February marks the 10th anniversary of Facebook. These ten years have revolutionized the way we communicate, organize, fundraise, advertise, network, and relate to one another. Words like “like,” “share,” “tag,” “wall,” and most of all “friend” have taken on new meanings.
There are reasons to be skeptical about all of this. See, for instance, Jacqueline Pfeffer Merrill’s recent article about the increasing loss of privacy and social trust. There are other reasons to be optimistic. A new generation of civic leaders and philanthropists is finding ways to connect and reconnect our local communities using the best of technology. We should do everything we can to encourage the community-affirming potentials of social media.
Just as the internet was being commercialized in the late 1980s, the localist political scientist Frank Bryan and former Reagan advisor John McClaughry wrote in The Vermont Papers about their vision of
technology correctly applied—to bring people together and reassociate them with the world they live in. It perfects the capacity for human interaction, not estrangement. Most important, it expands human options, generates a healthy chaos of activity, and empowers individuals to actually offend systems. Concentration is replaced by diffusion, hierarchy by networks, authority by democracy, rigidity by adaptability, conservatism by innovation, and symmetry by variety. While technology in service of what we call the "systems axiom" forces the individual to accept the "one best way"—even to the point of servitude, technology in service of the ‘community axiom’ frees individuals to choose ways which best serve human need.
Facebook came to Hillsdale College over a year after Mark Zuckerberg founded it at Harvard. I made my profile on May 7, 2005, despite some initial reluctance. A friend finally talked me into joining because it would allow me to catch up with old high-school friends. It was final exams week then, and we were all busy making Facebook connections. Someone started a group page for Hillsdale students entitled, “We forgot to study for our finals because we were distracted by Facebook.”
But we got used to social media. Today, Facebook is being used to encourage things like studying. Hillsdale College’s Online Courses Facebook page has nearly 77,000 likes. Scholarly articles, videos of academic lectures and debates, witty memes and brilliant quotes—all of these get passed through social media, along with plenty of nonsense of course.
And today’s social media is as much a way to get people engaged in their local communities as it is a way to connect people globally.
Any local nonprofit organization, club, or neighborhood association can start its own Facebook page or Twitter profile. Organizations can share news, videos, photos, and website links. They can recruit members, raise awareness of issues, and advertise events. From churches to historical societies, and from bridge clubs to food banks, civil society is growing and evolving through its social media presence.
Social media helps with fundraising too. One growing charitable innovation is “Giving Tuesday,” a social media-driven campaign to boost donations and voluntarism for local charities the week after Thanksgiving. Efforts like these resonate with young philanthropists. According to the 2013 Millennial Impact Report, young Americans are most likely to get involved in philanthropy or community service through the internet.
Online crowd funding for charities is constantly growing. Network for Good, Causes.com, DonorsChoose.org, Razoo.com, CharitySub.org, and Kiva.org are among the many platforms available for online fundraising. While donations through these websites often benefit large national or international nonprofits, they also benefit local charities. Community foundations across the country are getting in on the action of crowd funding with twenty-four-hour “Give Big” online events such as the one sponsored by the Seattle Foundation last spring in which 5,400 individuals gifted $11.1 million among 1,300 organizations.
The impact of social media on local civic engagement goes beyond the nonprofit arena. In my political campaigns, I have found social media an indispensable tool for grassroots involvement: getting people to come to events, recruiting volunteers for doorbelling and postcard writing, and sharing news about day-to-day activities that piques interests and generates discussion. Social media doesn’t replace face to face campaigning, but it promotes and supplements it. It does this in a way that a TV attack ad, a glossy mailer bound for the trash can, or an annoying robocall could never do. Through MeetUp and other platforms, liberals and conservatives have organized some of their most effective local networks of the last decade.
Neighbors are connecting with each other too, joining Facebook Group pages to encourage turnout at city council or planning commission meetings in which decisions are made about zoning, street improvement, or neighborhood safety.
There are many reasons for optimism about the possibilities of “technology correctly applied,” to repeat Bryan and McClaughry. Online social networks have the capacity to affirm and promote genuine social capital. Thoughtful civic and philanthropic leaders should continue to labor together to make social media work for our communities.