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[Anti-]Social Media

September 03, 2010

(Reilly Kiernan recently started a year-long Project55 Fellowship at the Foundation Center. In her first post, she discussed her goals for a series of posts she plans to write over the coming months.)

Social-media Before I start, I want to acknowledge the fact I'm writing this for a blog. I say that because it seems like everyone in the nonprofit sector is talking about social media. That's been one of the biggest takeaways since I began my year-long fellowship at the Foundation Center nearly five weeks ago.

Many of the events I've attended at the center's New York library have highlighted the online tools nonprofits are using to further their missions or ones that young professionals in the sector are deploying to advance their careers. And much of the work I've been doing has involved the center's Web presence. (Coincidentally, the next event hosted by Princeton AlumniCorps, which holds a monthly seminar for Project55 fellows, is called "Non-Profits in the Age of Google: Innovations and Entrepreneurship in Philanthropy and Public Policy.")

Indeed, new forms of interactivity are making it possible for organizations with a social mission to reach and engage more people, more cheaply, than ever before. The implications for the nonprofit sector are enormous, which is why the sector-wide emphasis on new media technologies makes sense.

Based on what I've seen so far, the Foundation Center is doing a great job responding to the imperatives of the digital age. From maintaining the powerful and comprehensive Foundation Directory Online to offering instructive webinars, posting event coverage on its blogs, and maintaining an active presence on Twitter and Facebook, the center has created a robust digital presence.

With all the buzz surrounding social media, though, I'd like to suggest that everyone take a moment to consider what is being lost as nonprofits race toward the virtual future. I don't want to sound like a Luddite -- I certainly recognize how important digital tools and platforms have been and will continue to be for nonprofits. It just seems that the digital remaking of the sector won't be without costs. Of course, I'm new to the sector and don't have much firsthand knowledge of the interpersonal dynamics that prevail in so much of the nonprofit world, but I have spent enough time with computers and social media to believe that twenty-first century nonprofits will have different kinds of relationships with their stakeholders and constituents than their twentieth-century predecessors.

At its core, the nonprofit sector is about people and human interaction. Nonprofits are distinguished from their private-sector counterparts by their emphasis on social welfare and the betterment of society. Digital tools may provide the means to reach more people more cheaply, spread a message further, and raise donations from new supporters, but they do so by creating virtual relationships rather than personal ones.

The potential of these tools to advance the work of the sector is exciting, and I'm not suggesting that nonprofits stop using them. I merely want to call attention to what I see as a need to balance the new and shiny with the core values that have made the nonprofit sector such an important contributor to American life. The Foundation Center does a good job with this, making FDO and face-to-face reference assistance available for free at its libraries and through an extensive network of Cooperating Collections. Other organizations have also struck that balance.

What about yours? Do you worry about the balance between real and virtual worlds? Are you doing anything special or unique to meet the demands and opportunities of the digital age while maintaining your people-based relationships? Or is it all digital, all the time? Let us know in the comments section below.

-- Reilly Kiernan

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Posted by Lisa  |   September 03, 2010 at 11:55 AM

Virtual and personal relationships are not in competition with each other; they are both complimentary and complementary. Facebook is proof of that. I can have a deep virtual relationship with an organization and a shallow personal relationship with an organization. And vice versa. And deep in both or shallow in both. The relationships that nonprofits have had with their constituents over the years has be shaped by constraints on media production and consumption capabilities that are getting thrown out the window.

Posted by Rosetta Thurman  |   September 03, 2010 at 01:55 PM

Welcome to the blogosphere Reilly! Thoughtful post, but I think it's a huge mistake to view social media as something nonprofits have to "respond to" or "meet the demands of." The reality is that there is no "virtual future" that nonprofits - or even businesses are racing to. There is only THE future in its most general sense...that will certainly look a lot different than our present, and is already changing as I type. Your view of social media is a limited one, as "people & human interaction" is what SM is all about. You can't view Twitter or FB, etc. as faceless tools - there are people that use it everyday to build relationships that turn into friends, volunteers, donors, clients.

Unfortunately, the main flaw in the sector's adoption of social media is also illustrated perfectly in this post - the misconception that virtual is not also personal. Thankfully, there is research being done on the emotional effects of social media, which I outlined recently on my blog:


Looking forward to seeing your thoughts develop here further!


Posted by Renee Westmoreland  |   September 05, 2010 at 06:58 PM

Thanks for your posts, Lisa and Rosetta. You both make great points, and I hope Reilly will be able to respond when she's back in the office on Tuesday.

In the meantime, here are a few thoughts of my own. I agree with Lisa that virtual and personal relationships are both "complimentary and complementary" and that one can have "shallow" and "deep" relationships in both the virtual and personal spheres. But based on my use of SM and my own experience as a volunteer, I would argue that a "deep" personal relationship with an organization is a different, and often more meaningful, kind of relationship than its virtual analog (no pun intended). Maybe it's me, but I'm more likely to donate time, money, and other kinds of support, on a longterm basis, to an organization that I'm physically able to "touch" (my local PTA, the youth soccer league where I coach, my alma mater, the food coop). I suspect most people feel the same way. And while it's great that the costs of engaging with people have dropped for all nonprofits, making it possible for many organizations with a compelling story and good messaging to extend their reach and work as never before, they also find themselves competing for eyeballs, dollars, etc. on a much more crowded playing field.

I also agree with Rosetta that all sorts of people are using SM to build relationships that turn into friends,
volunteers, donors, clients, etc. That's fantastic. But, again, based on my own experience, the most important professional relationships I've developed over the years have been those I was able to deepen through occasional face-to-face meetings. I'm not an evolutionary biologist, but I suspect it's something that's hard-wired in all of us, and it will take many, many years of SM use, IMO, for us to shake that preference.

Finally, I loved this line from Rosetta's post: "There is only THE future in its most general sense...[and] that will certainly look a lot different than our present." I believe that's true. But I also think the future may surprise us with its familiarity. Our tools will change, but human nature? Not so much...

Posted by Reilly Kiernan  |   September 07, 2010 at 10:27 AM

Thank you all for your comments! I'm glad to see that this is a topic that generates some interest and debate. In fact, that resonates with why I decided to write this post. I didn’t write this post to condemn social media as the downfall of the nonprofit sector; I was arguing that it's important to be cognizant of the changes it could potentially bring to the relationships that undergird our work.

I completely agree with you, Lisa, that there are lots of powerful ways for virtual and real-world relationship to work as complements to each other, and that I may have overstated the dichotomy between the two types. I did not mean to imply that relationships can only be one or the other or that one can only flourish at the expense of the other. I only hoped to point out that there is a clear trend in growth of one type of relationships, and thus it is worthwhile to pause and consider the ramifications of this change for more traditional relationships.

While studying sociology as an undergrad, I read a lot about interpersonal relationships and the impact that technology has on social interaction. Much of that research, though, was based in sociological theory, and it was fascinating to read some of that scientifically grounded evidence from your post, Rosetta.

The study you wrote about did leave me with some questions, though. I wonder if there is any difference across demographic categories or even just between individuals. Is it possible that older users (with less familiarity with technology) might not have the same responses physiologically as younger users? Are there some people who are more predisposed to respond positively to technological interactions than others? The academic in me is curious about all of the potential for further study!

I loved your line about the “misperception that the virtual is not also personal”. In writing my blog, I was drawing from my own experience. I use social media to connect with my friends, and I am incredibly glad to be able to reach and stay in touch with people all around the world. Obviously, these connections are “virtual” and also “personal,” but I know that interactions across virtual space do not feel the same to me as those that occur in real time/space. This isn’t to say that they aren’t personal, but only to note that for me there is some difference between the virtual and the non-virtual ties I have made.

I guess that kind of argument is less powerful than one backed by scientific analysis of oxytocin levels, but I don't think I'm being overly bold in saying I don't think I'm the only one who feels this way. Like Mitch said, I feel more connected to organizations and people that I can “touch” in some way.

That being said, there are some causes that I care about that it would be very difficult for me to “touch.” In the case of issues that are geographically far away, for example, I am so glad to find available videos and blog posts so that I can connect as much as possible.

I’m open to and excited about new ways that the internet can and will allow me to connect with these organizations and people, but so far I haven’t found anything that is a complete replacement for the non-virtual.

Posted by Jeff Imparato  |   September 07, 2010 at 07:06 PM

Hi Reilly,

This is an excellent article, a cautionary tale of content vs contact. I wrote to Kief Schladweiler, head of all of the Cooperating Collections, about my concern over Powersearch, the new feature of the Foundation Directory Online. To me, instead of searching for a needle in a haystack. Powersearch creates many haystacks, from which you can find needles. It's overwhelming to me, and I tend to just use the tried and true method of searching the fields we've known and loved for years. This comes with a added bonus of allowing for a narrower, or broader, search just by clicking on a search term on the side, generated by a successful record. I really like that change.

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