A few days ago Vince Stehle from the Knight Foundation invited me to the Think Social’s The #Promise conference in New York, and so I organized babysitting for my new son and came for the day. The conference was about how companies are using social media to advance their goals, and many people (mostly very attractive people, I would add too!) from NGOs, design firms, the corporate world and others turned out to hear the likes of Pepsi, Nokia, MTV, GE and others present their beautiful glossy social media campaigns. It felt like the “place to be” in New York yesterday.
For me, the highlight was MTV’s A Thin Line campaign, which aims to reduce cyber harrassment amongst teenagers. This seemed a brilliant campaign because the issue is so totally unusual (at least to someone like me who has no teenage kids), which will certainly make it more fresh for the audience. They shared stats about the incredibly high correlation between cyberbullying and suicide, for instance, and about how often teenagers are forwarding naked pictures of their peers (very often.) MTV’s online campaign had some very original pieces to it — for instance, a digital, teen-made Bill of Rights where teens could work out together what their “community” considers acceptable and not. There is a portion of the site called ““over the line” “:http://www.athinline.org/overthelinewhere kids share stories of cyberharrassment and other kids vote on whether it is “over the line” or acceptable. One girl’s story jumped out. She wrote on facebook about her father committing suicide, and kids from her school wrote comments on her fb page like, “if you were my daughter I’d kill myself too.” How tragic, the moderator asked, was it that she had to even ask whether those comments were “over the line?” This is one of the most original online campaigns I’ve seen because it is not about people simply supporting an issue, but people collaborating to come up with an ethical framework in a new area of civic life — the internet — where such things don’t exist. And that it’s being done by teenagers is simply great. Well done MTV!
Moving on to other panels and speakers… I was glad that the conference addressed (at least in one of the panels) the issue of corporate whitewashing (the motivation for many companies in the world to do CSR initiatives) head on. The speaker Douglas Rushkoff presented his book Life, Inc. and made some great comments. He talked about how the core of a company’s business should be doing good, so companies don’t need to have separate social initiatives. it shouldn’t be that a company makes things they are not proud of, and then does social investments to feel better about it. The business itself must be good for the planet.
One thing the companies all talked about a lot is transparency, and how in the internet age companies can’t hide or lie or keep their employees quiet. I find it quite disingenuous when people say this, because the old rules do still apply and people will still get fired for speaking badly about their companies. The number of internet leaks or internet whistleblowers is tiny compared to the number of employees who are angry about something the public would find juicy. So I wonder how much the internet is really creating greater transparency about companies? If the live twitter feed running behind the speakers (with only positive comments for all the companies) is anything to go by, people are still concerned that they might actually have a real world reason to stay in their good books — like a future job, for instance.
For a nonprofit media organization like this, a conference like this is both heartening and frustrating. It’s heartening because one sees new ways of using online media, and new metrics of success, and so one get lots of new stories to add weight to one’s own beliefs. And sometimes you see really usable ideas — like Ed Norton (the actor’s) new fundraising tool Crowdrise. But it’s frustrating because a lot of it is still “old media” simply being pushed out via the internet — really flashy funny video, written by comedians whose other jobs must be at ComedyCentral.) This is all extremely expensively produced, glossy, and beautiful. What I want to see are the successes of social media campaigns that cost next to nothing, and, ideally, could be replicated. Those are the kinds of things News Challenge winners can try to democratize.