Last year, in a now-infamous article titled Small Change Malcolm Gladwell used the phrase “weak ties” to describe relationships predicated on and perpetuated within social media networks. He argued that this type of activism “makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.”
A few months later, I joined in on a still ongoing debate regarding social media’s role in the social and political change going on in the Arab world.
During that time, most of my research and analysis focused on social media’s role in sparking and perpetuating an uprising—how Twitter and Facebook facilitated the uprisings, if at all.
But for the past six weeks, working at a tiny international nonprofit called VE Global, my understanding of social and digital media’s role in social change has deepened.
VE’s goals as an organization are twofold: first, they work on behalf of disadvantaged youth by volunteering at after-school programs and children’s homes, and second, they train and support the volunteers working in these institutions, instilling and promoting a lifelong desire to volunteer.
While VE Global is not seeking radical social change on a revolutionary scale, they are an organization “that promote[s] strategic and disciplined activity” (Gladwell) to achieve humanitarian ends. They raise the money and awareness to do so almost exclusively through social and digital media communications.
For example, I found out about my position with VE Global through Idealist.org, a website database for thousands of NGOs, nonprofits, and volunteer opportunities. To apply for the internship, I sent an email to the Executive Director and set up a Skype interview. Before arriving in Santiago, I familiarized myself with the organization through their website, YouTube video, blog, Facebook page and Twitter feed.
For VE, Facebook “friends” are potential donors, volunteers, or evangelists. Their Twitter feed reaches hundreds back in the US and fosters community relationships here in Santiago. Former volunteers from all over the world who may have otherwise lost touch after leaving Chile are reunited via Facebook, and are often further inspired to give back to VE because the organization remains visible, through social media, in their busy lives.
A 2005 Google Grant was awarded to VE for their commitment to a near paperless office system. The grant provides VE Global with free AdWords driving interested traffic to the VE website, where visitors who are so inclined may donate through Google Checkout directly to the organization. Executive Director Josh Pilz and Director of Development Jamie Ensey told me that not only does the majority of their funding happen this way, but that they often get random donations from people who must have simply followed the digital path to VE Global and believed in what they saw.
In Chile, where certain companies are required by law to donate a portion of their profits to charity, a website called Fondomixto provides these companies a database of nonprofits from which to choose. As a young organization with a young audience, it is no surprise that most of VE’s fundraising occurs online—according to a 2005 statistic from the ePhilanthropy Foundation, online giving is growing exponentially each year.
But the debate about “weak ties” versus “strong ties” in activism seems reductive—for VE Global and other international nonprofits, digital media provides both the weak and the strong ties. Certainly many of VE’s 360 Facebook friends are weak ties. But within that number is a dedicated group of people whose only contact to Santiago comes through social media updates.
Perhaps a better way to look at digital media and nonprofits is that digital media allows the weak ties to become strong ties, and allows the strong ties—the relationships developed from volunteering or donating—to remain strong.