Interwebology: Social media meets social activism

On any given day, the Internet is chock full of news articles, tweets, and blogs about celebrity scandals, political baby-steps, and oddities of human behaviours that would make a fetishist blush. But every so often one can stumble across a bit of good news from the Internet. Over the last few years several sites and apps have popped up with a focus on activism, charity, and philanthropy.

Most charity sites represent a single charity or cause, and as such receive attention primarily from the people who already know and care about the issue, with mainstream attention remaining elusive. Recently, with the devastation in Haiti, the ability of the Internet to do good is finally getting some attention.

In the forefront right now is a text messaging campaign mounted by the Red Cross that allows cell phone users to make an immediate donation and have it charged to their monthly phone bill. The campaign raised $20 million in the week immediately following the disaster, and the numbers are still rising.

Similar strategies have been undertaken by the Canadian Salvation Army (by texting HAITI to 45678), the United Way (text HAITI to 864883), Compassion International (text DISASTER to 90999), and many other international services.

There has been some controversy over the fact that the donated money would not come in to the cell phone companies for weeks (or, at the outside, 90 days), but many carriers have stepped up and offered to donate most of the money immediately from their own reserves.

In addition to the Red Cross text message campaign, phone and communication companies are contributing in other ways. Skype has sent vouchers to its Haitian customers to provide them with the means to contact friends and family in the United States, and T-Mobile and Google Voice have dropped all charges associated with calls and texts to Haiti through to the end of the month.

While most carriers have waived fees for the Red Cross texts, iTunes also has a donation page set up for anyone who doesn't want to go the SMS route. Donated monies will come out of users iTunes accounts.

Also in the Mac-verse, iPhone app CauseWorld is giving people the opportunity to donate without even spending money. The service uses a Check In system (similar to Foursquare, Gowalla, and other location-based social media services) where all you need to do is walk into a store. By checking in a store, users earn Karma Points that can be converted into very real donations funded by big brands. The app launched just over a month ago, and Haiti relief is but one of the numerous charities it supports.

One of the primary means of disseminating these various campaigns was Twitter, where the initial plea for donations immediately following the event was retweeted by millions over the next few days. The social media site also served as a news feed, as Twitpics showing the destruction in real time were quickly posted and spread, making the event even more tangible for people all over the world.

Facebook is helping spread the news both in status updates, links to news and donation sites, and pictures. Even social gaming has joined the effort. Zynga, the company that created Farmville (Facebook's most popular game with almost three quarters of a billion users), created virtual goods that served to raise over $1 million in just the first three days.

Social media is helping in more ways than just news and numbers. Stacy Delince of Montreal received a message on Facebook from a young Haitian woman whose neighbour was trapped in the rubble of his own home. Delince then forwarded the information to on-site aid services, and the man was rescued within hours.

Facebook and other social media sites are also being used by people trying to locate or find information on loved ones. However, the Director of the MIT Center for Future Civic Media, Christopher Csikszentmihalyi points out that with many different sites being used, and no central hub aggregating the information, some people may have trouble finding the information they seek simply because the answers may be on a different service than the questions.

Technology has come a long way since the tsunami of 2004 and Hurricane Katrina in 2005. In the short five years that have passed, the means by which to make a social difference have become infinitely more accessible, with information and donations being only as far away as one's cell phone. While natural disasters remain, as of yet, beyond our control, the way in which we respond to them is growing in leaps and bounds.
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