Wednesday, August 28

Does Social Justice Fit Somewhere Between Silly Cat Videos?

Sometimes the hardest thing to reconcile about social networks is how serious they can be. You know what I mean. We've all seen friendships and family members splinter over political and social issues on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. People lose jobs. Companies get embarrassed. Bullies are outed.

Yes, social media can be serious. In fact, it was the seriousness of it that inspired one recent discussion about how labels can trap and condemn us if we aren't careful. They really do. Every day. 

In direct contrast, social networks don't always seem serious. It's the silliness and steady stream of absurdity that can prove bothersome. And this seems especially true when it detracts from social justice.

This is why Amy Tobin was inspired to write Social Justice: Have The Social Networks Failed Us, Or Have We Failed Them?, a column that captures how something silly like Ben Affleck as Batman can trump something serious like chemical weapons in Syria. The effect is always profound. Any time someone draws a contrast between soft news and hard news, someone else will feel petty for talking about superheroes while people die in the streets of Syria. It's us who fiddles while Rome burns.

If you want to change the world, don't blow against the wind. Fan the flame that's waiting.

I know how Amy feels. A few years ago, Tony Berkman, president of BlogCatalog, asked the same thing in a different way. He wanted to know what bloggers would talk about if they weren't talking about then headline stealers Paris Hilton and Britney Spears. So we all sat down and decided to find out. 

The question was especially relevant to me. A couple of years prior, celebrity was the cause for why one of our best practice short-term public relations campaigns became a best practice media kit. The kit was a winner but the campaign missed when we were scooped by celebrity.

Specifically, a celebrity trumped a media event that centered around education in Nevada. So there you go. When a "Who Wants To Marry A Millionaire?" contestant files for divorce, news stations don't stand by to cover the governor and a virtual who's who list in state education at the opening of a new private school. 

So naturally, when Berkman asked his question about bloggers, I was primed to participate as one of the founders of an initiative called BloggersUnite. It was the first series of social media awareness campaigns that coordinated bloggers (and later social network participants) to change the world by setting a conversational agenda online.

In the months and years that followed, I developed and executed campaigns for DonorsChoose.org, Amnesty International, AIDS.gov, Heifer International, and March Of Dimes (among others). All of my work was contributed as an in-kind effort to change the world. All of the campaigns were successful, with the most visitable delivering 1.2 million posts on one day, reaching 250 million. 

The volume of the campaign was so loud that it was covered by several dozen media outlets, including CNN. And despite some pushback from social media enthusiasts who prematurely concluded that it was all buzz and no bite, this early awareness campaign eventually changed American policy in Darfur. Right. We changed the world. And we didn't change it once. We changed it a few dozen times.

The prospect that people were willing step up was especially inspiring for Berkman. So he eventually spun the initiative into a standalone, do-it-yourself platform called BloggersUnite. It still exists, but as a silent giant.

Why? It's silent for the same reason I warned him against crowd-sourced solutions, hoping that social would be its own steward for good. Most people don't know how to plan campaigns and most people are too easily distracted to lead. At the same time, if there was ever a time I wanted to be wrong, it was about this observation. 

The spontaneity of social media and social networks is unpredictable at best and overrated at worst. In other words, it takes more than people to drive meaningful conversations like the campaigns we managed before the platform. It takes someone to give it shape and fan the flame once it gets started.

Even then, it takes considerable patience and planning to get anything off the ground, no matter how good the cause might be. You also have to be empathic, not only for the people you are trying to help, but also for those who offer up no sign of support. Why? Because you don't know them.

The hardest lesson in the world is finding empathy for those who laugh while we cry.

Developing these campaigns was hard work. But what is even harder was knowing when not to launch one. As Berkman eventually learned, you can only ask a community to promote worthwhile causes a few times year. Ask too much and you'll burn them out. Ask them to plan it too and most will pass.

And it's on this point that I want to come full circle. When we see society as opposed to people, we all tend to think that all these people — the person sitting across the table, reading our post, passing us on the street — is somehow isolated or inoculated or apathetic against the world. They're not.

Not only are most of them active with their own causes, but they also have their own private battles to fight too. This one just survived cancer. That one just lost their wife to it. This one isn't sure how they'll pay the rent next month. That one found out their spouse is having an affair. This one is wondering where their education took a wrong turn. That one is in need of the services someone else is promoting. And the list goes on. And on. And on.

So if any of those people want to laugh at the prospect of Ben Affleck being Batman, it's okay. They've earned it. Maybe tomorrow they can fret over the international crisis in Syria instead. Or maybe they won't.

As I mentioned to one of my friends while discussing this subject, something needs to be done in Syria but when you attempt to prioritize it against something like a cure for cancer, then there is no contest. But even without prioritizing an endless list of heartbreak in the world, we might remember that even Shakespeare saw a need to insert comedy into his tragedies. Life is heavy enough. It takes considerable effort to lighten it.

Applied to causes, the concept comes from the man who inspired the last BloggersUnite campaign that I was able to step up for and play a major role in developing as a last minute campaign. Patch Adams was among the first in the medical community to defy the dourness of cause marketing and shaping public opinion. He epitomizes the life lesson that angels have wings because they take themselves lightly.

At least that's the way I see it. What do you think? What does Tony Berkman, Simon Mainwaring, or Kate Olsen think? What does anything think? Are social networks too serious, too silly, or does that old rule apply — social is whatever you make of it?

The comments are yours. Feel free to fiddle with this subject or suggest something else. I would love nothing better than every topic to come from you. Let's talk for a change.
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