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'Txt if by Land, Tweet if by Sea'

October 18, 2010

(Jereme Bivins is the Foundation Center's social media manager. This is his first post for PhilanTopic.)

PaulRevereDefendsLiberty On the night of April 18, 1775, Paul Revere set out from Boston to warn a small group of American patriots, including Samuel Adams and John Hancock, that British troops were on the move and coming to arrest them. Revere did not have access to Twitter or e-mail. He couldn't send a txt message or BBM his friends to warn them. The only tools at his disposal were the lanterns that hung in Boston's Old North Church ("one if by land, two if by sea") and the borrowed horse that carried him to Lexington.

Malcolm Gladwell's "Small Change: Why the Revolution Will Not Be Tweeted" opens with a vivid retelling of the lunch-counter sit-in protests from the early days of the civil rights movement. It was a dramatic time, fraught with gut-wrenching violence and extraordinarily brave acts of civil disobedience. Gladwell uses the example of the sit-ins to make a point about social media's potential as a tool of empowerment and change. And "tool" is certainly the operative concept here, for in equating social media with a larger collective desire for social change, Gladwell misses a fundamental point.

Social media in and of itself is no more an agent of social change than a hammer is a carpenter. Sure, Facebook and Twitter help us to construct social networks; that's inherent in their design. But beyond keeping up with distant relatives, old high school flames, and (increasingly) our parents, social media has become a tool for connecting geographically dispersed strangers with common interests. When used creatively, it can spread social-change ideas virally, inspire support, and catalyze action. In fact, how individuals are activated is the really interesting part of Gladwell's argument.

Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith, co-authors of The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change, argue that social media can deepen the commitment of change-minded activists. Gladwell, on the other hand, argues that the "weak-tie" nature of social media architecture tends to drive participation without necessarily deepening commitment. Citing online giving totals generated by the Save Darfur Coalition's Facebook page, Gladwell notes that the average donation to the campaign, when divided by the coalition's nearly 1.3 million members on Facebook, was a modest nine cents.

Of course, in most cases and causes, level of commitment isn't measured by dollars raised. In Gladwell's lunch-counter sit-in example, nobody, then or now, measured the success of the action based solely on the amount of funding it generated for civil rights organizations. On the contrary, as with the Save Darfur campaign, the sit-in campaign inspired other activists to organize additionals acts of civil disobedience, from letter writing and petitions, to boycotts, to freedom rides.

What once had to be organized almost exclusively by word-of-mouth today can be organized online far more quickly and inexpensively. Twitter, Facebook, Meetup, and other platforms are all being used to coordinate and promote in-person events, marches, rallies, and grassroots campaigns.

At the same time, social media is democratizing philanthropy. What had been a sector dominated by large nonprofits, endowed foundations, and mega-wealthy individuals increasingly is accessible to everyone with an online connection and a credit or debit card, as a growing number of online giving platforms make it ever easier for us to donate to causes we feel passionate about. Recently, for example, a friend of mine decided to participate in the St. Baldrick's Foundation's "Brave a Shave" fundraiser to fight childhood cancer, pledging to remove every hair from her head in return for small donations from friends. Over the next several months, she harnessed the power of her social network (Facebook) by writing on friends' walls, sending them messages, and communicating with them via Facebook chat, eventually raising almost $2,300 for the campaign. Gladwell might argue that $2,300 is a small amount when divided by the number of people she approached, but that's $2,300 more for cancer research than St. Baldrick's likely would have received otherwise. And while social media itself was not responsible for my friend's interest in or engagement with that particular cause, it proved to be invaluable in helping her achieve her goal.

Social media is also providing us with a new measure of transparency when it comes to the working of the nonprofit and philanthropic sectors and enabling us to see and experience the good that our donations and sweat equity do. YouTube hosts powerful footage of Habitat for Humanity building and donating homes to those who don't have one. Flickr hosts beautiful images of the ONE Campaign's fight against poverty and disease. The Foundation Center's Glasspockets initiative showcases the online transparency and accountability practices of foundations, allowing you to not only see which foundations have "glass pockets," but what's inside them.

Will social media change the world? Maybe. Despite its rapid adoption, the concept of social media has only been around for a few years and we've yet to fully appreciate its potential to contribute to the public good. In the meantime, the story of Paul Revere galloping toward Lexington to warn of the advancing British army is a dramatic part of our history: a brash patriot, feverishly charging through the night to save his friends from almost certain death. It's one of the defining moments in our history, as much a part of the foundational American myth as Plymouth Rock, Bunker Hill, and Valley Forge. But if someone had been kind enough to lend Revere his iPhone to send the message that the Bristish were coming, I'm sure Paul would have graciously accepted.

-- Jereme Bivins

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    — Franklin D. Roosevelt, 32nd president of the United States

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