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Will Social Media Save Us?

March 10, 2011

In today's world, connecting with people though social media has become the bottom line. If you don't have a presence on Facebook and Twitter, then you're way behind the curve. But it strikes me that some organizations (and individuals) have more of a reason to jump on the social media bandwagon than others.

I'm inspired to think about this today on the back of an email I just received from a new acquaintance who's the head of, a new microphilanthropy startup based in the Bay Area.

Allthis looks like a promising and fun service that could potentially benefit many worthy non-profit organizations. It works a bit like a silent auction at a non-profit fundraising gala, except on a mass, digital scale. The idea is that people donate or ask for specific skills or experiences via the website, e.g. lunch with the CEO of a big company, headshots, a video of a pop singer singing happy birthday etc, and the funds that pay for the donated services then go to charitable organizations. charges a percentage of each transaction to cover its costs for brokering the deal.

The email from asked me to do the following:

1. At a minimum: Please register on the site using Facebook Connect (will take less than a minute!)
2. If you’re feeling generous: Register, and make three friends do the same.
3. Make my day: Register, create an offering (that your friends would want), and send three invites.

This is a super smart way of getting people to connect to via social media. And it makes perfect sense for an organization that can only exist and make any money through achieving a critical mass of users.

I am inspired to send out an email along similar lines to get people to sign up for the Twitter and Facebook pages of VoiceBox, my own non-profit organization. I've been advised that my project needs way, way, way more fans and followers than it currently has.

But to what end, I wonder?

Allthis directly makes money from having lots of people doing business on its site. But if the product you offer -- which in my case is a public radio series about singing which anyone can listen to for free -- isn't so easily commodified, then what at the end of the day does one get from having thousands of Facebook friends and Twitter followers beyond the lovely notion that people are paying attention?

I don't mean to poo poo the idea of building a huge community of people around VoiceBox. It's obviously important to gain exposure, generate buzz, get people listening to the radio shows and, in a deeper sense, prompt them to think about the vocal arts and participate in singing activities which are all to the benefit of their personal wellbeing and even the quality of life in their neighborhoods.

I'm certainly not in if for the money.

However, there's a belief that building a large social network will lead to financial gains. And who doesn't want money to sustain a project that is currently being run on sheer passion and goodwill?

The mere fact of popularity does not translate automatically into financial sustainability, which at the end of the day is one of the main things that's driving people who run organizations of all kinds to Facebook and Twitter.

But while leveraging a large following seems key to the success of a company like, it's actually quite hard to see a direct correlation between eyeballs and financial support for arts and media projects, especially when most of their products cannot be so easily monetized. Instead, we all sit there hoping that our network will eventually reach someone who is invested enough in what we're doing to invest directly in our activities, whether through philanthropy or a commercial contract.

It's a bit of a crapshoot isn't it? Does the world really work like that?

I guess I'll just have to keep building out my network and see what happens. It obviously can't do any harm and the "it only takes a couple of seconds" tack is a powerful enough driver. I suppose I should have more faith in the system, but this is challenging when the promise of exposure is now being touted in the same way as direct financial input used to be.


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