.

    And for all those passionately talking about banning things,putting restriction on one thing today and something else tomorrow, once you start controlling and questioning then there is no end to it, its very slipper slope. And I would like the rich and famous people of India to be the change they want to bring in our society before blaming the masses. It is those from few selected top most segment of the society who waste the most.

    Why do we need 70+ cabinet minister and 1000s of state ministers across the country, majority of our police force, administration is currently doing nothing but working for the government which is there in the first place to serve the people. Why do we need to have President, sitting in a palace made for the British Colonial powers, who have no real powers and is just a figure-head. Why are we going crazy about this IPL tournament – the effort should be on drought relief work no. You may need to switch off that idiot box, and shut down the cinema halls one day, a lot of resources are getting wasted in producing, telecasting these idiotic shows. Stop buying and using cars/ personal modes of transportation. Restrict the number of news channel, why do we need 100s of news channel, all giving the same news 24×7.

    We drought and shortage of water not because there is any lack of resources in our country. It is because we have utter mismanagement of resources by those who are in power – here in this case – the Govt. of Maharashtra and Central Govt. of India sitting in New Delhi. Why do we have to go through the cycles of Floods and droughts, sometime both happening at the same time in different parts of the country. Why are we not able to store the rainwater during the monsoon time, why we have not yet linked our rivers move water from those areas where its in excess to those where it is needed.

    Lets try and put some question to those who are always ready to preach us.

  23. I believe its not slacktivism, but ‘making those in a slumber, active’. Posting on social networking platforms nowadays reaches a thousand drowsy eyes, which may rise to need of the time. Those who post, reinstate within themselves and make it known to their circle what their stand about something is. Activism on the net is either the work of already hard-working NGOs and citizens or of ones who are rising to newer levels of awareness and responsibility.

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