Social media has had mixed results when it comes to being wielded as a tool for the greater good.
Last year saw the Arab Spring, where revolutionaries credited Facebook and Twitter with giving them the means to unite their forces to topple oppressive governments. It even reached the point where one Egyptian couple named their child after Mark Zuckerberg’s social network (sounds a bit bizarre naming a child ‘Facebook’ but it’s probably a better name than ‘petrol bomb’ or ‘AK47’ or ‘NATO Air Strikes’ which were also pretty crucial to the revolutionary efforts).
Then, last month we witnessed the spectacular public meltdown of Jason Russell, the man behind Kony 2012. After the initial positive reaction the controversy surrounding the film lead to Russell committing ‘certain acts’ which haven’t done wonders for his credibility. The viral power of social media can turn from positive to negative on a dime and Jason Russell now knows this all too well.
So how do we go about using social media effectively to support a good cause? Perhaps Russell’s mistake was to misread the nature of online culture – despite living in a world where we practically worship celebrities we seem to object very strongly to anyone who tries to put themselves in the limelight before they’ve ‘earned it’ (however the hell it is you do that). The objection to Russell’s film seems to have come, at least in part, from his decision to put the filmmakers themselves at the center of the project. The online sphere is a place where social conventions and politeness go to die. All the vitriol the audience feels towards people who take themselves very seriously and are prone to self-promotion can manifest itself without the social filters that keep the public from hurling abuse in the offline world.
Craig Newmark, the founder of Craigslist may have struck the right balance with a campaign to raise money for the National Wildlife Federation. Newmark has pledged to donate $1 for every follower he gains on Twitter and every use of the #Squirrels4Good on Facebook up to one million dollars. It’s still early days so it may be the case that this project crashes and burns like so many others (though I don’t expect, or hope, to see Newmark roaming the streets of San Diego in his underwear in the near future).
What the Craigslist founder seems to have realized is that the internet is not usually a place where things are taken seriously. He’s made squirrels the mascot for his campaign and while his goal is to genuinely raise awareness and funds he has had the good sense to allow people to have fun with it. If you take yourself and your cause too seriously you’re setting yourself up for a fall – if you’ve got the sense to go on your moral quest with a sense of humour about the whole affair, it makes it a lot tougher for the naysayers and critics to sink their teeth into you.