Do average citizens really have the power to change the world? Can online technologies fuel real community?
These are two questions The Case Foundation is trying to answer with its second America’s Giving Challenge. The Challenge - a month-long contest to encourage as many people as possible to donate and spread the word about the issues that matter to them the most - is also a test of what happens when people come together online.
There are supporters and critics.
“Online organizing is the way of the future. It has the power to help us achieve unprecedented advances by enabling us to organize people and resources across space and time.”
“Online activism is slacktivism. Signing an online petition or making an online donation doesn’t really connect you to a cause. It’s face-to-face organizing that is essential to making lasting change.”
What would Robert Putnam say?
Ten years ago in his seminal book, Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community, Putnam noted,
“Our stock of social capital – the very fabric of our connections with each other, has plummeted, impoverishing our lives and communities.” He also warned that, “We were becoming increasingly disconnected from family, friends, neighbors, and our democratic structures.”But this was pre- Facebook, MySpace and Twitter. Now look at us.
Obama for America raised $30 million online. And while the money raised online dwarfed the money raised from old-school tactics, it did help elect the first African-American President.
And in early 2009, 10,000 strangers in 202 cities participated in Twestival – a Twitter festival. The result? More than $250,000 raised in one day for charity: water, a nonprofit devoted to bringing safe drinking water to people in developing nations.
Like it or not, we are now witness to an explosion in online communities and technologies to share, connect and annoy. This online organizing raises interesting questions. Will online communities help to rebuild our faith and trust in each other? Better yet, will online communities help us to build the social and financial capital we need to change the world.
It's true, there may never be a better substitute for in-person organizing. Face-to-face meetings fulfill a basic human need for connection and will always be central to helping us come together to learn about and care for one other. But newer online tools may be just the complement we need to rebuild and galvanize our American spirit of advocacy, volunteerism and giving.
What do you think? Are we still bowling alone? Or, are new online communities and tools helping to create powerful new connections that can help us change the face of the human race?