The minute I start thinking about the theme of “altruism” through the social media lens, part of my heart feels full and in the next breath feelings of deep skepticism begin to arise. There is a lot of talk about doing social good through social technology, but there is also a substantive amount of ego. So when it came time to address this topic, rather than dive into another rant about ego, I figured we’d all be served well by hearing the voice of someone who’s actually written the book on the topic of how one can use the power of social technologies and social networks for good.
Following is a complete transcript of my conversation with author and media technologist, Deanna Zandt about her recent book, “Share This! How You Will Change the World With Social Networking.”
With your book title in mind, specifically focused on using technology for social good … how does that work?
There are the kind of obvious ways that it works and that’s what we see a lot of now and a lot of what people talk about. People can raise money for causes that they care about and they can get the word out about some crisis. There’s also a more fundamental kind of cultural consciousness shift that’s happening; and the way that I see it is that each one of us, each individual participating via social networking, in these giant conversations we’re having about policy and legislation and culture and all of the things that we care about as a community – each one of us contributing our voices and our experiences and our values. This is a radical change from how public discourse has operated in the past. In the past (public discourse) was always mediated by some other person, some other gatekeeper with god knows what for an agenda. And so here is this moment where all of us are contributing and saying, “Well here’s what it’s like to be a person in my shoes and these are the things that I care about.” That obviously changes the entire nature of the conversation just by changing who’s at the table. So there’s that … and then a lot of people talk about … for a while there the buzzword was that social networking builds “trust”, which it does and I think that it takes it a step further. I think it also builds empathy. There have been cool studies that have come out saying that when people are participating online and in social networks that oxytocin is released in their brains, that’s the chemical that’s released when we’re cuddling, so we feel trust and affection when we are participating in these networks. And it’s those kinds of things, in the sharing of these experiences that we create empathy where we care about one another more because we know each other.
Let’s also talk about these social networks because there’s the joke that there’s no “I” in social media … although of course there are really two (laugh)… you know there’s no “I” in team but there’s a “me” in team. My point is that when you look at these networks it becomes very me, me, me. There’s a lot of ego and there are some who might say that the altruism isn’t … all true.
I think there is certainly pieces of that especially when those kinds of people who … were the same people that 10 years ago on List Servs managed to direct every single topic back to the things they cared about or the things they were working on. We’d all kind of roll our eyes and say, “Ugh, there they go again”. I think that certainly is going to happen in social networking too; but I also think that Narcissism or what we perceive as Narcissism might not necessarily be pure Narcissism. There’s a really great book called “The Ethics of Authenticity”, it’s from the early 90s that almost predicts this rise of sharing, of me-me-me that we see. And one of the thoughts in this, it’s a philosophy book, one of the thoughts is that perhaps this sharing of self is not just a need for attention but also a need for self identity and a way of exploring ones self and exploring other people to understand ones self better. I think there’s real validity in that. Humans don’t do anything really super solo as much as we like to believe in the rise of individualism and everything. We kind of always need to be in dialogue. And certainly social networks are an ongoing conversation 24/7 and so I can see people using it as a tool of exploration of self and not just a projection of self.
There are many efforts that have been widely seen in the last several years specifically raising lots of money and awareness. The efforts around the earthquake in Haiti, in terms of a disaster. The horrible (PG&E gas) explosion in San Bruno (California), with social media immediately arising as a way to encourage people to donate blood, encourage people to check in and let people know where they are, giving people a way to connect. Charity: Water digging wells and bringing clean water to third world nations, to small villages all around the world. 140 Smiles behind which Stefanie Michaels (AdventureGirl) has thrown her considerable on-line presence, the entire Twestival campaign, this whole idea of an annual festival – both on a global as well as localized basis. BlameDrewsCancer, as another example … What do you do about the noise, though? Because one of the challenges with social media is just the sheer volume of noise and when everybody tries to shout louder the cacophony is horrific.
(Pause) … Yes … (deep breath). You know this is something that people who have done advocacy work and social justice kind of work have faced for years and it’s now a bit more under the microscope. They call it cause fatigue. People just kind of become immune to certain messages after a certain period of time. I mean, how many people are talking about Haiti (all these months) later, for example? Just not that many. You see the occasional post, but there isn’t this sense of urgency in the cultural consciousness. This (fatigue) is difficult to deal with and how do we overcome that? I think we have to think about communications differently because in our mindset of wanting to get the word out about something or wanting to help or do something we are kind of trapped in this old way of thinking about communications as broadcast and using broadcast mediums, and the models of broadcast mediums and creating larger and larger and larger spectacles so that more and more and more people will pay attention, so that maybe 200 of them will actually do something.
What we see evolving in advocacy work and what is clearly becoming more effective for people to think about is not trying to reach millions and millions of people so that those 200 will take action, but seeking out and targeting specifically the 200 people that are tangentially related or already interested in the type of work that you’re doing and engaging with them directly. It’s more a relational model of communications versus a broadcast model. I’m sincerely hoping that the spectacle model of getting the word out about something will go away soon because it’s not doing anybody that much good and people become immune to spectacle pretty quickly.
Do you really think, though, that human nature will allow that to happen? Don’t people kind of need the trainwreck of sorts whether it’s positive or negative vision that they’re following?
Sure. I guess we have to think about scale as well where one of the examples that’s in my book that talks about this is that there’s a group of parents that were very outraged at the implementation of standardized testing in Palm Beach County, Florida, and they started a Facebook group. Ultimately they ended up getting 8,000 parents in this group and they negotiated with the school administrators and were actually able to change different parts of the policy and negotiate how this was actually going to be implemented. That was something that was maybe a train wreck for their town, you know people there were really upset about it, and they got engaged but it wasn’t something that made national news and it didn’t really need to in order for people to make a difference and engage and do something. They didn’t have to get on 60 Minutes in order for people to learn about this. There are certainly cases where that is necessary when you have something that’s as catastrophic as what happened (over the summer) in Pakistan (with the flooding), the way we saw (support arise) after the Tsunami (in Indonesia) or Haiti (after the earthquake). I don’t want to play oppression Olympics or anything, but I’m not sure why that (trouble in Pakistan) hasn’t captured the hearts of the US community at large.
You raise a point that I’d like to touch back on … It doesn’t need to be millions of people or global visibility in order to be successful or to foster change and in the world of social media, I think so many people go for… it’s like they’re swinging for the fences and forgetting that sometimes bunting is a really good strategy.
Yes, exactly. That’s the thing because we’re so trapped in this mindset of more is better – more followers, more fans or more “likes”, more, more, more means I will be successful because in the past that’s how we’ve had to operate with communications. If I get a hit in the New York Times that’s certainly going to get me a lot more attention at the very least and that could mean I get more funding invariably that could mean I get more funding or that my work is actually going to get completed, which does get me more attention – so we’re trapped in that numbers game and it’s not necessarily about that. It’s really much more about influence and relationships.