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Nonprofits should use social media to enfranchise communities

With so many mission-driven organizations (MDOs) pursuing social media strategies to increase their social impact, the question must be asked: “how will new technology assist organizations achieve more authentic engagement with the marginalized communities they serve?” Is that even on our radar?

If not, it should be. As nonprofits realize the fundraising and awareness campaigning benefits of social media, they should also consider the potential for connecting better with marginalized people.

So much of the nonprofit work is about enfranchising subgroups that fall out of the cultural mainstream. We fight against poverty and communal instability with a moral certainty found in few other fields. Because class, race, and culture can impose a gap between us and those we serve, it is important to find better ways of engaging communities. Social media offers yet another opportunity for us to get that right.

Members of the Facebook data team have a study analyzing how they might estimate ethnicity and “assortive” cross-racial networking behavior of their users. The information could give us great insight into social behavior and race.

The ethnicity of a user base is an important demographic indicator that can be used for marketing, compliance, and analytics as well as a scientific tool for understanding social behavior and increasing diversity through outreach efforts.

Though the authors note commercial purposes first, their subsequent mention of “increasing diversity through outreach efforts” should be magnified for MDOs serving marginalized communities. Urban core and rural nonprofits can always use tools and strategies that maximize their connection with target audiences. Unfortunately, the promise of new technology rarely finds an application for improving the vexing problem of engaging diverse communities.

But, there is a powerful bit of hope in the study:

First, the findings of assortative mixing are possibly the most important piece of behavioral analysis. While we have only presented a snapshot in time, this analysis could very easily be extended over a period of time to understand how relationships evolve as Facebook grows and friendships grow over time.

Mikhail Lyubansky, Ph.D has an insightful piece in Psychology Today. He directly confronts the myth that we can improve race-related societal issues by refusing to consider or speak of race. The argument for going that direction is that we can extinguish the power of racism by ignoring race. Thankfully Dr. Lyubansky – and others – provides an alternative understanding that is data-driven and socially purposed:

To be sure, it is unlikely that we will ever associate Facebook, Twitter, and Linkedin with racially progressive scholarship, but having these data available to social scientists would allow large-scale modeling of a variety of different online behaviors, including social networks.  As just one example, access to racial data would allow social scientists to better understand what contributes to racial segregation and, in turn, better understand the factors that might predispose racial inclusion.  With access to data, the possibilities for greater understanding and, ultimately, for social change, are limited only by our imagination. Without the data, we are left to wonder and, perhaps, to assume that virtual communities don’t have the same racial dynamics and prejudices as the real world.  They do, of course — online communities show the same patterns of racial segregation as are observed off line — a fact that we know only because we have some racial data from the social media sites.

I couldn’t agree more. The solutions to complex human issues are not found in the absence of data, but in data analysis and rigor. If social media is the next great tool of the middle-class masses, and if nonprofits are now consulted on how to make this tool work for their purposes, then it is fair to assume considerable efforts will be made to include marginalized communities.

Media Make Change is a group that seems to have figured this out. For example, their use of social media for activism gives readers a world away the ability to hear directly the voice of Haitian survivors.

Eszter Hargiattai has done great work considering the digital divide (including “The Digital Reproduction”) and analyzing social media usage.

Others should follow suit.

We have found a million ways to engage America’s consumer classes, even as corporations attempt to one up each other on how to do it now. But, for nonprofits the mission is a bit different and so is the customer. Social media for us should represent a new way to connect with the disenfranchised.

Social media is not the new Y2k

Within the last few weeks I’ve hear more than a little cynicism about social media and its importance. Another consultant expressed a particularly funny story about a “Twitter consultant” that has separated some unfortunate souls from their hard earned cash. Another corporate insider relayed a tale of corporateers without technical competence being promoted into “social media” task teams.

When you see trendy business conferences with headlines like “Join the Real-Time Revolution” it can induce sighs and eye rolling. It gets even worse when you start seeing uses of new technology that lack integrity, such as spreading political half-truths, planting bogus product recommendations and “spying” on one’s competition.

It’s sad that any new promising technology must fend off the evils of humanity’s ever-present crooked population. In the same way that the internet created an explosively democratic global information exchange – unlike any other in human history – it didn’t do so without early penetration by scummy scammers, identity thieves, and pornographers. One nasty by-product of the e-vil doers is that they make people jaded about new technology, and they draw regulatory scrutiny.

Take, for instance, the case of a software developer that abused the trust-based average-person-writes-a-product-review honor system:

Reverb Communications, based in Twain Harte, California, has worked with several video game developers, and employees of the firm posted several positive reviews of their clients’ video games at iTunes between November 2008 and May 2009, the FTC said in its complaint, filed this year. Reverb engaged in deceptive advertising by using iTunes account names that gave readers the impression the reviews were written by disinterested consumers, the FTC said.

So, I get it. We’ve been hurt before and now we have commitment issues.

We’ve been duped by the overblown marketing and supposed life changing nature of things that didn’t pan out – or panned in the wrong direction. We lived through Y2K consulting projects. We now see that the Segway will not revolutionize transportation. We know that the Generation X phenomena featured in “Reality Bites” will not, in fact, demand massive flexibilities in corporate America (that fatally ’90s notion is dead in the recessionary ’00s).

However, that does not mean all new things must die a death of defensive disregard. Social media is different if for no other reason than it has already delivered more than it promised and more than was expected.

All of the chic unaffectedness aside, social media is an animal you will disregard at your own peril. You will either recognize it and attempt to domesticate it for your household, or you will be ravaged by it and wander 40 years in communication desert.

The Vimeo video posted by Dwayne Koh is brilliant (if not a little loud and in your face). It illustrates what dry text on static pages could tell – social media has already surpassed your cynicism.

Social Media from dwayne koh on Vimeo.

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