Why research social media? Why non-profits? Why the environment?
If you have questions about my research, I have answers! Actually, I probably have a few questions for you, too.
Social Media: Where is Web 2.0 going, and how do we know when we get there?
Recently, there has been a great deal of debate regarding the value and potential of social media. Most of the “value” debate circulates through marketing and financial circles, while the “potential” is frequently cited in the media, as well as academic journals focusing on social justice, communications technology, or social movements.
Still, the conversation ping-pongs back and forth. Have we entered a new age of virtual action? Is digitized people power poised to deliver social, political, and environmental justice by way of crowdfunding, retweets, and public pressure? Or is “armchair activism” (aka slacktivism) just another way for millennials to stay inside the house? Can these two definitions peacefully co-exist? Or does one necessitate the destruction of the other?
As a millennial, former corporate cog, environmental nonprofit staff member, volunteer organizer, and chronic social media over-sharer — I struggle with these questions as much as anyone. Well, more specifically, I also struggle with the struggle over these questions.
While scholars, cultural critics, and marketing managers have hypothesized, calculated, critiqued, measured, and graphed trends, approaches, metrics, and methods — very few have reached the root of the question.
And as my dad always says, “if you want to know the answer to a question, ask.”
(Thanks, Dad. This turned out to be useful advice.)
Non-Profits and the Environment: Can the virtual world save the earth?
Obviously, no one is better poised to understand the connections between operational management, political advocacy, social awareness, and environmental security than non-profit environmental organizations.
Hundreds (if not thousands) of papers, blogs, and articles have been written on social media for non-profits, often focusing on the financial benefits of online networking, the potential for organizational and issue awareness, and the ability to engage and mobilize volunteer networks, both online and off. However, relatively little has been discussed beyond surface explanations, which are often compiled by outside sources.
So, why don’t we ask?
Clearly, organizations have a strong interest in social media, as 98% of US charities and nonprofits are active on at least one social media site, with YouTube (97%), Facebook (92%) and Twitter (86%) leading the way. As a result, non-profit organizations are spending valuable time, energy, and other resources crafting campaigns, creating posts, and interacting with current and potential supporters.
So, what is it about social media that drives this participation? Is it working? How? What is it about social media that can turn a single tweet into a march, or a Facebook post into a bill? How does the virtual world interact with our material planet? How can tweets save a rainforest or keep the air we breathe clean? What are some of the challenges that non-profits face when creating or implementing a new campaign? What could platforms do to better support them? What is the “value” of social media when it comes to social good?
I believe that the answers to these questions are more complex than “everyone is online, and they’re online because everyone is online,” and I realize that the best people to ask are those committing their time, energy, and resources to connecting with social media, finding out what works, or working with what they find.
After all, anyone can blog about social media, but it takes more than a trendy platform to get that same anyone writing about you.
These big questions, and the smaller ones supporting them, have led me to build a MA research project around non-profit social media and the environment, which is primarily concerned with learning more about how environmental non-profits think about, work with, and evaluate social media in their organizations.
Hopefully, this project will lead to a clearer picture of the battle between digital action and slacktivism, improve our understanding of virtual-material connections, and serve to inform non-profit organizers, platforms, academic research, and even those pesky cultural critics.
How does this all work?
My research is primarily informed through brief informational interviews over the phone. If you work for an environmental non-profit working to change the world through online technology, I’d love to speak with you about your organization, your mission, your goals, and hear your thoughts on social media.
Feel free to email me or send me a tweet! I will also be updating this research blog as my project progresses, so click the link (on the right) to follow or subscribe in order to stay up-to-date on my research and social media resources.