In his timely book, CauseWired: Plugging In, Getting Involved, Changing the World (Wiley, 2008), Tom Watson tracks the growing trend of activists creatively using online media to generate new forms of involvement, support, and fundraising. Watson presents a series of case studies and anecdotes from his personal experience to analyze networked activism and provide a set of principles, as well as a few words of caution, for effective online organizing.
Watson’s overarching theme revolves around the proposition that online philanthropy, and social, political, and charitable activism is turning into a movement and a sector of the U.S. economy that he terms ‘CauseWired’.
The CauseWired sector, according to Watson “is still being defined. It includes online social activism, nonprofit fundraising, wired social entrepreneurship, political organizing, flash causes, and digital philanthropy (p. 195)”. Watson sees CauseWired as riding on the proliferation of social media among the younger generation of Americans who view changing the world as a form of personal responsibility. In a way, CauseWired is in a tug-of-war with established hierarchies that do not meet the new generation’s expectations of transparency and engagement.
Watson’s relationship with the subject matter is intimate. He has spent the past 15 years of his career working for and writing about non-profits. His stated goal in the opening of his book is to demonstrate to his readers how technology is changing the way we communicate and consequently how we respond to the urge to make this world a better place.
Watson argues that many individuals who give online do so because they do not know how to do it otherwise. Here he is mostly referring to my generation, ‘Generation Next’, those born after 1980 into a networked culture. In 2007, the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press coined the term in a publication entitled “Generation Next: How Young People View Their Lives, Futures and Politics”. The publication provided key observations on how Generation Next lives in a constant state of connectedness, and the effects of that connectedness on their ability to work collaboratively and express their identity creatively. Generation Next dominates the social media scene wearing their passions and interests as badges on their profiles. They also happen to be the most ethnically diverse and the most tolerant American generation identified to date. Most importantly for the topic at hand, Generation Nexters, according to social analyst Allison Fine, believe it to be their responsibility to make the world a better place.
As a movement, CauseWired takes its characteristics from its Generation Next members; it exhibits a high tolerance for risk, a high level of innovation and diversity, and features a widespread collaboration between its members.
Generation Next grew up connecting emotionally via data, they are immersed in digital technology and yet aware of its danger. This high-speed internet generation seems to be open about expressing their support to causes they care about. Their support is intertwined with their expression of their identity.
Philanthropy is part of the social-networking experience and a feature in every current major platform. Watson gives us the example of the ‘Causes’ application on Facebook, that gained over two million supporters within the first six months of its release (p. 16). The application allows the addition of a username to a support group for a certain cause with a few clicks. The user does not have to donate or do much afterwards, in fact, most don’t. But the value of these virtual supporters is threefold: awareness for the cause grows at a faster rate, the application makes the social graph of its users available for activists work, and it provides an untapped audience for updates and spreading the message.
The problem is that enacting change in the world inevitably requires people to step up from behind their desks and take an action even as simple as making a phone call to a representative. But the line between virtual and real is very blurry for Generation Next.
Watson presents an interesting analysis of the success of Causes. Part of the success of the Causes application lies in the very nature of its users who are primed to express their social and political opinions in their digital space. But there is also the emotional reward: that moment of kumbaya with fellow supporters. A tiny gesture like this would be lost on a large organization with efforts focused on acknowledging the largest donors and the biggest contributors, but within one’s own network, the user is acknowledged, their gesture does not go unnoticed on their friends’ Facebook feed who through subtle peer pressure might be compelled to do just the same.
While funds drawn from Causes on Facebook are minimal, it lowers the entry requirement for expressing support in everyday life, it opens philanthropy to teenagers and others who do not have the funds for a donation, it also allows for the public recognition of the individual support in the friend feed. The benefit to the cause itself is in the received public validation and the massive, no-cost, mailing list of interested people.
The key lesson for online organizing, especially as it was learned from the Obama campaign, is that it needs a bridge to offline social capital. People need to have meaningful experiences offline to make and keep these issues personal.
Aside from enabling virtual support and augmenting letter-writing types of actions, some social entrepreneurs have found new compelling ways to facilitate and enrich the experience of giving online.
DonorsChoose.org and Kiva.org are two of the most compelling examples that Watson presents. These two organizations operate on a micro-donation and micro-lending model, respectively. DonorsChoose.org allows any teacher in the American public school system to write a proposal for a project that will benefit their students. Donors browse the site and can choose to fund as much of the project as they like. Kiva.org, on the other hand, issues micro loans to small business owners and entrepreneurs from all over the world with funds from one or more individual lenders.
Both organizations engage lenders and donors on an emotional level in the causes they support. Using DonorsChoose.org, the donors get to see the projects they fund, and also get to hear back from the students and teachers in progress reports.
These two organizations cater to the multitude of esoteric passions that each person has and enables her to find just the right cause or individual for to support. This is evidenced by DonorsChoose.org usage numbers and surveys that show that 70% of their donors have never made a donation to a public school before. Watson offers his own experience of becoming a member of DonorsChoose.org: he searched for the term ‘Mark Twain’ and found a school teacher from a Bronx middle school looking to purchase novels for her students including The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. In addition to the book being one of Watson’s favorites, he had an emotional connection with the Bronx public schools from his own school experiences. The site allowed him to handpick a cause that resonated with him on multiple levels and he could see the effect of his donation both immediately and in the long term by receiving progress reports from the students that benefit from it.
Kiva.org managed to create an equally compelling emotional experience that is immersive, addictive, and has very low entry requirements for most users. It turns out, taking a small financial risk bidding on the success of someone else’s future can be extremely emotionally satisfying and addictive.
Watson consults a number of entrepreneurs on the emotional addictiveness of sites like Kiva.org. Some, like Scott Heiferman of Meetup.com, attribute it to the packaging of these activities as games. There is an element of risk and fun that is rewarded with deep, real-life emotional experiences.
Matt Flannery, one of the founders of Kiva.org, attributes the addictive nature of his site to its use of emotional hooks of creating collections, ownership, and uncertainty. Choosing your donation portfolio is much like creating a fantasy football team. Kiva.org also spurred the creation of independent social networking outlets dedicated to sharing the experience, like: KivaFriends.com, a Kiva YouTube channel, and a Facebook group.
Micro-giving marks the democratization of philanthropy and opening giving to a new class of socially minded individuals that could receive the same social reward for their $10 donations previously only available to the upper crust writing huge checks at formal parties.
Why it Works
Watson quotes Allison Fine in her view that the problem with real life activism is “the lack of power–both perceived and actual–by activists (p. 35).”
Watson presents multiple examples where activism online solves this problem by enabling goal-oriented activism that circumvents the endless arguments with uninterested individuals in face-to-face recruiting. Online activism encourages more action via the network using subtle, low-friction, peer pressure. Additionally, the use of social media enables the creation of new leaders out of passionate supporters, effectively augmenting the work of paid staff at no cost to the organization as we have seen in the get-out-the-vote efforts during the Obama campaign.
Watson foresees a golden age for activism and philanthropy, but tells us that the arrival of said golden age is dependent on how we use the technology. The golden age requires open and transparent standards and new leaders who understand and can leverage the technology to emerge.
In the last chapter of his book, Watson presents criticisms and concerns of online civic engagement. There is a fear that completely abandoning the organization and hierarchy is a poor choice, that at the end of the day we still need large contributions from very wealthy individuals simply because of the current wealth distribution in the world. The danger is that “the era of consumer philanthropy sometimes masks the importance of […] big commitments–and the vitality of true citizen action (p. 188).”
The low barrier to supporting a cause by adding a widget or joining a Facebook cause may generate more support but also has the danger of remaining at the button-click level of involvement. Emotional investment that translates to time, energy, and money on the ground is what really changes the world at the end of the day. The breadth of involvement could compromise the depth; a slight involvement online does not necessarily turn into awareness, and most importantly, the crowd is not always right.
All in all, the book provided a great read. My only criticism would be that Watson did not offer us much of an explanation for the many failed efforts that followed similar formulas to those projects that enjoyed remarkable success. I also wish that he offered directions on how ensure the golden age for activism and philanthropy gets realized.
Refereces and Further Reading
Watson, Thomas. (2008). CauseWired: Plugging In; Getting Involved; Changing the World. Whiley Publishing: New Jersey.
Watson, Thomas. CauseWired Communications and Blog at http://causewired.com
Cross-posted to http://com546.kennethrufo.com