Sparking Change With Social Networks

Last week Tim O’Reilly keynoted at the Web 2.0 Expo and rather than promoting all the potential that Web 2.0 provides, he criticized developers for investing many of their resources on building completely useless applications. From throwing sheep to chugging beer, many of the applications have not provided much substantive value. The question that I have is if it is really the developers who are at fault or is it the users that download and install the applications that should be criticized?

Unraveling the Social Change Equation

Over the past couple years, a large movement has been brewing on the web. With the help of social technology, internet users now have access to over 1.4 billion individuals (Source: Internetworldstats.com). With all of this connectivity, we figure that there must be some way that we can drive change like never before. We have seen the launch of Change.org, Idealist.org, Zaadz.com and a whole slew of newer services that help individuals drive change.

Just last year when Facebook launched their platform, Causes was launched by Sean Parker and Joseph Green and the team has been working to try to drive the number of donations being given through the application. We still have a long way to go though. If you take a look at the top cause on the Causes application, there are over 3.375 million members supporting “Support the Campaign for Cancer Prevention” and $72,697 has been donated. This amounts to approximately $0.02 raised per user.

Advertisements could have easily generated more than $0.02 per user. So can social networks be used to drive change, if so, how?

How Can Social Networks Drive Substantial Change?

It’s clear that there is a ton of untapped potential in social networks to drive change. As Tim O’Reilly pointed out, much of that potential is being funneled into ways that individuals can waste time. Can we really be disappointed by our escapist desires? So far, I have yet to find a single social network which has truly impacted the world in a way that idealists believe social networks could positively impact the world.

Simply through their existence, web-based social networks help to spread democratic ideals and help individuals around the world share their experiences with others. I’d suggest that as a whole we have yet to develop effective metrics for measuring change. Right now Causes could use dollars generated as one metric, but how about the application’s ability to drive users to action?

This is just one metric and I’m sure that there are hundreds of others. We all have that gut feeling that social networks can drive substantial change. Some of them already are but frequently we end up creating a network of individuals that talk about change rather than do something about it. While passive change is one form of change I have a feeling that there is a lot more opportunity out there.

What ways do you think social networks can more effectively drive change? How can we measure the impact?