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In my latest post on education, I discussed research at the Parsons School of Design on educational games that address social issues. Harnessing technology to promote social awareness is certainly not a new phenomenon. In fact, anyone with an e-mail account likely experiences it quite often, usually in the form of a petition in support or in opposition of some event or proposal.

The problem with this method of drawing attention to causes, however, is that it doesn't have legitimacy. Many such petitions are glorified chain letters with false claims. The urban legends reference site Snopes even has a section devoted to these petitions.

Tellingly, the site's Webmaster, Barbara Mikkelson, admonishes readers taken in by such e-mails and those apt to draft ones of their own against "slacktivism": lazily adding one's name and/or passing a petition along in the false belief that it will make an impact.

Facebook has a feature that often inspires such "slacktivism": its groups. Even when a group's cause has legitimacy — for instance, a "Save Darfur!" group — its impact is minimal, akin to wearing a button or ribbon without even purchasing it. (At least, in that case, the money might benefit an organization seeking to do something about the issue.) Although successfully leading a rally around a cause is often the first step toward action, completing this step alone without any follow-up does nothing.

Enter the Facebook application Causes. Launched on May 24, Causes has 10 million installs, making it one of Facebook's most popular applications. Causes enhances the idea of socially aware Facebook groups by adding legitimacy — when users create causes, they tie them to actual non-profits. They can then donate to the cause through the application and invite friends to join the cause.

The Causes pages include the standard Facebook group features: a description of the cause, a list of members, including friends, announcements, media, topic forums, and a "wall" for posts. To encourage activity, it also lists top recruiters (those who have invited friends to the cause), donors, and fundraisers (those whose friends have raised the most money for the cause).


Profile page for "Think Autism" cause


Top recruiters, donors, and fundraisers for "Think Autism"

About a week ago, I spoke with Sean Parker and Joe Green, the founders of the organization behind the Causes application, Project Agape. Their explanation of their motivations for building Causes seemed to reflect the sentiment of Mikkelson's essay on Snopes. Indeed, Parker noted, "Most activity on Facebook is somewhat frivolous, not necessarily goal-oriented."

But Causes' developers believed this didn't have to be exclusively the case, as Green acknowledges. "We recognized that there is latent power within the social network," said Green. "If you invite ten or fifteen of your friends [to a cause], you have the basic structure for creating a movement."

While Facebook may not quite give birth to a movement (or maybe it might — much of the protest over the "Jena 6" started online), it can at least add some social significance to online novelties. Take another Facebook feature, gifts. To me, it's remarkable that people actually pay real money for fake presents: icons on friends' profiles. Causes took advantage of this phenomenon in time for the holiday season by adding "charity gifts" supporting, as of this writing, 21 non-profits.


Charity Gifts store

"Charity gifts" work similarly to regular Facebook gifts: you choose the gift and the recipient, pay the appropriate price, and have it sent. If recipients have the Causes application, it will show up as an icon on their profiles. But unlike Facebook gifts, which are solely virtual, the "charity gifts" correspond to a physical donation benefitting a particular charity. One of the participating non-profits, Malaria No More, has a bed net "charity gift." For $10, a user can purchase both a virtual net for a friend and an actual net for a child in Africa, where malaria claims millions of lives.

The "charity gifts" feature, in a way, is a continuation of the Facebook gifts' operation upon their debut. In February, when the gifts first became available, all proceeds from the $1 gifts went to the breast cancer charity Komen for the Cure.

The one drawback of the charity gifts, however, may be their price. While standard Facebook gifts are usually one dollar, the charity gifts start at $10 — not expensive, but perhaps a deterrent for cheapskates (and many of us probably become cheapskates online, where most things are free). The priciest gift, a virtual laptop from One Laptop Per Child, costs $200 — the price for an actual laptop bound for a developing country.

Then again, as Green argues, "sticker shock" may not be an issue. "There are large donors who prefer to donate through causes because of the ripple effect," he says.

For the participating non-profits, the charity gifts have other benefits in addition to the "ripple effect." Along with Parker and Green, I spoke with Martin Edlund, director of communications for Malaria No More. Through Causes and its charity gifts, Edlund said, "We know that the circle is growing." He added, "With traditional outreach, you don't see the community growth in real time."

Conducting outreach through a medium like Facebook also lends more currency to issues like deaths from malaria, said Edlund. "Social gifts put malaria in the social environment," he explained. "It sparks questions. People will ask, 'What's a bed net?'"

In the meantime, worthy causes will benefit from the interesting novelty of virtual gift-giving, helping to make activism on Facebook a little less lazy.