On Being Brave On Twitter (And Doing Good On Facebook)

“We are living in a new world, Facebook World” – Kony 2012, Invisible Children Inc.

It is difficult not to get excited about the power of social media. Companies trying to sell products can potentially reach millions of new customers in a hop, skip and a tweet. Cause marketers can co-ordinate a huge fundraising drive by asking “1 million to donate $1”. Activists can get swarms of American teenagers to share a controversial video on a Central African militia leader. And they can do this instantly, easily and without paying a dime. Marketing 2.0 in a brave, new world. And if the pundits are to be believed, they haven’t even scratched the surface yet. At SXSW’s Eco Conference this year, the enthusiasm for social media to drive sustainable change was palpable. In a Guardian report on the event, social media is seen as the foundation to establishing a new-age, responsible company. The author talks about how social networks would oversee ethical sourcing, manage responsible supply chains, make the board accountable to all stakeholders and give employees a platform to design new sustainable business models. If that were not enough, a former aide to G W Bush, Mark Pfeifle, went on record to say that Twitter should be nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for its role in the Iranian protests a few years ago.

Two words: Slow down.

Yes, social media is fun, free, amazingly interactive and has changed how many people communicate today (Some trend-watchers are already sounding the death knell for email). The deeper question is: What impact do social campaigns have on real-world change? Sustainability communicators and marketers are attempting to make us all into more responsible consumers, ethical activists, humanitarians and conservationists. It is worthwhile to stop and consider if Facebook will make us into better people. Social media has its strengths and weaknesses and it is important to understand what its limitations are when designing a campaign for change.

Here are some of ways that social networking has proven to be pretty powerful;

Putting Pressure: Avaaz.org is counting on the power of the people. An online petition gatherer, Avaaz relies on its 17 million+ members to join hands virtually and put pressure on decision-makers, businesses and politicians. Greenpeace whipped up a Facebook-YouTube-email frenzy to get Nestlé to change its palm oil sourcing policies. In India, a massive anti-corruption movement was fueled by extensive social media campaigning, gathering wide-spread support for the campaign’s leader, Anna Hazare. At no time in history was it this easy to mobilize people. If you want to put the spotlight on an issue and get large numbers to back you, social media is the new normal. And as previous successes have shown, big business, politicians and decision-makers pay very careful attention to trending issues.

Spreading The Word: In their book, The Dragonfly Effect, authors Aaker and Smith talk about Sameer Bhatia’s battle against leukemia. Sameer, a upcoming Bay Area entrepreneur, found a bone marrow donor because his tech-savvy friends used a gamut of social media tools to reach the South Asian community. Kony 2012, a campaign spearheaded by Invisible Children Inc, managed to get an astounding 93 million hits on their YouTube video. It made Joseph Kony, an unknown war criminal in Uganda, a minor celebrity in the US. The dream of any social marketer is the day his or her message goes “viral”, organically shared by an ever-growing audience till the viewership explodes.  Viral campaigns can take unknown organizations and place them on the global map, make obscure issues come alive and create a star overnight. This is social media’s powers at its peak. However, given the amount of information that most people are bombarded with everyday day, it takes a pretty exceptional campaign to make it big.

And then, there are some things that Facebook & Co. are not so good at;

Modifying Behavior: Social networking and everyday “green” behavior just don’t seem to mix. There have been a number of well-meaning efforts to get consumers to think about their energy usage or recycling practices by using online peer pressure. Energy stats sharing sites like Wattzy, Hug Energy and Microsoft Holm have pulled the plug (maybe it was the naming that did them in). Social media pundits are puzzled as to why everyone doesn’t jump in and start sharing their meter readings, water consumption and trash stats. I think it is pretty obvious, don’t you?

Challenging Status Quo: In a cogent argument in The New Yorker,  author Malcolm Gladwell presents an explanation as to why social media can only go so far in creating lasting, systemic change. He points out that connections on Facebook and Twitter are largely “weak-ties”, relationships that are essentially superficial. These “weak-ties” are good for passing on information and encourage people to participate in low-barrier activities that add to their online image. These acquaintances are unlikely to stick through long, arduous campaigns required to bring about real change. Secondly, social media is all about networks, groups of people of equal importance with no clear leadership. On the ground, campaigns need hierarchies, strong leaders and decision makers. Real-life change still demands old-school activism.

Bringing In Big Money: Traditional fundraising methods still bring in the moolah. While 9 out of 10 non-profits in America are on Facebook, putting in enormous effort in building relationships online, less than half bring in more than $10,000 a year in donations. Only 0.4% raised more than $100,000. While Kony 2012 was able to amass the numbers, the average donation per person hovered under $20.  This reluctance to “put your money where your mouth is” led to speculation that most social media do-gooders were “slacktivists”, ready to “Like” and “Share” but not extend any real support. While this charge is not wholly true, large-scale efforts (and funds) require building personal relationships. There isn’t really a way to do that online.

For communicators in the sustainability field, these are important distinctions to keep in mind when reaching out to people.While social media is a wonderful way to mobilize people and generate large-scale awareness, we still have to work hard to change lifestyles, economies and policies. Tweeting will only get us so far.

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