Yesterday marked Facebook's four year anniversary, or to look at it from the college perspective to which the site owes its success: Facebook graduated. Washington Post assistant editor Rachel Dry, who was a senior at Harvard when Mark Zuckerberg launched thefacebook.com from his college dorm room on February 4, 2004, wrote a commencement address for The New Republic. In it, Dry wonders if Facebook is taking "on the big inequities," as Bill Gates -- like Zuckerberg, a famous Harvard dropout -- urged in his commencement speech at the university last year. We wondered the same thing.

Last week, we wrote about how Twitter, our Best Web LittleCo of 2007, was quickly morphing into a viable platform for serious discussion. One can see that happening today, as Super Tuesday primary elections take place across the US and people report and debate the results across Twitter. But what about Facebook? It was, afterall, our Best Web BigCo of last year, one that we called a "company that really came of age this year; and [...] was the catalyst for some important Web trends."

So we started wondering, could Facebook be a catalyst for something else: social change. Dry mentions the Causes application on Facebook, and groups which "connect thousands of people with common interests in humanitarian efforts." Dry also talks about Facebook as an organizational tool, writing, "it's very easy for people to organize races for cures and alert their 547 nearest and dearest to articles on under-covered international tragedies."

Facebook as a Vehicle for Social Change

Indeed, on Facebook's graduation day a massive political protest in Colombia demonstrated Facebook's power to rally people to a cause. Monday afternoon hundreds of thousands of Colombians took to the streets to protest the Marxist rebel group FARC. Estimates on the crowd size ranged from 500,000 to 2 million people, which in and of itself isn't all that extraordinary -- millions of people get together to protest things all the time. What is extraordinary, is that the protest was organized largely online through Facebook.

A Facebook event page created by protest organizers attracted over 106,000 confirmed guests with 18,000 maybes. Almost 320,000 people were invited to the event, which demonstrates the ability for Facebook to get the word out to a massive number of people about social and political issues, quickly and effectively.

Another example of someone successfully using Facebook to enact change is the "For Every 1,000 that join this group I will donate $1 for Darfur," which was started by NYU student Marek Grodzicki. The group has 424,000 members -- or $424 -- and Grodzicki is renewing his pledge for next year. That may not be a lot of money, but it's almost half a million people who may now be more aware of an issue because a single person was able to reach them simply by announcing an altruistic act on Facebook and letting viral nature of social networking take over.

But how common are examples like the FARC protest and the Darfur donation group? It's really hard to tell, but what we can look at, is the effectiveness of the previously mentioned Causes application to raise money. Just how charitable are Facebook users? It turns out... not very. Or at least, Facebook isn't prompting people to be charitable -- they may give plenty via other channels.

The Causes app, which allows anyone to create a cause and link it to a registered non-profit organization in the US or Canada, is one of the most popular on Facebook with 10.8 million registered users. Because Causes interfaces with Network for Good, users can set up donation pages for thousands of charities, making it difficult to figure out how successful the application is as a whole. However, looking at the top five campaigns by users, the results aren't so promising in terms of money raised:

Cause Users Donations Per User
Cancer Research 3,005,750 $58,520 $0.02
Stop Global Warming 1,681,907 $20,908 $0.01
Animal Rights 1,232,162 $19,423 $0.02
Against Child Abuse 927,120 $7,685 $0.01
Save Darfur 800,674 $12,528 $0.02

Clearly, these are important issues that a lot of people care about, but the application isn't doing much to inspire people to donate money to the causes. An average of 1 to 2 cents per user isn't really anything to write home about.

Recently, the Causes app held a contest in which it gave out a $50,000 top prize to the organization that collected the most donations over a six week span. That's a great idea because even organizations that don't land the $50,000 prize theoretically see an increase in donations. The Giving Challenge began on December 14th and ended on February 1st, and though the official results won't be announced until later in the month, unofficial results predict the "Love Without Boundaries Foundation" as the winner of the top prize with 4,564 donors. The participants in the Giving Challenge, who were mostly smaller charities, have much higher per user giving rates than the larger causes -- "Love Without Boundaries," for example, has a per user average over $15.

But even while the challenge made the Causes app a successful fundraising tool for a handful of small charities, it also exposed the same sort of apathy (at least when it comes to giving) that the top causes seem to deal with. As part of the competition, Causes gave out a daily $1,000 prize to the charity that had the most donors each day. Except for the final week, when a couple of charities were making a big push for the top prize, the daily winner generally had under 100 donors. That may seem like a lot, but with over 30 million people in the US and Canada over the age of 16, it still feels somewhat underwhelming.

However, even if Causes isn't doing much to raise money, it is potentially doing a lot to raise awareness. When just the top 5 causes reach about 7.5 million people, that's pretty powerful stuff. Further, each cause is given a group page that has familiar Facebook tools like a wall -- the Cancer Research cause, for example, has nearly 8,000 wall posts. Giving 3 million people a platform to discuss something they're passionate about and raise awareness -- whether or not it leads to money donated -- points to Facebook's potential as a powerful social tool.

The bad news for Causes is that like other applications on Facebook, it has recently appeared susceptible to app fatigue. It still has a huge installed based, but its active user base has been sliced to about 1/4th of what it was just a few months ago.

Conclusion

So is Facebook really a viable platform for social change? I think it can be. But like any new platform, we're still learning how to use it most successfully. There have been some major successes -- like the FARC protest and the participants in the Causes Giving Challenge -- but also some less than stellar performances.

Facebook still has some growing up to do. But as the user base gets older and more comfortable with the site, and as developers and organizers figure out the best ways to exploit Facebook to precipitate social change, it certainly could become a very important tool in any organizer's arsenal.

What do you think? Can Facebook be a serious platform for eliciting social change? Or will it never be more than a place to play Scrabulous and poke friends? Can it ever work for real fundraising? Share your thoughts in the comments below.