Putting Social Media in its place

Nathan Campbell —  October 12, 2010

I love Facebook. I love blogs. I understand Twitter. And for years I grappled with how to use them professionally. I read through a bunch of posts on Facebook’s blog the other day and I’m blown away by how powerful the platform is, and how much potential it has to connect people.

But it can never. ever. replace proper face-to-face relationships. And if the extent of your “online marketing” strategy is “be on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube” (and I’m sick of seeing those logos crop up on ads for obscure things as though I’m more likely to buy a car if it’s got its own Twitter account) then your strategy is dumb. It’s part of your brand. And it’s good to be contactable, and to be getting exposure, but if there’s one thing the stupid breast cancer awareness campaigns of this week, and earlier this year, show – it’s that for many people – Facebook “activism” and “marketing” have supplanted the real thing.

Malcolm Gladwell took a stab at this idea in a recent piece for the New Yorker. Some interesting quotes:

Where activists were once defined by their causes, they are now defined by their tools. Facebook warriors go online to push for change.

This is in many ways a wonderful thing. There is strength in weak ties, as the sociologist Mark Granovetter has observed. Our acquaintances—not our friends—are our greatest source of new ideas and information.

The kind of activism associated with social media isn’t like this at all. The platforms of social media are built around weak ties. Twitter is a way of following (or being followed by) people you may never have met. Facebook is a tool for efficiently managing your acquaintances, for keeping up with the people you would not otherwise be able to stay in touch with. That’s why you can have a thousand “friends” on Facebook, as you never could in real life.

Some of this grandiosity is to be expected. Innovators tend to be solipsists. They often want to cram every stray fact and experience into their new model. As the historian Robert Darnton has written, “The marvels of communication technology in the present have produced a false consciousness about the past—even a sense that communication has no history, or had nothing of importance to consider before the days of television and the Internet.” But there is something else at work here, in the outsized enthusiasm for social media. Fifty years after one of the most extraordinary episodes of social upheaval in American history, we seem to have forgotten what activism is.

Western journalists who couldn’t reach—or didn’t bother reaching?—people on the ground in Iran simply scrolled through the English-language tweets post with tag #iranelection,” she wrote. “Through it all, no one seemed to wonder why people trying to coordinate protests in Iran would be writing in any language other than Farsi.”

He makes this point about social media “activism” and where it works, citing an example of a webtrepreneur, Sameer Bhatia, who found out he had leukemia but knew nobody with the same bone marrow type.

Bhatia needed a bone-marrow transplant, but he could not find a match among his relatives and friends. The odds were best with a donor of his ethnicity, and there were few South Asians in the national bone-marrow database. So Bhatia’s business partner sent out an e-mail explaining Bhatia’s plight to more than four hundred of their acquaintances, who forwarded the e-mail to their personal contacts; Facebook pages and YouTube videos were devoted to the Help Sameer campaign. Eventually, nearly twenty-five thousand new people were registered in the bone-marrow database, and Bhatia found a match.

But how did the campaign get so many people to sign up? By not asking too much of them. That’s the only way you can get someone you don’t really know to do something on your behalf. You can get thousands of people to sign up for a donor registry, because doing so is pretty easy. You have to send in a cheek swab and—in the highly unlikely event that your bone marrow is a good match for someone in need—spend a few hours at the hospital. Donating bone marrow isn’t a trivial matter. But it doesn’t involve financial or personal risk; it doesn’t mean spending a summer being chased by armed men in pickup trucks. It doesn’t require that you confront socially entrenched norms and practices. In fact, it’s the kind of commitment that will bring only social acknowledgment and praise.

The evangelists of social media don’t understand this distinction; they seem to believe that a Facebook friend is the same as a real friend and that signing up for a donor registry in Silicon Valley today is activism in the same sense as sitting at a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro in 1960.

Facebook is all about people salving their consciences by appearing to care – it sets a really low bar for participation – like posting “where you like it”…

“Social networks are effective at increasing participation—by lessening the level of motivation that participation requires. The Facebook page of the Save Darfur Coalition has 1,282,339 members, who have donated an average of nine cents apiece.”

And “Social Media Evangelist” Anil Dash agrees with him. With some reservations. One of them is that there are some things, when it comes to communicating a message and bringing about change, that the virtual world just can’t supplant.

Who are the “they”? It’s not really clear. But even as someone who’s had an “evangelist” title in the past, I don’t come to refute Gladwell’s strawman argument. His point is that today’s social networks are fundamentally unable to drive the sort of social change that fueled upheavals like the civil rights movement. I agree; As I said last year, Facebook often enables politics of the sort that convinces college kids that changing their middle name on a website is a form of activism. And the idea that the uprisings in Iran were driven by Twitter or any other social media is clearly refuted by realities such as Hossein “Hoder” Derakhshan, the father of the Iranian blogosphere, being sentenced to nineteen years in prison. The traditional method sit-in and picket-in-the-streets form of protest is clearly a failure online.

There’s also a world of difference between using social media platforms to coordinate action, and using them to stage action or report on action. Facebook is terrific for organising events – social and political – and it is a wonderful way to disseminate information – but it is not a place to stage a protest or to bring about real change. Participating in “awareness raising” on Facebook can not be the only string in the activism or communication bow. It just won’t work. It doesn’t bring about change in the world – it aids the process.

That is all.

Nathan Campbell

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Nathan runs St Eutychus. He loves Jesus. His wife. His Daughter. Coffee. And the Internet. He is currently a student at the Queensland Theological College and a mercenary PR Consultant.