Thursday, September 2, 2010

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).

Sure, I could do this without a prod via Foursquare and Gowalla. But if someone at my favorite charity were to invite me right now in an update, chances are I'd actually make it there. Today.

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

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Your comment about everything jumping up SXSW and moving en masse is the most frightening thing I've read all day. I guess I'd move too, but in the opposite direction.

September 2, 2010 at 5:23 PM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

...Unless you're a nonprofit that needs more supporters or volunteers. There is power in social networks, and now that they can convene "on the go" to act, why not make it something for good?

September 2, 2010 at 8:44 PM  
Blogger @HeyJK @HandsOnNetwork said...

In theory, I love the idea. In practice, there's a struggle to be overcome and that is this...

We try very hard to make sure that our volunteer projects are well managed. Part of that is ensuring that there aren't too many people or too few. With the right number, everyone has enough work to do, feels that their time was well spent, that they were able to make a contribution, etc.

With spontaneous arrivals, the volunteer organization is unsure how many people they'll have - which impacts: how many tools they bring, how many supplies they order, what amount of work they plan to complete, and, in some cases, how many clients they can serve.

The conundrum here leaves us wondering how to make the best use of the trend without sacrificing the volunteer experience of those who do show up.


September 8, 2010 at 10:28 AM  
Blogger Marcia Stepanek said...

JK - Great points, but Foursquare doesn't have to lead to spontaneous arrivals; if the nonprofit, itself, is on foursquare and "updating" its mobile social network with volunteer opportunities, then the nonprofit remains in control of both the opportunity and how the "check-ins" can occur. In addition, there is an opportunity for nonprofits to create new kinds of volunteering events that make use of foursquare's potential to convene larger groups simultaneously. Think about a park cleanup effort that, say, could encourage volunteers to check-in at various geographical parts of the park, or a generic "issues" day put on by a number of nonprofits working for the same cause that would ask participants to "check in" at a place each organization was contributing to a larger effort. Lots of possibilities for use as a tool for greater involvement and collaboration -- but like anything else, it takes strategies and new management approaches to maximize.

Great point, though, that none of this is simple stuff. Thanks for writing in and for your wonderful work in the volunteer arena.

September 8, 2010 at 5:51 PM  
Blogger OhTheJoys said...

No - thank you. Those are good ideas and they are helping me press through... the wheels are turning!

September 8, 2010 at 8:39 PM  

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