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I find that whenever I need to say something difficult - like “I totally disagree with you” or “I think you're a jerk” or even “I’d like to go out with you” – it’s always easier to do that while leaning on technology. I'll say things over email or text that I might have a harder time saying in person. Similarly, it’s amazing to see some of the nasty, negative, and frankly, unproductive things people will say in online forums or blog comments when they can anonymously post a cheap shot with a couple of clicks.
I finally got around to watching Up in the Air this week, and its commentary on the sometimes inappropriate use of technology struck me. Even though the characters make a living off of firing people, they were convinced that there are times when face-to-face interaction provides dignity in a way that technology can't. Firing someone via Skype or ending a relationship via text is not ok. When you can easily forget that there's a person on the other side of that social media system, it also becomes much easier to shoot off an impersonal response.
The same can be true for people trying to leverage social media for a cause. I recently heard a suggestion that an important way to reach Millennial donors is to ask them face to face. This seems counter-intuitive at first because we are the digital natives. We are comfortable communicating, banking, shopping, dating - you name it - online, but maybe that's the problem. Online tools can make it too easy to be faceless and treat others like they are faceless as well, so as individuals, we find ourselves not only posting snarky comments, but also saying no, no and no to fundraising appeals, votes in online contests, surveys and volunteer opportunities.
But I should say it works both ways. As cause advocates, social media can also encourage us to exchange people for metrics over and over. People become Twitter followers, Facebook fans, LinkedIn connections, contest votes, blog comments and clicks. We end up getting caught up in popularity contests and demonstrations of our influence and losing sight of the unique value of social media to promote two-way communication and truly involving citizens in our causes and work.
If you're reading this blog, you probably know we think technology is great. And when people use it for good, that's even better. It allows us to connect in cheaper, faster, better ways with people we might have never met, rediscovered or stayed connected to without it. But we also know that technology is best used when it enables offline action, whether that's organizing a Meetup, Tweetup or service project, donating money that will give someone clean water or access to education, or just helping you exchange ideas with someone who may help you to improve the way you function offline.
So how can we maintain the personal interaction that keeps us all accountable to valuing and treating people like we would face to face?
- Get a little personal. One gift that social media is giving us is the trend to move away from anonymous identities like luv4kittens37 to full names, photos and professional associations that encourage people to think of social media as what it should be - an extension of their offline lives, and not an escape where they can do and say things differently face to face. Let’s embrace that and let our personalities come through blending our personal and professional a bit.
- Remember that storytelling is highly important. Kivi Leroux Miller and Nancy Schwartz have both shared helpful tips on how to share the story of your cause to engage supporters. While people will always argue with statistics and generalizations, it’s hard to deny someone’s personal experience, which can often open the door to helpful discussion.
- Know when it's time to take something offline. Many online interactions and projects eventually reach a point at which they need to move offline to continue to be productive. Whether in maintaining an individual relationship or in working for social change, we have to keep an eye out for how and when face to face is the best choice.
- Finally, and admittedly a bit abstractly, each of us has to be responsible for repeatedly reminding ourselves that there is always an offline impact of what we do online – positive and negative. Online donations, votes and volunteerism helps real people just as ignoring and insulting online hurts them.
How else can we balance the full advantage of technology while holding on to the value of sitting in a room with someone?