Today, Americans are celebrating a very somber but inspiring national holiday: Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
As Twitter co-founder Biz Stone wrote in a blog post a few days ago, "People all over the United States are urged to honor Dr. King's legacy by making this holiday a national day of service." Stone reminded us of this wonderful quotation by King: "Life's most persistent and urgent question is: What are you doing for others?"
But often in my sojourn through the social Web, I find myself with no decent answer for that question as I watch hordes of well-meaning people throw their supposed social capital at hashtags and fan pages without doing anything more meaningful than that. What do you think: Is your "whuffie" enough of a donation to a good cause?
"What are you doing?" "What's going on?" The questions most often asked of us by the social Web are essentially navel-gazing. In a recent post about a startup devoted to self-reference, I wrote, "Answering questions all about you, your preferences, your past, your thoughts, your wishes and hopes, your regrets, what you eat and where you live - nothing is more intoxicating to the average social media user. From our first LiveJournal entries to mid-2000s MySpace chain surveys to our latest tweets, we clearly love talking about ourselves."
If the visibility of humanitarian topics in social media is any indication of a trend, we clearly love aligning ourselves with good causes, as well. Sometimes, it seems to me that the latest global tragedy or incurable disease is used as simply another hue on the social Web's palette - something we use to paint pictures of ourselves.
For example, in 2009, I saw waves of green Twitter avatars and locations of "Tehran" as #iranelection peaked on Twitter's trending topics. But what did any of us actually do to help the citizens on the ground there? The green pro-free Iran icons really did nothing to help the folks getting wounded and killed in Iran. And the new "censored" Twitter avatars we're seeing? Well, since Twitter's blocked in most countries that are aggressively censoring Web content, it does absolutely no good.
As Kiva fellow and social media philanthropist Sloane Berrent told me a few months ago, "People are so fast to click a button, and that can be great. Retweeting, forwarding and Facebook walls are great engagements. But what's more difficult is the donate button. That's the big hurdle and disconnect."
In other words, from Haitians to humanitarians, they all wish we'd put our money where our mouths (or status updates) are.
Our latest international disaster was Haiti's earthquake last week. I'm sure many of the folks reading this post did a lot to help via donations to the Red Cross and other organizations, but how often can we say that our social media or other actions are truly doing something for others? And how often are those actions as ineffective as a lapel pin on a politician or as meaningless as a prayer on the lips of a hypocrite? In many cases, the social media user is doing nothing for others, but is instead highlighting his own awareness and sociopolitical "involvement."
There are some organizations such as SocialVibe (scroll to the last part of the post) or Drew Olanoff's Blame Drew's Cancer campaign that allow brands to foot the bill for fundraising as users simply point and click their way through Web interfaces to show their support. And there's no doubt that social media tools have made it easier for struggling groups to communicate their needs for help. But by and large, I believe that our social media actions don't do nearly as much for others as they do for us ourselves.
Perhaps, before we fire off rant-replete blog posts or make our avatars into 50 x 50 pixel political statements, we should ask ourselves the question Dr. King posed so many years ago: "What does my action DO for others?" And on the flip side of that coin, "What does my action do for me?"
If the answers to those questions embarrass you, take a step back, make a sizeable donation to a related humanitarian organization, then post away and tell others how much you donated and to whom, and create channels for others to do the same.
What do you think? Am I completely wrong; is awareness and communication through social media the "new" currency for donating to a good cause? What points have I missed in my thought process? Let me know your opinions in the comments, and also share how you plan to make your actions count for others today.