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Creating social good via social media, one 'like' at a time

Posted by Alex Pearlman  December 22, 2011 06:07 PM

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social media.jpgBy Angela Stefano

“The new tools of social media have reinvented social activism,” wrote Malcolm Gladwell in The New Yorker just over a year ago, in October 2010. “With Facebook and Twitter and the like, the traditional relationship between political authority and popular will has been upended, making it easier for the powerless to collaborate, coordinate, and give voice to their concerns.”

While Gladwell’s piece as a whole actually goes on to argue that social media has caused “slacktivism” to pass as real activism, rather than changing and bettering the ways activists operate, this year's movements and uprisings proved just the opposite: Creating real social change through online tools is possible. Occupy, the Arab Spring, and revolutions across the globe all began with an idea, spread via the Internet and social media; there are studies that prove social media’s worth to various causes, too.

“It is our large numbers -- and the unprecedented ability to easily connect them -- that give us more power to influence change than ever before,” wrote fellow TNGG-er Wynn Harrison in July 2010. Social media activism has activated the strength of weak ties.

On a smaller scale as well, social media has proven indispensable to many an organization. Boston-based groups, like those across the globe, are using this technology to simply raise money and bring more awareness to their causes.

“If I was in isolation and saw someone join a cause, and I didn’t know them at all, I wouldn’t be as inclined [to help] as if one of my best friends or my neighbor joined,” said Eric Ding, 28, a Harvard faculty member and the mind behind the Campaign for Cancer Prevention (CCP). “[Seeing social media notifications about a cause is] like external validation of a cause’s worthiness...and it makes me feel like it’s something important, so I want to do it, too, and then it propagates from there.”

Ding’s organization is proof that social media validation works. Since launching in 2007 on the Causes.com platform, the CCP has attracted a following of over six million members and raised over $400,000 for cancer prevention research at Brigham and Women’s Hospital. The hospital recently announced the launch of eight research projects -- ranging from finding the best type of physical activity to reduce the risk of cancer to investigating the link between ovarian cancer, cholesterol levels, and diets -- and a microsite, all funded by those CCP donations.

Eric Ding Campaign for Cancer Prevention.jpg“There’s social proof [that we’re] using this money wisely, and [people who donate] actually get to see the outcome. And I think that’s a lot of the attraction,” Ding said of Internet-based campaigns. CCP posts articles related to their research and cancer prevention, which a lot of their followers -- and their followers’ followers -- read and share.

“[Donating and sharing articles] could be armchair activism...but it spreads the message and spreads the movement,” Ding said. “Just because you join up for something by clicking something, I don’t necessarily agree that it’s slacktivism.”

In fact, Ding believes that social media -- for example, those articles CCP shares -- actually helps promote another level of awareness and allows those involved to get something more out of their activism. “Everyone who’s going to a cancer walk knows about breast cancer screenings. It’s kind of a moot point,” he said. “[On social media], you’re creating a new network and new activity.”

Social media also increases activism overall, Ding said. “I don't think it’s a zero-sum game,” he said. “I think the activism and the donations are on top of what would already be donated anyway....I feel like it allows more activism to get out there.”

That usefulness to various causes is what gives social media sites much of their value, Ding said. Through its ability to fuel large-scale change, social media has embedded itself into society.

“[A social media site gets a] valuation boost from the value that society gives it in its ability to rally movements, fuel revolutions, and change the world,” Ding said. “That is the ultimate value of social media -- not in the clicks or the revenue.”

Photo by webtreats (top, via Flickr). Photo of Eric Ding (bottom) by Jon Towle.

About Angela -- It's "Ang," if you please -- or, alternately, Bill, Penny Lane, or (begrudgingly) Angus to some. I've been with TNGG since the site started and am now the TNGG Boston editor for Boston.com. I graduated from Boston University's College of Communication in 2009 and am a huge fan of live music, hockey, and Thai food. I'm also a bit of a klutz, but that's only because my mind and body are always going in approximately a zillion separate directions. Twitter: @amstefano988

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