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Technology

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When Real People Become Facebook People

A little perspective on what to do with the fact that there’s an online “you” who may not look like the real thing.

I read a fantastic piece just now about what Dostoevsky knew about the internet.

Yup, you read that correctly. But let me back up.

One thing I’ve seen a lot of people—young and old—think and even worry about is the relationship between our “digital lives” and what we do offline.

  • Roger Scruton implied in an AEI debate with Tyler Cowen a few years ago that the digital life stood in opposition to the real life and was therefore dangerous (think of people who get addicted to Facebook and see their offline lives suffer as a result).
  • Nonprofit leaders constantly debate just how valuable it is to woo supporters on social media (at what point is the Facebook follower supposed to transition into a real person who is supporting you financially?).
  • And perhaps the most common topic, the question of what to make of the “you” whom you present to the digital world—the curated­ you—versus the real you, who may not be as brilliant, sexy, and perfect.

I find one of the most annoying features of conversations about emerging technologies is a total disconnect between the past and the future. You’ve got the old fogies who read lots of old books and are inherently wary of all technology (eventually they crack and get an iPhone and this happens). And at the other end of the spectrum, you have the youthful folks who blithely accept all technology handed to them, and the professionals who insist that whatever they use for their bread and butter (email marketing, social media, etc.) is a godsend forever—and these people have no frame of reference for whether what they’re buying into will be around in a couple years. They’re so busy being excited they can do something, as Jeff Goldblum’s character says in Jurassic Park, that they don’t stop to ask if they should.

So imagine my embarrassingly childish grin when I saw somebody had written a thoughtful piece that brought some literary and historical perspective to the question of the “curated you.”

An excerpt:

“We are warned that everything we put online could destroy our careers and relationships; that Google and Amazon read our emails, and so does the NSA. And in a social context, we are constantly visible—at least potentially so—to an entire network of friends and acquaintances, which gives every offhand comment the potential weight and reach of a manifesto. It’s as if we are standing in the center of a roomful of people, but we don’t know where they’re looking, and we can’t help but feel, both excitedly and uneasily, that they may well be looking at us. Paranoid narcissism—the mixed desires and fears of being watched by unknown others—thus defines virtual society, giving rise to numerous related anxieties such as the sense of exposed insignificance and the fear of missing out.”

I recommend reading the whole thing, which you can find here.

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What every nonprofit exec wishes social media people knew

What digital marketers and fundraisers should keep in mind when pushing for organizations to "update."

Last week, I wrote a piece for Aleteia about workplace issues surrounding young people. 20-somethings are often surprised when their complaints about work practices aren’t immediately channeled into fixes. An excerpt:

“Change doesn’t necessarily mean innovation; variety doesn’t necessarily mean improvement. When “reformers” (be they political mavericks, religious progressives, or just an unhappy employee) want to make a change, they need to recognize it’s up to them to demonstrate, rather than assume, that the new way is better. Sometimes change turns out to be unequivocally worse. Sometimes it improves the immediate situation but has damaging long-term effects.”

I think this is true with digital media people as well, at least in the nonprofit sector and political campaigns. The fact is that there isn’t too much data yet on precisely how digital strategies translate to better fundraising results. There’s certainly some, and some tremendous success stories, but few if any are common knowledge at this point.

And in the nonprofit world, it’s not just about what an executive director or board knows—it’s about what they’re forced to act on. Keeping things running the same way is enough work as it is, and major change is a huge headache (it can even feel impossible). As I said in an essay in The Statesman on Monday, for most organizations, there has (as yet) been no financial pressure to even move away from direct mail-only donor prospecting, let alone graduate all the way through email and great websites to social media. 70% of donors are over age 50; for plenty of organizations the percentage (and the age) is even higher.

Sometimes those of us who work with these newer strategies and tools forget that not everyone has seen the research, the data, the insights into human psychology, let alone the success stories, that we’ve seen.

When we’re tempted to complain about backwards nonprofits (or bosses), we should keep these things in mind. It’s up to us to know not only a particular technology, but also the hard facts about how it means results for nonprofits—and that means things techies and marketers often don’t work with much, like actual fundraising, strategy change in tough times, and institutional continuity. If we can’t communicate not only an indisputable picture of WHY an organization should go from A to B, but also how they can get there without a major loss of what they already have, we have no business telling them to change their ways.

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