Am I a (4) Square?
I’m a big fan of social media but I have to admit: I’m having a hard time getting into the habit of updating my whereabouts. Part of it is that my life just isn’t all that exciting: if there were a badge for Yet Another Before-Dawn Hour Spent Writing A Book or a badge for Marathon Blogging or Watching Rubicon, I would have long ago been anointed somebody’s Mayor – somewhere. At least once. [Dan Fletcher, writing in the current issue of TIME magazine, quips that the idea of updating his whereabouts “is a bit too much like having a pint-size version of my mother in my pocket, constantly prodding me for updates.”] Indeed, it’s kind of like that Twitteleh video that went viral last year spoofing Twitter, in which the Jewish mother uses tweets to prod her son with endless queries asking, Where Are You Going? Who Are You With? Are You Wearing a Sweater? and ... Who’s the Girl?
But a big part of it is that I just don’t see the benefits yet – at least not in the social change space. Sure, some nonprofits are starting to experiment. Kudos to Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest law firm in the Bay Area, which has been asking BART riders this summer to “check in” with them on Foursquare. For every check-in, one of Earthjustice’s major donors is pledging $10 to help the nonprofit’s attorneys fight environmental pollution. So far, so good: marketing manager Ray Wan says the nonprofit has raised more than $10,000 for the cause, and has brought a crowd of people to the Earthjustice Web site that didn’t know about the group previously. [“We’re getting some amazing buzz from this,” Wan told me last month. “It’s an easy way to get people involved in helping us to fight for the environment.”]
Maybe so, but it’s all still about phoning it in -- what people used to call “click-and-give” in the ancient days of the Desktop, or what people have more recently called Slacktivism, a portmanteau formed out of the words “slacker” and “activism.” Even new media visionary Clay Shirky, speaking on this year’s conference circuit, has cited what he sees as a stubborn gap between online chatter about social action and real social action offline – a sort-of “talk” and “walk” gap that has yet to be widely recognized, if not bridged. [And it’s no wonder, perhaps. Josh Williams, the co-founder of Gowalla, says his company is thinking about how it can provide value beyond just the check-in, itself. “Sharing photographs, telling stories about a given location or whether someone’s had a romantic date there – that’s where things get really interesting,” Williams told TIME's Fletcher.]
I, for one, am holding out for something more. While sitting in the lobby of Austin’s Driskill Hotel last spring, the real potential of this medium became clear. One minute, the Driskill’s lobby was filled with seated, lounging SXSW conference-goers and the next minute, everyone sprang to their feet simultaneously, as if heeding a digital dog whistle, moving to the exits en masse. What happened? They all got the “memo” via Foursquare, an update compelling them to go to the next After Party (and they did, like moths to flame).
I went, too. But I didn’t stay very long. What I’m waiting for is the day or hour or minute when somebody sends me an update that not only tells me where they are, but why I should be there, too. An invitation that gives me a chance to do something locally -- but something outside my "chill" zone, like handing out free meals at the local homeless shelter for an hour, or reading a newspaper to nursing home residents in my neighborhood (and on my way over, bringing them a box of their favorite cookies).
Skeptical? Go ahead, nonprofits. Encourage me to go for the Mayorship of, say, The Greater Harlem Nursing Home or the Atlanta Union Mission. I'm confident that I (and at least a couple dozen of my 3,000 closest online friends – and then some of their friends) would be delighted to compete.
-- Marcia Stepanek
(Illustration: Russell Tate for istock.com)