BOOK REVIEW: Online philanthropist establishes the future of giving

ImageThe use of social media and the internet is ubiquitous in the new generation of social interaction.  In his book, CauseWired: plugging in, getting involved, changing the world, Tom Watson describes how this new generation of internet use affects philanthropy and social action in the Millennial generation.  He cites different social action sites and applications that either succeeded or failed at bringing people together under a cause, and then illustrates how people are changing the way we see social change and interaction.

            Watson’s (2009) first order of business is defining “CauseWired,” which is an original term (xxiv-xxx). In effect, CauseWired refers to the idea that social causes, social networking, and transparency are all connected, and they have to be in order for social action sites and startups to be effective (Watson, 2009).  Social action groups still have leaders, there is always a hierarchy, and the goal of raising money is always the same, but the mode of involvement is different, and there is a secondary goal of simple awareness that is much better served on the internet than anywhere else today (Watson 2009, pp. 37, 139). 

            Throughout the book, Watson (2009) argues that the reason being CauseWired is so popular is that it is so easy.  By “liking” things on Facebook, or simply logging in to a Facebook application and attaching icons to his or her profile, a Facebook user can identify his or herself as an advocate.  No money has to exchange hands, making these actions easy and also doable for everyone from poor college students to wealthy businesspeople.  As some of the entrepreneurs said, sometimes the most important part of a cause is to spread awareness, rather than raise money.  this is the case for the Facebook application “Causes.” The application allows people to collect badges and icons for their profile that detail the causes they are passionate about, and also promote these causes to others in their Facebook sphere (Watson 2009, pg. 25).  According to  Eric Ding, the creator of “The Campaign for Cancer Research” cause on Causes, even though he was only able to raise $62,000 in the first year on Facebook (2 cents per Facebook supporter) (Watson 2009, pg. 26). 

            On the other hand, however, even though there are options for people who want the “easy” route, there are also options for those who wish to be more involved.  For instance, one of the biggest examples in the book is, a site that allows people to lend money to small businesses in small countries, and then monitor how soon the money will be repaid (Watson 2009, pg. 75).  Lenders, such as the author and his daughter, can look at listings of people around the world who need investments to grow their small businesses, such as a fishmonger who needs an initial investment to pay for a bus ticket to and from the lake where she gets her fish, so that she doesn’t have to use a middleman for transport (Watson 2009, pg. 65).  In this way, lenders can see how their money is being used, and can monitor the money’s return.  When the money is returned, the lender can then invest it in someone else.  As this continues, it allows donors to be more active in their investment, and gives them the opportunity to watch their gifts do good, rather than just having to walk away after a credit card payment.    

            Another thing Watson didn’t address, but should have, is the idea of “digital natives” and “digital immigrants.”  As Watson (2009) discusses interactions with his daughter throughout the book, he discovers new outlets for social media, and realizes that he will never be as up to date as she is (197). A lot of what he said aligned perfectly with Mark Prensky’s theory of natives and immigrants, basically that the internet is a culture with its own language, customs, rituals, and rules, and there are natives to this culture, known as the Millennials or Generation Next, and there are immigrants, everyone else.  Watson (2009) was pretty clear that about the new generations of philanthropists are more and more in tune with what resources there are for giving, but I would have liked to know how he saw Prensky’s ideas lining up with his.  For instance, I would have liked to see a discussion of how these social action sites make it easier or harder for digital immigrants to identify with and understand the digital natives or the digital world. 

            Something else I wish Watson (2009) had addressed is the economics of certain social action sites.  It might have made the book unbearably long, but there is absolutely no discussion of how certain “aid” is received by its intended recipient.  I am reminded of a class I took January term: “Journalism in Conflict,” during which it was discussed how some countries take aid from more developed nations and waste it on other things, or give the aid to the people, but monopolize the use of the country’s wealth by the governmental elite.  I would have liked to see this addressed, perhaps through a discussion of how sites work, or how donors get feedback about how to best invest their money. 

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