Why Social Media Is Reinventing Activism

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  1. The argument that social media fosters feel-good clicking rather than actual change, began long before Malcolm Gladwell brought it up in the New Yorker - long enough to generate its own derogatory term. “Slacktivism,” as defined by Urban Dictionary, is “the act of participating in obviously pointless activities as an expedient alternative to actually expending effort to fix a problem.”

    If you only measure donations, social media is no champion. The national chapter of the Red Cross, for instance, has 208,500 “likes” on Facebook, more than 200,000 followers on Twitter, and a thriving blog. But according to the Chronicle of Philanthropy, online donations accounted for just 3.6% of private donations made to the organization in 2009.

    But social good is a movement still in its infancy. Facebook launched in 2004, YouTube in 2005 and Twitter in 2006. Let's give the tools a little while to grow up before we start judging them.

    All of that virtual liking, following, joining, signing, forwarding, and, yes, clicking, has a lot of potential to grow into big change. Here's why

    The Power of One

    [ame=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mo-rkeFT8IQ]YouTube - We Are Visible[/ame]

    Shawn Ahmed is fond of reminding people that, “I'm not a charity. I'm just a guy.” While plenty of “just guys” in the last generation also traveled to less privileged countries for altruistic purposes, Ahmed has the leverage of YouTube.

    When people view videos that are a part of Ahmed's Uncultured Project, they're often inspired to pitch in and help the people they see. After more than 140,000 YouTube viewers saw a Bangladeshi school that was destroyed in a cyclone, for instance, many of them sent money to help rebuild it. Before the donations, the village only had enough money to replace the roof of the school. With the donations, Ahmed was able to help them rebuild the school, buy supplies for fishermen, provide assistance to single mothers, and build a well.

    Ahmed's work may still be just a drop in the bucket, but it's an arguably much bigger drop than would have been possible without his ability to engage an audience in North America via tweets and YouTube videos from Bangladesh.

    Beth Kanter and Allison Fine called “just guys” like Shawn “free agents” in their book, The Networked NonProfit. And social media has helped create many of them.

    Mark Horvath, for instance has helped expose the complexity of homelessness by posting homeless people's stories on YouTube. Instead of writing a check to Livestrong when he was diagnosed with cancer in 2009, Drew Olanoff was able to inspire a much larger contribution by asking the Twitter community to use the hashtag #blamedrewscancer.

    People with strong ties to a cause have always been able to make a difference, but most of them in the past have done so through traditional non-profit organizations. The ability of social media to quickly connect one person to the world, however, makes it easier for invested people to create change without a bureaucracy to back them up.

    The Power of 1 Million

    It's not just people who dedicate their lives to a cause whose individual actions have more impact when aided by social media. The ability to coordinate individual actions can also make each one more powerful.

    “If the Internet didn't exist, Barack Obama would not be president of the United States,” says Ben Rattray, the founder of Change.org. “The fact that the most powerful person in the world wouldn't be in that position without the Internet and organizing online says something.”

    The power of the Internet in Obama's case, Rattray says, was its unique ability to organize thousands of passionate people to work together for change. While 100,000 people ranting on Twitter might not be worth anything, organizing those 100,000 people in a simultaneous action can have a significant impact.

    Although e-petitions, Change.org's most common advocacy tool, might top the list of low-commitment activism in some minds, Rattray says that the organization wins a campaign - changes an unjust law, policy, or practice - at least once a week. But he also admits this is probably not the most dramatic method of activism out there.

    “The goal here is social change, it's not to make things difficult,” he says. “It may be really difficult to go protest in person, but it might be more effective to mobilize a hundred other people using the web to simultaneously send letters to a single target.”

    Avaaz.org uses a similar approach to organize online activists throughout the world. When the UK announced a plan to double the total area of protected ocean in its conservation zone this April, it cited the more than 221,000 responses from 223 countries that Avaaz.org coordinated. The organization has an arsenal of examples of its online actions translating to real change.

    Rattray says one reason many traditional non-profit organizations have been slow to translate Internet followings into this kind of effective advocacy is that “they've traditionally treated people not as those who might organize, but those who might by proxy express their support through donations…the web's ability to network those people, to connect them and to channel them to specific action together, is absolutely powerful…it's just for lack of execution, not for want of capacity, that people are criticizing it.”

    More Loose Ties Lead to More Activists

    [ame=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Y-DX5W3RPQk]YouTube - Chad Nelsen, Surfrider Foundation[/ame]

    When Craig Kielburger was 12 years old, he saw a newspaper article about a child slave who was about his age. The article inspired him to eventually found Free the Children, an organization that 15 years later has student groups in 3,500 Canadian schools that have helped build 650 schools around the globe.

    Kielburger didn't wake up one day and discover he was an activist. His deep engagement with the cause of children's rights began with a rather low-commitment action of reading a newspaper article. Many people who argue for the value of social media as a tool for social change feel that the “like” button can function, like the article did for 12-year-old Kielburger, as the first step in a ladder of engagement.

    “You're not going to get everyone who liked your Facebook Page to volunteer their summer building schools and helping out, but it's still part of that journey,” Kielburger says.

    The more commitment Free the Children asks for, the fewer people they get to participate. Some 174,000 people “liked” the Free the Children Facebook page in the first month that it was posted. About 20,000 people showed up to Free the Children's recent “We Day” event in Toronto. And 2,000 people actually committed to a trip overseas to help the cause.

    Even so, Kielburger says, “[Social Media] opens the megaphone so much wider…when you finally look at that spectrum, we've got more people who are finally making that journey.”

    The more people who casually engage with a cause, the more opportunities there are to engage individuals past that first step. Accumulating piles of so-called “slacktivists” isn't necessarily a wasted effort if there are steps they can take to deepen their minimally committed engagement. Unremarkable actions like hitting a follow button can be, as Ahmed puts it, “a gateway drug” for deeper engagement.

    “In every effective social change effort that you want to look at there is an inner-core of tightly bound people,” says Allison Fine, the co-author of The Networked Nonprofit and an early defender of using social media for a cause. “That's always been the case, whether it's online or on land, that nothing happens without those tight ties, but nothing can spread without loose ties. Because a tightly tied inner-circle is a clique. Nobody else can get in. By definition, you cannot have a growing movement unless people can access it, and that's what loose ties are for.”

    New Accountability

    At one point during the We Day event in Toronto, Free the Children mentioned that the 20,000 children in attendance had helped build schools in China. The children didn't need to imagine where their effort and donations had gone, because they could see the mentioned schools in a live stream on a JumboTron. The kids in China waved to the kids in Toronto. The kids in Toronto waved back.

    Social media is making it easier for charities and activists to embrace this kind of transparency. Ahmed, for instance, is able to show most people who donate to the Uncultured Project exactly where their donations go via Twitpics. Charity: Water provides online donors with photos and GPS coordinates of the projects that they contribute to.

    “[The Internet] has changed expectations around reporting,” Kielburger says. “People don't want to just write a general check anymore [that goes] into some giant fund that they don't get to see the impact of…It demands an accountability of organizations and it demands an effectiveness of organizations that otherwise isn't there.”

    In her first book, Momentum, Fine points out that in New Haven, Connecticut, the city with the largest number of non-profit organizations per capita, there is not a single measure of social good that has improved over the past 30 years. Not health. Not education. Not poverty.

    “What happened is that organizations have become very, very focused on fundraising…and not as focused on problem solving, on public policy, on addressing the underlying problems that they're in the business of trying to solve. So social media and blurring the lines [between the] inside of organizations and outside - working within larger networks of people and institutions - has the possibility of changing that equation.”

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