Wednesday, 12 December 2012

Endangering the social media geese with the golden huevos

I sometimes send small donations to this or that worthy cause and consider it an adult responsibility to do so. But I have no illusions that this in any way substitutes for more concrete forms of civic or political action—it’s a check or a tick on a Web form, nothing more.

That’s why I am eager to warn the myriad groups now milking social media for their livelihood not to squeeze the ample teats of Twitter, Facebook and the more traditional email campaigns too tightly lest they dry up the juice entirely. Here’s an example:

I was walking home a few hours ago and received a cell call from a number in the Bronx that I did not recognize. It was Working Families, a New York-based alternative party whose organizing and campaigns I have found admirable and well considered. They sometimes run candidates but more often engage in direct action and public education while not above backing a local progressive Democrat against some awful creep. Currently the main force behind the anti-fracking drive, a topic close to our hearts (and noses) here in New York State, they’re clever, strategic and capable of nuance. I like them and allowed them to have my number via one of their many online petition drives.

The lad who was working their phones asked me if I knew who they were, reminded me of their good works and promptly laid into The Pitch. I interrupted him to say that I would gladly make a donation but was much more interested in what he was asking me to DO, rather than how much money I was going to GIVE. I repeated that I promised to send something but insisted that he tell me what was on their agenda of organizing and agitation.

He couldn’t. Instead, the poor kid slipped back into his prepared text and started to give me the payment options, the suggested monthly amounts, and the ease with which I could express my solidarity with humanity if I would Just Say Yes. Nothing about trying to speak with my state senator, who happens to live on the next block, no request to take the anti-fracking petition door to door in my apartment building, no alert about the next demonstration or upcoming educational seminar, absolutely nada—except to reach into my pocket and fork over what I find there.

Hey, I understand. These groups need cash, and the Internet is a magic money mountain. You tap into it, and the bucks flow out in satisfyingly predictable amounts. So it’s tempting to turn to it again and again. But we know from direct mail campaigns how quickly these tactics burn themselves out and sink into decadence. Groups still make money on them, but what does steady cash for the Sierra Club or Amnesty International have to do with social movements? They’re largely divorced from each other, and these inert mailings (and now Facebook hustles) are part of the over-oiled machinery of the do-gooder nonprofits.

I say all this as a frequent contributor and an inveterate do-gooder myself, so it’s not a question of going broke out of ideological purity. But I wish all these entities would remember that every time they approach their potential allies with their hands held out is one less opportunity to engage with us about the actual work they are doing and how to join up with it.

It’s all well and good to dip their nets into the pond in hopes of bringing up a few lumps of needed gold. But please, pitchmen, beggars and donation scroungers all, put the actual WORK that we all can do up on top. If your labors are essential and we’re actually a meaningful part of them, we won’t mind being reminded that someone has to pay for them, too. On the other hand, if you only love me for my bank account, let me tell you something: I already know how it feels to be treated like a john.

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