|The Cause Web: 10 Tech Revolutionaries|
Redefining the Power and Face of Philanthropy
Contribute’s Tech 10 is not a hot list. It’s a selection not of the most powerful or the most glamorous or the most famous. There aren’t presidents of established foundations, nor celebrities. They’re not even the most vocal. Rather, they are a handful of some of the most influential new leaders at the very front lines of advocacy today, all using the power of The Cause Web to reshape the reach, impact, and experience of what it means to make a difference. They are innovators like Suzanne Seggerman, who founded Games for Change, to use video games to raise funds and awareness for those caught in the crossfire of global strife. Or Ailin Graef, a Chinese-born entrepreneur who is the first philanthropist in the maturing new world of Second Life. Or Charles Best, whose simple online auction model matches specific individuals on both sides of the give-get divide — a Manhattan banker, say, with an impoverished public school teacher in South Central Los Angeles — and completely removes the middleman to more quickly help those in need. But the real magic of our Tech 10 is the array of new technologies they represent. Herewith, our Tech 10:
Q&A: Sean Parker & Joe Green
Interviewed by Marcia Stepanek and Tracie McMillan
FACEBOOK, the popular social networking site spawned on college campuses several years ago, is growing up — and getting a social conscience. Some 11.5 million individual visitors to the Facebook site are now 35 or older, more than twice the number from the previous year: according to market researcher ComScore Media Metrix, the 35-and-up crowd now accounts for more than 41 percent of all Facebook visitors.
So how does Facebook grow without alienating its college core? Think altruism, says Joe Green and Sean Parker, the forces behind Facebook’s new Causes application — a bit of code you can easily add to your online profile to create a cause (or tout an existing one), raise money for it, and get others to sign on.
Launched early this past summer by Project Agape, a for-profit start-up funded by venture capitalists in California and cofounded by Parker and Green, Causes has attracted more than three million members so far; these millions, in turn, are combining to support tens of thousands of nonprofits and political causes. “This is a natural evolution of social networking,” says Parker, 27, also a cofounder of Napster, Plaxo, and Facebook. Adds Green, 24, a grassroots organizer: “Nonprofits tend to focus their fundraising efforts just on the wealthy. But cause networking unleashes the power of a multitude of younger, mainstream donors and gives what they care about a way to be heard.”
Contribute’s Marcia Stepanek and Tracie McMillan caught up with the pair in August. What follows is an edited version of that interview:
How did this start?
Sean: I cofounded Napster. I was 19 with my friend Sean Fanning; I was running around Washington, D.C., raising money from investors, and he was based up in Boston. It was the catalyst for a lot of the thinking I was doing around how you could use viral marketing to propagate messages and empower activists and try to do something interesting. I went on to cofound Facebook.
There’s a perception that Facebook is for college kids but there’s nothing about Facebook which isn’t incredibly useful to an older population, and older people are starting to use it. Most of the growth is happening in the 25 to 34 demographic. We’ve reached 35 or so million users, 50 percent of whom come back to the site every day. There’s no site with a registered user base besides Facebook that has that level of activity of engagement. As people share things through the network, their friends find out about it, it sparks little conversations, and then they pass along the things which they find of interest. So Facebook is this sort of decentralized system for filtering information which is useful to everyone. There’s nothing age-limited about it whatsoever.
So why Causes?
Sean: I think it’s a pretty natural evolution.The perception that social networking has been frivolous, I think, has existed amongst non-core Facebook users for a while, and certainly most of the applications up until now have been pretty frivolous. They’ve been about socializing, not socializing for a cause.
Joe: When you look at Facebook and social networking in general, it sort of heralds a fundamental change in how community works online. Before social networking, before Friendster, community online was very niche and very disconnected. You had Star Wars fans, and they got online and found other Star Wars fans, and their identity was sort of a handle. They were Hans Solo, or whomever. But it wasn’t them and there was no real connection to their real life.
Then Facebook came along, and it’s about real people and real lives. A person’s profile contains his or her real photo and a real name. To convince your friends that I’m you would be pretty much impossible. Facebook creates this very trusted identity. And so what you’ve got now with Facebook is what (cofounder) Mark Zuckerberg likes to call the social graph — people connected to other people’s friends. It’s a map of social connections. What that allows you to do is to take things that are real-world and put them on this space and have them work far, far more efficiently.
What do you mean?
Joe: My background is as a political organizer. I grew up in Santa Monica and worked on wage campaigns and various things around students’ rights, and then got to college and worked on a local L.A. campaign, and then went and worked on the [John] Kerry campaign. Most well-done grassroots organizing uses some version of a house meeting to convince people they have power in numbers. Cesar Chavez, when he was organizing migrant farmworkers, knew they were the most powerless groups in the country at the time. He would go and form a relationship with one person and then get them to host a meeting at his home and invite his friends and family, so he’d tap into existing social connections. And then he would get, at that meeting, two or three of those people to agree to host their own meetings.
Our core guiding principle, if you will, is similar — all about leveraging social connections for social change. We believe that every individual has power in his or her social connections, but most people don’t really know it and they don’t really know how — or even if — they can turn that into the ability to impact change. And so our goal is to show people, hey, by inviting 20 friends, you can have a huge impact because you’re going to invite 20 friends and they may donate some money, they may take other action, they may volunteer.
This is a for-profit business, right?
Joe: Both of us have come to this primarily for social reasons. We did consider being a nonprofit but to do this at the scale we wanted to do it, it had to be for-profit. But our primary motive is to empower individuals and to make the nonprofit process a lot more efficient. So our business model right now is that we can raise money very cheaply.
Nonprofits are spending a lot of money hiring firms to do direct mail and phone. It’s costing them 30 to 40 percent of what they take in — and it’s locking out smaller nonprofits who don’t have the institutional machinery to raise money in that way — and then it also locks out smaller donors, especially young people who can afford to write a $50 check once a year, but nobody ever asks. We, though, take a very small percentage of the transaction. The entire transaction cost on Facebook Causes is 4 percent, which, compared to what nonprofits pay now, is a pretty good bargain.
So how does it work?
Joe: Anybody can create what we call a cause. We tie into the Guidestar database of the 1.5 million nonprofits, so the cause creator gets to pick an organization that we call the beneficiary of the cause. So you could have a hundred different breast cancer related causes and 25 of them might benefit Susan G. Komen and 15 of them might benefit the American Cancer Society and they might benefit different hospitals. They can benefit anything that’s a registered 501(c)3.
So the idea is that there is this thing we call the marketplace of causes where, because it’s really easy and cost-free to create a cause, you can experiment and try lots of different things, and many causes will get created on a given topic, and a small number of them will get very large and many of them will just stay small, which is fine, or it could just be among friends. But the idea is to create a very simple, fluid system, and a system where it’s really centered on the issues people care about and their networks of friends — not the individual nonprofits as the middlemen.
How many causes are there so far?
Joe: Somewhere over 10,000. We’ve got 2.5 million people so far donating $10, $20. Over 500 of the largest nonprofits have signed up as partners. Our attitude has been that we have a lot to learn in the nonprofit world, and so we’ve tried to open as many lines of communication as possible.
Why do you think traditional nonprofits are so eager to embrace you?
Joe: They see that millions of people are using it; they see the Internet taking off and they’re not exactly sure what to do about it. I’m a big fan of the book, Bowling Alone. When you look at how nonprofits were after World War II, they were really very chapter based and very social capital rich. Today, the chapter system has really sort of gone away, and the distinction between being a donor and a member has kind of disappeared.
Sean: Part of the problem with the nonprofit industry, from our kind of pedestrian perspective, is that it’s so difficult to justify going after, as donors, the younger demographic because young people are not high-value donors. And so the economic incentive to pursue young people as donors just doesn’t exist; there’s not a lot of social capital between members of these large scale, direct marketing-oriented nonprofits. In that world, it’s hard to include everybody.
And so if you can restore social capital and bring it back into the process and ultimately make it much more efficient to raise money from young people or people who maybe aren’t super-wealthy who are not yet in that giving stage in their life, then you can actually engage them in the process.
Facebook is not a dating application, it’s not a way of specifically staying in touch with college kids. It’s a multi-purpose social map, a general purpose communication network. What we’ve been looking for is a way to grow this network large enough to reach a critical mass that would allow us to begin moving into other demographic segments. Causes is it. We have this phrase that we come back to a lot, which is "unlocking the power of your social network."
Facebook Causes is a way of leveraging the power of your social network to raise money or ultimately achieve a social goal. We’re very much trying to take social dynamics that exist in the real world and represent them online, which wasn’t really possible a few years ago.
So where do you both see this going?
Joe: We’ve been very focused on growth right now — just getting the application used by as many people as possible. We’re also going to be working on building out a lot more types of actions people can take and various ways to raise money around cause. One of the real powers of the Internet, though, is rich media. You have the power to make a cause real for someone. Instead of saying, ‘end malaria,” you can show someone what it means to give a bednet to a child. You can say, after watching a video, ‘Give us ten bucks, and you’ll save the life of one child by buying one bed net.’ You’re much more likely to get someone to give that way.
Sean: What’s interesting about Facebook, and what distinguishes it even from My Space, is that it’s so incredibly real. Causes is all about sort of broadening that concept of identity to include one’s higher calling, if you will — what you think about, your values, your beliefs, your sense of social purpose and mission. Second Life is about virtual identities. Facebook is about real identity, real relationships. There’s a much deeper social capital on Facebook than, say, something like Second Life.
Joe: When I was a student at Harvard, we did a study twice a year about college student civic involvement and what we consistently found was that this generation of college students cares incredibly deeply about changing the world, and probably has expressed more interest, in fact, in that of any generation since the 60s but doesn’t understand how to do it and feels that the existing institutions really are not responding to them.
We think we can show people that young people can make a difference. I mean you look at this one breast cancer cause now on Facebook. It amassed more than a million members in its first seven or eight weeks. I mean, it’s pretty hard to argue that this young guy who started it hasn’t made some kind of impact. He’s not the Susan G. Komen foundation. He’s one guy trying to get a breast cancer study funded at Brigham and Women’s Hospital up in Boston. He’s already raised more than $1 million or so for that cause. It’s not big, big money — yet. But by exposing people to the power of their social networks, it can be.
Anybody can create what we call a cause; a cause can be about anything —Save The Whales, Pave My Street, Elect John Edwards, whatever. People are donating $10, $20, and there are some who have given thousands of dollars so far.
My grandfather grew up very poor in Minnesota. He was Jewish, and he sold Christian bibles door-to-door to pay for night law school. Later, he got to be friends with Hubert Humphrey when [Humphrey] was mayor of Minneapolis. Minneapolis was very anti-semitic back then, and Humphrey worked to change that. When he got elected to the Senate, he didn’t have a lot of money. The only luggage he had was cardboard, so my grandfather and his law partners bought him his first real set of luggage and sent him off to Washington. I like that image of politicians without a lot of money, motivated by possibility.
VIRAL COMMUNITIES: Michael Furdyk
Michael Furdyk’s computer talents came early: At age two, he was already fiddling with a Commodore 64 computer, brought home by his father, who worked at the local phone company. By age 16, he’d already sold his first Internet start-up for $1 million and was consulting for Microsoft. Today, Furdyk, 25, leads Toronto-based TakingITGlobal, an international online community to ignite social change. The social networking site hosts more than 2,000 projects from over 50 countries, in 12 languages, ranging from youth voter mobilization efforts in Togo to a Canadian hip hop summer camp focused on boosting youth media literacy. Though the group doesn’t hit up any of its 150,000 global affluentials for donations, it does provide a closely vetted list of more than 1,000 funding opportunities. When Muhammed Abdul Wahed Tomal, a Bangladeshi college activist, joined TIG in 2003, he wanted to use his computer skills to alleviate poverty. Through TIG’s site, he organized a campaign with more than 100 members to push Bangladesh to take on technology access as a way to fight poverty and mobilize his efforts. It’s a surprisingly substantative take on social networks—but that’s precisely the point, says author and digital media expert Don Tapscott, an early mentor to Furdyk. Says Tapscott: “TakingITGlobal is one of the world’s best examples of how Net-Geners are using digital technologies to transform the world around them.” — TRACIE MCMILLAN
BLOGS: Ethan Zuckerman
Ethan Zuckerman, 34, runs Global Voices Online. With 1.2 million visitors a month, it stands as one of the Web’s hottest sites — and the only one among them to function as a “bridge blog,” a daily, edited, and often translated scan of developing-world blogs aiming to bring long-hidden stories — and social problems —into mainstream social consciousness. Founded by Zuckerman in 2004 with former CNN journalist Rebecca McKinnon, the site is “glocal” — it’s global coverage of local events — and it highlights the day’s best blog postings from around the world in nine languages, from the Japanese launch of YouTube to child sex abuse in the Maldives. “It covers news overlooked by the mainstream media,” says Jan Schaeffer of J-Lab, a news group that awarded GV a prestigious Knight-Batten Grand Prize for Innovations in Journalism in 2006. It also finds itself a powerful advocate for free speech: When GV editor Hao Wu was detained by Chinese authorities in early 2006, the site ran coverage for seven months and organized a letter-writing campaign and online petition seeking his release. The ruckus led The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post to run stories that coincided with a U.S. visit by Chinese President Hu Jintao. Wu was released the following week. “Initially, we meant GV as a resource for journalists,” says Zuckerman, who is also a research fellow at the Berkman Cente rfor the Internet and Society at Harvard Law School. “We had no idea we’d end up being a vast community project.” — TRACIE MCMILLAN