Is social media worth it?

I read with dismay the Social CEOs survey of female charity CEOs, which revealed a widespread problem with trolling. Much of this is sexist, and much of it leads to mental health issues and concerns about safety.

The survey only had a brief mention of racism. I expect this could have been identified as a major issue if the survey also had capacity to explore this, not to mention the intersectional issues when sexism combines with racism.

I’m sure that most of these female CEOs feel that they need to be on social media to be effective at their jobs. I’m aware that many charities view outreach to beneficiaries and donors as essential.

However, there’s no avoiding the fact that social media does increase vulnerability. I’ve experienced abuse on Facebook which made me fear for my safety. Thankfully this was a fleeting experience, but the impact of it has stayed with me.

I have to ask: is social media worth it?

I’ve been social media-free for a year

One year ago, I went cold turkey on Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn.

I made that decision while on maternity leave; since then my life and career took an unexpected twist. Six months after returning to work I left my job and launched a freelance career.

I had a brief flash of uncertainty when I made the decision to go freelance. Would I be missing out on opportunities via Fundraising Chat on Facebook, or the Twittersphere?

In short, no. I’m relieved to say that so far, my new career is going pretty well, and I don’t regret my decision to leave social media. I feel as if I’ve proved my hypothesis that one strong professional relationship is worth more than a hundred Twitter followers.

I still do check the Twitter feeds of a few people, including charity sector leaders, which is possible to do without an account. Observing social media trends and conversations as an outsider has been an interesting experience (and I get a little bit of perverse pleasure out of using Twitter in a way that isn’t intended by its creators).

Many charities have ethical donations policies. If we applied the same standards to our social media providers, would we use social media at all?

Trolling on social media is one tiny part of all these platforms’ myriad issues . I’m sure you’ve heard all the main arguments against it: social media leads to mental health problems. It destroys our ability to concentrate. It polarises points of view, driving communities apart. It spreads fake news and undermines democracy. It violates our privacy, selling our data to the highest bidder, and the major platforms persuade us to buy mildly helpful robots that spy on us.

Facebook is possibly the worst offender; at time of writing they have refused to ban political ads that spread misinformation. And if that wasn’t enough, the HEATED newsletter recently reported that despite espousing a commitment to an environmental agenda, Facebook has donated $20,000 to Mitch McConnell’s re-election campaign. McConnell is one of the most rabid climate deniers in the White House.

Again, do we really feel that the benefits to us as individuals, and to our charities, really outweigh the above? These concerns are being widely discussed in other sectors, but I haven’t seen much evidence of them affecting our ways of working in the charity sector.

Despite that, when I’ve mentioned to charity peers that I no longer use social media, they immediately understand and I never have to explain myself. Deep down, most of us are aware of the issues.

What is the role of privilege in who chooses to use, or not use social media?

Obviously, if all women left social media that would be a dreadful situation. Men, particularly white men, are far less likely to suffer abuse and are therefore in a position of privilege when using these platforms.

Conversely, however, it can often take a certain amount of privilege to feel able to leave social media, depending on one’s individual situation. I recognise that in myself; I have the experience and contacts that have made a social media-free career viable. Someone just starting out may not feel able to make that choice.

For those who feel they’d miss out on connections and interactions, however, I’d like to ask: what’s the opportunity cost of social media? Who could you be talking to if you weren’t on Facebook? What could you be reading or writing?

Most of all, I’d much rather monetise my ideas by writing articles and pitching them to publications that pay, like Third Sector, instead of providing free content that enriches Twitter.

Maybe social media works for you. But if it doesn’t – if you have that niggling feeling inside you that doesn’t feel quite right – you can have a perfectly good life and career without it. Maybe an even better one.

And you can still enjoy LinkedIn’s most hilariously irrelevant posts.

Let’s not be too quick to jump on the surveillance capitalism bandwagon

I’m deeply suspicious of smart speakers. The endless stream of alleged privacy violations  and vulnerability to hacking and manipulation means that I will never, ever have one in my home, and their increasing ubiquity worries me.

But they’re clearly here to stay, and just as with social media, charities need to make sure they’re not missing the boat. Charities should invest in ways to engage with donors and beneficiaries via voice assistant technology…

…shouldn’t they?

I see two key questions that need answering.

What is the problem that voice skills solve?

There are two potential audiences for charities using voice skills: beneficiaries and donors.

Examples of voice skills for beneficiaries include Cancer Research UK’s Alcohol Tracker and Breast Cancer Care’s Taking Care of Your Breasts. Both provide valuable health information to users. However, I question whether this is the right format for people seeking this information, and whether it reaches people that weren’t already accessing it. Mobile apps for alcohol tracking already exist, and I expect the health information provided in voice skills like these is readily available online.

Voice skills for donors focus on enabling verbal donations. Examples include the British Heart Foundation and NSPCC. Perhaps there are donors who would give this way. However, downloading and installing a voice skill requires a decision and an action. If any donor was that committed to the charity and felt they would be donating often enough to use a voice skill, wouldn’t they simply set up a regular gift?

It’s impossible to find stats for usage or resultant donations online. However, the number of ratings and reviews in the Amazon store gives a clue. Admittedly, this is all relatively new to the charity sector, but I couldn’t find a charity voice skill with more than 20 ratings.

The problem of low uptake isn’t limited to charities. No voice skill has really taken off, and the most popular uses of Alexa have been simple tasks such as playing music.

So I am not convinced that investing in voice skills will enable charities to reach people they are not already reaching via other means. But if anyone has evidence that proves me wrong, I’d love to see it.

How do the sector’s values align with the values of smart speaker providers?

There is a tendency, that I’m sure is not limited to the charity sector, to jump on new, exciting-sounding technological “solutions” that aren’t. Remember the fuss about blockchain?

Perhaps we all get excited about a new technology, spend a bit of money on it, and then it doesn’t work out. We should embrace attempts to innovate, and the failure that sometimes accompanies it. What’s the problem?

Well, I don’t think the outcome is neutral. There are myriad ethical issues related to smart speakers that go beyond privacy and security: gender, race and sexuality bias, for example, and concerns about the impact on children. A charity that invests in tools for smart speakers is implicitly supporting companies such as Amazon, which wants Alexa to be everywhere.

Surveillance capitalism is becoming such a powerful force in our lives that I believe we need to take a stance on it. Just as charities have donation acceptance policies, we should consider the statement we are making when committing to developing tools for products built by mega-corporations. Our values should drive our decisions.

Think carefully before jumping in

I’m not arguing that we should never invest in technologies such as smart speakers. However, the conversations across the sector that I’ve witnessed have not appeared to consider these two questions.

As I have argued with blockchain, if our service users and donors don’t benefit, there’s definitely someone else who does.

Quitting social media: reflections one month on

I’ve now passed the 30 day grace period for deleting my various social media accounts, so there’s no going back – at least not without rebuilding profiles from scratch. Luckily, I don’t feel the need.

Here are some of my initial reflections on my first social media-free month.

It’s already led to more meaningful conversations

After deleting my social media, I reached out to personal and professional contacts to let them know. On the professional side, I received a few lovely, warm emails which in some cases led to interesting discussions.

No-one questioned my decision and they all appreciated me getting in touch. So far, therefore, this supports my hypothesis that social media has an opportunity cost, and without it I feel motivated to make a bit more effort to deepen my relationships.

On the other hand… it can be harder to get in touch

After reading an article by a fellow fundraiser, I wanted to make contact. Unfortunately I could only find Twitter and LinkedIn details. After a bit of hunting I found an email for a professional side-project connected to this person.

I’m also unable to participate in the Fundraising Chat and Critical Fundraising Forum Facebook groups. I do miss reading the discussions on these groups, and they have been useful in the past in sourcing interviewees for blog posts.

I’m undeterred, however; it’s difficult to leave these sites because there is a real social cost to doing so. I’m committed to paying that cost and still believe I can find a different way to thrive professionally.

Having a blog has made it easier to quit other platforms

Having an established online presence meant that I didn’t feel I was disappearing into the professional ether. I can provide evidence of my fundraising and writing credentials without using LinkedIn. Coupled with my distinctive surname, this means that anyone who is looking for me can find me quite easily.

On the other hand… visitors to this blog have dropped significantly

Twitter was incredibly useful for driving traffic to this blog; I had a modest following of fundraisers who would often click on and retweet the links I provided.

Twitter is still my main referrer, but numbers have dropped to a trickle. I’m grateful to those who are still Tweeting my blog posts, but it would be hypocritical of me to actively encourage this.

Nevertheless, I believe that I can still build up a following and gain traction via other strategies: the main one being providing interesting and useful content. The Internet, and social media in particular, is so full of rubbish that I believe good-quality content does get attention eventually. It may just take a little longer.

I’m more intentionally reading the news

I realised I was getting a lot of my news through links provided by social media algorithms. Due to growing concerns about fake news, I now intentionally read several different news sites including paying a subscription for one. On the fundraising side I’m taking more time to read articles by the trade press.

I’m also finding I’m able to more easily focus on reading more and longer articles; my attention isn’t constantly flicking back to the feed. I feel better informed and more knowledgeable about issues that concern me, such as climate change.

I feel like my mind, and my identity, is my own again

However much we try to avoid it, we are all performing to some extent on social media. I consciously tried not to, but this avoidance of performance is also a type of performance. Social media presents your content as your full humanity while at the same time being incredibly reductive. There’s no space for nuance.

A blog gives me space to explore ideas in more depth while also retaining ownership of my writing. And I’m not exactly sure why, but a blog doesn’t feel like it needs to represent the full extent of my identity in the same way that social media does. This feels freeing.

For the first few days after quitting, I found myself reflexively reaching for my phone, before realising I had nothing to look at, and putting it back down. This impulse disappeared within a week. I also feel readier to embrace a wandering mind and make time in my life for pockets of deeper thinking. I hope and believe that this will help me fulfil my aspirations as a fundraiser and a writer.

I agree with Cal Newport’s theory in his excellent book Deep Work: as professionals our most valuable resources include attention and focus. These are the precise qualities that are under siege from social media. Those who can resist these distractions and cultivate depth are at a professional advantage.

Quitting won’t work for everyone, but it’s always possible to reconsider your own approach

I’m currently on maternity leave, which in some ways has made leaving social media easier, although on the other hand it has risked making me feel more cut off from my profession (and my friends). I’ve countered this through my deliberate efforts to connect on a one-to-one basis.

I don’t foresee this will affect my work significantly when I return next month. As a trusts and major donor fundraiser, I’m able to perform my job without heavy social media use, which I appreciate is not possible in other disciplines. However, there are ways to delineate personal and professional use if you feel it would be helpful.

I hope that my renewed energy and focus on developing meaningful relationships will only be a good thing; although I tended not to connect with donors on social media, the parallels in the skills I’m developing are self-evident.

Finally, it’s always worth questioning the underlying assumptions of our working life. As Newport writes about social media: “These services aren’t necessarily, as advertised, the lifeblood of our modern connected world. They’re just products, developed by private companies, funded lavishly, marketed carefully, and designed ultimately to capture then sell your personal information and attention to advertisers.”

If you’re concerned about your social media use, consider reviewing your relationship with it.

How will quitting social media affect my professional and personal networks?

I’ve left three major social media platforms, which were my main methods of interacting with others online, other than via email and this blog.

Why? Lots of reasons, most of which you can probably guess.

The real catalyst for making this decision, though, was reading Jaron Lanier’s book: Ten Arguments for Deleting your Social Media Accounts Right Now.

I realised I was staying on social media mainly because it was hard to quit, which in itself isn’t a good reason to stay. So I’ve taken the plunge.

This is very much a personal decision, and just because it feels right for me doesn’t mean it’s necessarily going to be right for others. Nor do I intend to implicitly criticise the important work charities do on social media to reach donors and beneficiaries. Social media is a reality of the world we live and work in, and it makes sense to harness this reality to do as much good as possible.

I am by no means withdrawing from the world, and I absolutely want to continue to be part of the professional fundraising community. I think the Internet is a fantastic tool and will continue to maintain an active presence on this blog. I’m interested and excited to see how this decisions affects my relationships and creativity and may write more about this experience in future.