The ins and outages of social media dependence 


As one of the 2.76bn people on average who use at least one Facebook product every day (according to the company’s June statistics), the only thing I really lost on Monday, during the six-hour power outage on Facebook, Instagram and WhatsApp, was the opportunity to show off.

For a few hours the world was denied my shaky Instagram footage of the finales as they unfurled at fashion week in Paris. Neither did you get to see various selfies of me as I sat in traffic in a car. Or my curation of various plates of food.

Fashion week, like so much in life, is powered by the Instagrammable moment, and one must pity the few shows that lost their chance for viral opportunity. But for the most part everyone just migrated on to other platforms. Colleagues, previously looped in to work-related WhatsApp chats, rediscovered email. For a time, we even used the SMS.

It was easy to dismiss the inconvenience. For others, the outage had a far more significant and damaging effect. The influencer who makes a considerable income from a drip feed of curated portraits was probably quite sweaty. Likewise, the small business that has built its retail model on the social media app. In India and South America the WhatsApp outage found communication systems and commerce channels buckling under the strain.

The moment has acted as a spur to redress the enormous power of Mark Zuckerberg and the fissures of a system in which we are too dependent on one man. It hasn’t helped that this week also found whistleblower Frances Haugen, a former data scientist at Facebook, giving a testimony against her old employer in which she accused them of harming children, sowing division and undermining democracy in pursuit of “astronomical profits”.

But while most would like Zuckerberg’s all-encompassing power reined in some, it doesn’t change how embedded his platforms have become within our lives. Instagram and Facebook are still a mirror for the most inane and vacuous self-expression — one need only look at Reels to ask whether civilisation has actually reached the end-point. But it’s also a connector, a forum to communicate more directly, a place to agitate for social justice and, crucially, a place to raise some dough.

In London, Karen Pollock, chief executive of the Holocaust Educational Trust, was in the final hours of a crowdfunding effort to raise £1m towards their new campaign #theirlegacyourfuture, promoted and circulated via WhatsApp, when the outage stopped things short.

“It stopped us from doing our ‘final push’, which we would have done around 5pm that evening,” she says of the campaign; they extended for another day, during which they met their target. “We probably would have raised the money,” she continues of the outage. “So the campaign was only temporarily stalled.”

She is only one of many thousands experimenting with social media platforms as a means of charity campaigning. And the results speak for themselves. If you can ignite the imagination of your users, it can take mere hours to raise the same funds that would have previously required months of cold calling and expensive charity functions. Social media are now an intrinsic component in crowdfunding. And, despite the outages, they can produce phenomenal results.

Social media have done much to activate our philanthropic tendencies. While once the platforms were only used for virtue signalling or posting sad, still squares that signified one’s dismay about a situation, but offered nothing useful in return, the rise in social activism online, conjoined with new technologies, now means it’s never been easier to help salve your bleeding heart.

And philanthropy is trending. In the newly published 2021 Bank of America Study of Philanthropy: Charitable Giving by Affluent Households, it is claimed that the average giving to charities by affluent Americans increased 48 per cent last year (compared with 2017). The pandemic, social awareness and a lack of other things on which to spend one’s money have found more people prepared to give that cash to someone else.

The study was based on a sample of 1,626 households with a net worth of $1m and with respondents boasting an average age of 52.5. But it seems that hashtag activism might actually be working: the top three types of charities supported were basic needs, religion and education — with 11.3 per cent of respondents selecting social justice as one of their top three most important causes. Moreover, 56 per cent of donors used a non-profit organisation’s website, with 13 per cent making donations using social media tools.

Outages notwithstanding, the opportunity to put one’s money where one’s mouth is, and then tell everyone about it, is one of the better outcomes of this narcissistic age. Insta-philanthropy is arguably one of the real positives that has emerged from a fractious, toxic business that is rarely applauded for doing any good. If only we could fix the ownership issues: is there a crowdfunding campaign for that?

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