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The Dark Side of Social Networking

In an excerpt from their book The Dragonfly Effect: Quick, Effective, and Powerful Ways to Use Social Media to Drive Social Change, authors Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith consider how Facebook’s charitable contests and activism groups may be doing more harm than good.

Dragonfly Effect

There are many positive aspects of social good–saving lives, spurring medical research, building community–and the potency of the profit made by running something as seemingly benign as a lemonade stand. But what about when things go wrong? Consumers and employees have higher expectations when you focus on social good, and they’re not afraid to voice their concerns, which on the Internet is kind of like using a megaphone that can be heard around the world.

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Consider JPMorgan Chase & Company, which came under fire for the way it conducted a Facebook contest. One of the biggest online contests ever, the program was designed to award $5 million to charities chosen by anyone on Facebook. The bank promoted the effort as “a new way forward for giving,” and the idea generated instant interest, attracting more than 12,000 users its first day and more than a million in a month.

Although the program was lauded for its generosity, ingenuity, and good intentions, as the contest unfolded it received criticism for its lack of transparency. The New York Times reported that at least three nonprofit groups–Students for Sensible Drug Policy, the Marijuana Policy Project, and Justice for All (an antiabortion group)–said they believed that Chase disqualified them over concerns about associating its name with their missions. They alleged that until Chase made changes to the contest, they appeared to be among the top one hundred leading charities in terms of votes, meaning they would receive $25,000, and possibly more, in funding. Three days before the contest ended, Chase stopped giving participants access to voting information, and did not make public the vote tallies of the winners.

Chase responded that they removed the vote status “to build excitement,” to ensure that all Facebook users would learn of the hundred finalists at the same time, and to give Chase the opportunity to notify the hundred finalists first. The community didn’t buy its story and considered the omission of the three formerly leading groups to be foul play. An open letter by Nathaniel Whittemore of Change.org lambasted Chase for “some pretty bonehead anti-transparency tendencies, which have hurt your brand with exactly the people you were supposed to be getting excited. Further, you’ve demonstrated a lack of understanding about how nonprofits really work. You’ve got an awesome opportunity to literally be the coolest contest there has ever been, but you’ve got some work to do.” Whittemore’s condemnation reverberated around the Web through tweets and blogs.

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There’s another dark side to social technology: the appearance of activism where in fact there is inaction. Using socialmedia to make someone aware of a cause is half the battle; getting him or her to take real action is the ultimate goal. And though the Internet has the capacity to engage a worldwide audience in social good, it also can breed apathy. Facebook groups like Save Darfur or Campaign for Cancer Awareness can amass hundreds of thousands of members, yet there are times when members of these groups, including the organizers themselves, fail to contribute in real ways to the cause. Membership in an online group does not equal true commitment; it might even make people less likely to take action, because they feel that their online group membership lets them off the hook. In one study, researchers showed that when people talk about their intentions, they can be less likely to act on them because the talking gives them a “premature sense of completeness.”

Simply getting 100,000 people to join your Save Darfur Facebook group may not cut it. This is where your focus on a single, simple, important goal comes in. The final goal is not just to get 100,000 people into your group; rather, now that you have the attention of 100,000 members, your goals is to inspire and enable your group to take action. In moving forward, you must be cognizant of where the true power of social technology lies: not in the technology itself but in the people who use it. Movements that begin online must be backed by real-life action; otherwise, there is no point.

Printed by permission of the publisher, John Wiley & Sons, Inc., from The Dragonfly Effect by Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith. Copyright (c) 2010 by Jennifer Aaker and Andy Smith. All rights reserved.

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