How Eva Longoria Overnetworked A Nonprofit
…nonprofits [that] can unleash the power of social good BY
On Saturday the 25th, in a flood of tweets, it dramatically concluded. But was it worth the effort?
Can a Nonprofit Be Overnetworked?
This auction to raise funds for the Haitian orphanage, known in Web shorthand commonly as “TwitChange,” was run largely through Twitter and via a website where items like “celebrity X will follow you on Twitter for 30 days and give you one shout-out” were auctioned off for 10 days. I initially noticed it not because I was particularly interested in the cause, nor because I was following the TwitChange account, but because of the massive output of tweets from Eva Longoria, who I happened to follow at the time. Although she describes herself as an “actress, activist, and philanthopist,” thus suggesting that her followers should expect information about social causes from her, I wondered if her social good efforts went too far in this case.
The reader might question how I can question whether someone did “too much” to help a cause at all. In the name of “social good,” does the end not justify the means? I am not sure this is necessarily the case. But what I’m specifically interested in here are the rules, ethics, and behavioral standards of using social media for social good. From the standpoint of a networked nonprofit, more awareness is better as far as self interest goes. But what about for the free agents – what are their best practices?
Can one damage their personal brand by abusing their social media channel in the name of good?
I’m not conducting an overview of all networked nonprofit efforts here. And while not critiquing TwitChange and this particular cause (which seem well-intentioned enough), nor Eva Longoria, who genuinely seems to care and is far from alone in her use of “social media for social good,” I do want to use this very high-profile example of a networked nonprofit to examine some fundamental questions. They are:
(1) What are the differences between organizational and personal Twitter accounts in this context?
(2) Are there behavioral limits to the use of social media for social change?
(3) If so, what are they, and are there relevant ethics of online communication?
(4) Does “social media for social good” mean more than just awareness and fundraising?
“And the Philanthropist Spammer Of the Year Award Goes To…”
When I tweeted,
“And the Philanthropist Spammer of the Year award goes to… @EvaLongoria for http://TwitChange.com!! #spamanthropism”
I received a real-time response from the @TwitChange account:
“@cheeky_geeky that is why Twitter has the (gasp) UNFOLLOW option. Try it. Removes spam right away. Your spam is our treasure :-)”
The notion that following and unfollowing an account is the toggle between seeing its content is black-and-white, simple, and appealing (like many political arguments). But is it correct, and does it matter if the account in question is a branded, organizational account (like @TwitChange) or a personal one (like @EvaLongoria)?
Between the time when the @TwitChange was created (Sept. 2, 2010) and the end of the fundraiser (Sept. 25, 2010), the people behind the account tweeted 2,387 times to up to 16,498 followers, or roughly 100 tweets per day. Because the account started with zero followers, if we assume an average of 8,000 followers over the month of September, then the account has had a “reach” of 19,096,000 tweet-persons. That’s quite a lot, but the case can be made that if you follow the @TwitChange account, you should have known what you were in for. It’s anonymous, it’s branded, and it clearly stands for something – an event for social good.
What about following @EvaLongoria, though? As mentioned above, her Twitter bio says she’s an “actress, activist, and philanthropist,” but it’s probably safe to assume that few of her followers found her through philanthropic circles, completely unaware of her acting on Desperate Housewives, her husband the professional athlete, or the results of a Google Image search for “Eva Longoria.” Thus, it is fair to consider whether her tweets as a free agent for this cause exceed the expectations of her audience, and whether that has consquences for her and people exhibiting similar behavior.
I calculated her Twitter reach on tweets related to @TwitChange. Eva Longoria has been tweeting since Feb. 2, 2010 and has sent a total of 1,621 tweets to her followers, roughly seven tweets a day. Lately, however, she’s been tweeting a lot more, and mostly about @TwitChange. The auction proper lasted 10 days, during which the level of tweets about it were high. I looked at Eva Longoria’s tweets in the ~48 hours prior to the close of the auction at approximately 5pm EST on Sept. 25th and multiplied the average of the tweets from those two days by 10 to estimate the total tweets during the 10-day span.
Sept 25th and Sept 24th had 117 tweets and 82 tweets, respectively. Only three were not about TwitChange (they were about a San Diego Padres gala), and so there were about 100 tweets about the auction per day. That yields approximately 1,000 total tweets over the 10-day period, and when these are multiplied by her ~742,000 followers, she achieved 742,460,000 tweet-persons of “reach” – 38X that of the branded account for the actual auction.
Free agent for a networked nonprofit, indeed.
The fact that @EvaLongoria alone can reach about 38 times the number of people that the cause itself can through the same medium demonstrates not only the power of Kanter’s free agents to help causes, but also the vast amount of content that these free agents can produce into a seemingly boundless, distributed communications system. When you consider that many other celebrities also tweeted about this cause, and that they were subsequently retweeted hundreds and hundreds of times, there were ultimately BILLIONS of person-tweets of reach about this single topic.
Are There Limits To Using Social Media For Good?
When an actor or director is making a film or television show, on some level they must consider their audience. Is operating a Twitter channel any different? Thus, is sending 100 tweets per day for a week or more about a single cause what Eva Longoria’s audience on Twitter wanted?
At what point does information become pollution?
The author of this post is not without a heart, and the @TwitChange auction did raise valuable awareness and funds. From what I can tell, about $540,000 was raised that will provide aHomeInHaiti.org the means to finish rebuilding something called the Miriam Center, which houses and educates Haitian children with cerebral palsy, severe autism, and other major life challenges. Good was done here.
Nevertheless, what are the limits of social media for social good (a topic I have not heard discussed at “social good” events like the Red Cross Emergency Data Summit, the Mashable / UN Social Good Summit, or the Civic Innovators Forum)? Putting aside the issue of whether 1,000 tweets about a single cause in a 10-day period is too much, since it’s somewhat arbitrary, let’s assume that it is perfectly fine to do so. But would it be okay to have that many updates on her Facebook fan page? What about 500 Tumblr updates with photos of Haitian children? How about 300 one-minute Vimeo videos of Eva sitting in her office pleading with you to join a cause? If you are an organization running your own website, post away – but best practices for individuals for situations like this are far from clear.
One person’s spam may be another’s treasure, but to argue that (say) @EvaLongoria’s followers have simply opted into a conversation and therefore are not allowed to think that her tweets are spam is wrong on two counts: one philosophical, and one technological. On a philosophical level, when a person behind a Twitter channel transitions from talking about a variety of topics in a conversational manner a few times a day to relentlessly pounding out burstlettes of information on a single topic, that’s no longer a conversation – it’s a marketing blast. It’s an interruption. It’s probably not what the audience expects. Seth Godin would probably say that Eva Longoria made her audience a “meatball sundae” that probably didn’t taste so good.
On a technological note, Twitter users are quite likely to see messages about @TwitChange even if they hadn’t opted in by following the primary people involved. The fact that Web 2.0 enthusiasts can share easily, and widely, at nearly zero effort is both a blessing and a curse. What allows emergency information to spread to the authorities is also what forces me to see what @EvaLongoria is saying, because if someone I follow retweets her (or retweets someone who retweets her, and so on), her face and message pop up on my radar. Phones don’t work like that (i.e., if you get a phone call from a great sales person or fundraiser, you can’t “bounce” them to my phone next.) and we wouldn’t tolerate it if they did.
The Ethics Of Spamanthropism
What is a new phenomenon without some new jargon? I think spamanthropism (spam + philanthropism) is a good word to describe the kind of social media for social good that is so obnoxious that it feels like spam. Was @EvaLongoria conducting spamanthropism? Others will disagree, but it felt that way to me. And ultimately, as her audience, I have some say in how her personal brand is perceived.
Increasingly, we cannot escape from others’ social media content. It is on posters in the windows of restaurants, on blogs and websites, on professors’ slides at scientific conference. Social media is no longer opt-in. As the author of Socialnomics Erik Qualmann once quipped, word of mouth has become “world of mouth.”
What are the ethics of spamanthropism, if any? Two well-regarded bloggers and consultants, Steve Rubel and Chris Brogan, wrote a pair of great posts on the emerging ethics of social media for marketing and public relations in 2008.
In his post “Ethical Social Media Marketing,” Rubel likens the online media environment to the actual outdoor environment:
…social media marketing implies that social networks, blogs and other like channels are advertising venues. They’re not. They’re public spaces just like our great National Parks. We must respect them as such. Otherwise we’re going to pollute the environment and make them less enjoyable for everyone – especially the citizens who thrive there, just like the amazing ecosystem that thrives in places like Yellowstone.
When I asked earlier if information can become pollution, I was serious. Too much of a good thing isn’t good anymore.
Brogan has a great take on the issue in “The Ethics Imperative In Social Media”:
Essentially, ethics are our guideline of what we consider right and wrong.
In public relations and marketing, the primary goal is that those acting as an agent for an organization, their professional communicators, move the needle in some way… There are nuanced and personable ways to do this, and then there are heavy-handed, let’s just call them SPAMMY, ways to do this.
You could do that. You could spam 10,000 people to get 100 positive results to show your client. But… Everyone can blog. Everyone can put the word out that your organization is spamming them. Not only would it be less ethical to attempt to gain customers this way; it would be bad business.
Here’s the thing: Google remembers everything. And by “Google,” technically I mean the web at large. So, by extension, pretty much ALL business you do in social media can be “remembered” by anyone interested in what you’re doing, and where you’ve been, and what comes next.
In a world where the entire space around you “remembers” your choices and your actions, do you have much in the way of an alternative but to operate ethically?
Chris Brogan’s comment about “spamming 10,000 people to get 100 results for a client” sounds relevant for our discussion. In the case of @EvaLongoria, she raised less than $1 per Twitter follower (again, discounting the primary branded account for the auction, the many other celebrities also tweeting, and the hundreds and hundreds of retweets and other word of mouth). This plays into Brian Solis’ recent commentary on how clickthrough rates for causes like this play into what he is calling the ‘egosystem’ of Twitter. There is indeed some academic debate about how “influential” some well-followed celebrities actually are; see a new Northwestern University study on this.
Furthermore, there is no reasonable person in her or other celebrity’s audiences who supports every cause, and thus even if a person cared deeply about the Miriam Center, what cause might the celebrities they follow collude to support next? Saving the California coastline? Rebuilding schools in New Orleans? Helping the young women of Afghanistan?
How will people deal with the coming onslaught of spamanthropism? Will “free agents” have decreased influence due to cause oversaturation? Will tools, services, features, and apps be developed to better screen incoming information, like we have for email? Will there be a Congressional hearing to talk about the issue as an extension of telemarketing (and would celebrities defend the practice in that event)?
What Does “Social Media For Social Good” Really Mean?
In the case of the TwitChange auction, was what they did the best way to go about helping the Miriam Center? Bidders stayed home and clicked. Celebrities stayed home and followed some of the winners. A total of $540,000 was raised, yes – but what is that as a percentage of the net worth of the celebrities who participated? Very little. Why didn’t five passionate people just pool $100,000 each, deliver it in person, record videos of themselves in Haiti, and write a meaningful story about it for The Huffington Post?
Few if any people were activated to do anything in real life, despite all the online attention and perceived celebrity power involved here. Looking at it a different way, if Justin Bieber’s 5.4 million followers had each contributed 10 cents, the same amount of money could have been raised. Were participants truly “Changing the world, one tweet at a time” (as the TwitChange.com website suggests) from their laptops?
Malcolm Gladwell, writing in The New Yorker a piece called Small Change: Why the revolution will not be tweeted, after describing and analyzing a similar situation (that of Darfur awareness and fundraising on Facebook), “Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice… It makes it easier for activists to express themselves, and harder for that expression to have any impact.”
There is a larger question here about “social media for social good,” as discussed at the recent Mashable / UN Social Good Summit in New York. In the context of that event, social media leading to social good amounted to two primary things: awareness and fundraising. In other words, use social media to cajole people – “free agents” – to talk about your cause, and point eyeballs to a place where some people will donate. This works, no doubt about it. And some operations, like Edward Norton’s CrowdRise, are increasingly sophisticated (and not spammy) about how social media is used for this awareness and fundraising. One must ask, though, is this all there is to social media for social change?
Returning to part of Beth Kanter’s definition of a networked nonprofit for a minute, note the boldface below (my emphasis):
Free agents use social-media channels like Facebook and Twitter and can create social movements in the palms of their hands. They organize supporters, raise attention to important social and political issues, seek donations, and organize supporters to walk, run, shout, protest, and vote, things that were once done mostly by nonprofit organizations.
The networked nonprofit is – definitionally, at least – about more than awareness and fundraising. It’s also about activating people to do things in real life.
Leading a Tribe For Sustainable Social Good
What might be a better model for leveraging social networks for social good than @TwitChange? Perhaps something more along the lines of Summit Series. The tribe of young men who lead the global Summit Series network of ~2000 alumni have not merely generated high-quality awareness and fundraising through traditional and digital channels. Their events connect top young minds to create a new generation of young leaders to succeed in life and do good using pillars of Innovation, Business, Altruism, Personal Growth, Arts, and Revelry. As Summit Series co-founder Jeff Rosenthal says on his website,
Summit Series is a progression of invitation-only events which bring together the country’s most innovative, leading young entrepreneurs and influencers together with renowned brands, companies, and the most important thinkers of today.
Their network of speakers and attendees include leaders from organizations like LiveStrong, UNICEF, Teach For America, Invisible Children, The Robin Hood Foundation and many more, not to mention professors, corporate executives, entrepreneurs, athletes, and many other diverse leaders. There are relatively few “celebrities” involved, but attendance by many influential and powerful people in niches is strong. Summit Series events are specifically structured to encourage attendees to learn about great organizations and social causes (not to mention other topics) in real-life social settings and volunteer not just their money but their time in the real world.
Perhaps that’s the key differentiator here – some people see “social media for social good” as a technological way to hold a short-term traditional fundraiser or advocacy campaign that ends the second the website closes. Others – I think, the visionaries – see it as an empowering way to assemble a long-lasting non-traditional tribe that becomes a self-sustaining force for social good. One does easily quantifiable good in a brief time frame; it’s very easy to say “Raised $540,000 – we did good!” But the other does difficult-to-quantify good on a long-term time frame; it’s not very easy to quantify the value of making a human connection that opens a door for you to activate yourself to do good in the world.
Networked nonprofits and their free agents utilizing social media in isolation may not be able to build the emotional connections that truly power sustainable social change. The connection between social media and social good will continue to be an interesting – and controversial – topic to observe in the near future.
Mark Drapeau is the Editor-in-Chief of Publicyte and the Director of Innovative Engagement in Microsoft’s Office of Civic Innovation.
Cartoon from Jonny Goldstein and used under a Creative Commons license. Social network graph from Marc Smith and used under CC. Urban Spam from Lightening-Rod Man and used under CC. Photos of Eva Longoria Parker and Justin Bieber from Wikipedia.