Are you a nonprofit marketing person, reaching out to influencers? Are you attempting to get some media coverage for your nonprofit?

I answer the Stanford Social innovation Review’s idea that we need to “reach out to influencers” as a way to make money for our nonprofits, with the triple-whammy of Chris Hedges, Jacob Lanier and Phil Cubeta. You want to manipulate bloggers personal networks to make people give? Is this a friendly action?
manipulate blogger opinion
At first, i was all excited about big data, nonprofits and social media! Utopia! We’re going to jump over those gatekeepers and get our nonprofits the media they deserve!

My illusions about measuring social relationships came crashing down, reading Phil Cubeta’s GiftHub post on Markets for Good. He writes,

“What we need is a real critique of the underlying assumptions.  Seeing like a State and Discipline and Punish come to mind. “Knowledge/Power” is Foucault’s way to expressing the connection between Big Data, as we now call it and top down control by technocrats who demand a simplification of reality, including the most personal side of life, so that it fits into a database and can be managed by the numbers.”

That is pretty awful, thinking of all of these relationships that you build, and then turning them into numbers for your nonprofit… and Phil does have a point. We should not attempt to oversimplify relationships, or commodify them.

This sort of tracking, and using your personal network to fundraise, makes me wary of big data and what is being tracked. Of course, Phil’s referring to grantmaking and funders, but he could just as easily be referring to the corporate board members that fill our nonprofits, insisting on metrics and ROI for our social media relationships. At nonprofits we want to measure everything, much to our detriment, mostly because funders demand it.

Relationships DO give a return, just not always a clear-cut one that aligns with end of year fundraising numbers. How can you measure the power of a person posting about your cause on their facebook wall, or tweeting about it? What is that ROI? What’s that reach? What are THOSE numbers? You see how de-humanizing the question becomes?

But where does this need for measuring relationships come from? Let’s look at the history of marketing.

  1. At first, marketers gave us products we needed, like a more efficient sewing machine.  We bought products because we needed them.
  2. Then, as marketing grew more sophisticated, and the number of products grew, companies used branding to help differentiate between themselves and competitors, even if there was no significant difference. So we bought products because we wanted them.
  3. Now, we buy intangible things like ideas. How can one buy an idea? We buy the idea of time. How? We buy our time back in the form of corporate managed vacations. Guy De Bord writes in Society of the Spectacle,

“In its most advanced sectors, a highly concentrated capitalism has begun selling “fully equipped” blocks of time, each of which is a complete commodity combining a variety of other commodities. This is the logic behind the appearance, within an expanding economy of “services” and leisure activities, of the “all-inclusive” purchase of spectacular forms of housing, of collective pseudo-travel”

As a nonprofit, you are selling an idea, the idea that giving to you will make the world better. This is tricky, because there’s no physical product that people are buying (usually) but also powerful, because we have something that corporations would kill to have, a feel-good mission that people can make meaning out of. One thing we never have enough of is meaning in our lives. And no product you can buy will create meaning for you.

If you’re getting people to donate to a cause, that’s one thing. But in social media, you create real friendships. You have an audience of people that trust you not to sell out. Now nonprofits and for-profits alike would like us to quantify our personal relationships, to better SELL OUR PERSONAL RELATIONSHIPS. Do you see why I have a problem with this?

Chris Hedges writes on Truthdig, “The Internet has become one more tool hijacked by corporate interests to accelerate our cultural, political and economic decline. The great promise of the Internet, to open up dialogue, break down cultural barriers, promote democracy and unleash innovation and creativity, has been exposed as a scam. The Internet is dividing us into antagonistic clans, in which we chant the same slogans and hate the same enemies, while our creative work is handed for free to Web providers who use it as bait for advertising.”

you are not a gadget by Jacob Lanier

Jaron Lanier, the “father of virtual reality technology,” in his new book “You Are Not a Gadget,” warns us of this frightening new collectivism. He notes that the habits imposed by the Internet have reconfigured how we relate to each other. He writes that “Web 2.0,” “Open Culture,” “Free Software” and the “Long Tail” have become enablers of this new collectivism. He cites Wikipedia which consciously erases individual voices as an example of the rise of mass collective thought and mass emotions. Privacy, honesty and self-reflection are instantly obliterated.

Tastes and information on the Internet are determined by the crowd, what Lanier calls the hive mentality. Music, books, journalism, commercials and bits of television shows and movies, along with inane YouTube videos, are thrust onto our screens and into national consciousness because of the statistical analysis of Internet crowd preferences. Lanier says that one of the biggest mistakes he and other computer scientists made when the Internet was developed was allowing contributions to the Internet to go unpaid. He says decisions such as this have now robbed people, especially those who create, of their ability to make a living and ultimately the capacity for dignity. Digital collectivism, he warns, is destroying the dwindling vestiges of authentic creativity and innovation, including journalism, which takes time, investment and self-reflection. And while there are a few sites that do pay for content—Truthdig being one—the vast majority are parasites.

The only income left for most of those who create is earned through self-promotion, but as Lanier points out this turns culture into nothing but advertising. It fosters a social ethic in which the capacity for crowd manipulation is more highly valued than truth, beauty or thought.

THINK ABOUT THAT LAST SENTENCE. Capacity for crowd manipulation is more highly valued than truth, beauty or thought!

This is what happens to me when people contact me saying “hey, love your blog, now PROMOTE MY STUFF!” It’s so… thoughtless. they have never read my blog. it’s obvious. They’ve never retweeted me. They’ve never commented. It’s ridiculous.

And yet the utopian promoters of the Internet tell us that the hive mind, the vast virtual collective, will propel us toward a brave new world. Lanier dismisses such visions as childish fantasy, one that allows many well-intentioned people to be seduced by an evolving nightmare.

is this really the end of the ladder of engagement?

Are we looking at a whirlpool?

At the Stanford Social Innovation review, the bloggers are attempting to find out how nonprofits should be measuring social media engagement, and how to connect with influencers, what makes the most difference, and should we throw out the idea of the ladder of engagement entirely? The full article is here.

They seem to think that a VORTEX is what we need to visualize when communicating with slacktivists and donors. I don’t see how this gives us any way to see where people are, and what needs to happen next. I also see this as pandering to the “influence” demographic that Hedges and Lanier talked about earlier, where all that matters is hijacking a person’s personal network for the nonprofit’s ultimate gain.

On this chart, you want to get bloggers to write about you. But to what end? Is THIS going to make people donate?

Hijacking someone’s network, is this the act of a friend? Is this something nonprofits should enter into? What about morals? What about ethics? What about real human relationships with your donors?

I may be more than a little worked up about this issue, as people come to me several times a week to ask me to promote their content on my blog, to use my network for their own gain, but I believe that we need to not just buy blindly into the corporate models of communication and assume that they apply to us.

I believe we need to ask ourselves, how is our nonprofit truly going to grow and be sustainable?

Is it through manipulating as many people as possible online?

Or is it getting outside, meeting our donors, looking them sincerely in the eye, and asking them to help us make the change we want to see?

What do you think?