I’m a big fan of social media but I have to admit: I’m having a hard time getting into the habit of updating my whereabouts. Part of it is that my life just isn’t all that exciting: if there were a badge for Yet Another Before-Dawn Hour Spent Writing A Book or a badge for Marathon Blogging or Watching Rubicon, I would have long ago been anointed somebody’s Mayor—somewhere. At least once. Dan Fletcher, writing in TIME recently, quipped that the idea of updating his whereabouts “is a bit too much like having a pint-size version of my mother in my pocket, constantly prodding me for updates.” Indeed, it’s kind of like that Twitteleh video that made the rounds last year spoofing Twitter, where the Jewish mother uses tweets to prod her son with endless queries asking, Where Are You Going? Who Are You With? Are You Wearing a Sweater? and, perhaps inevitably, Who’s the Girl?]
But a big part of it is that I don’t see the benefits yet—at least not in the social change space. Sure, some nonprofits are starting to experiment. Kudos to Earthjustice, a nonprofit public interest law firm in the Bay Area, has been asking BART riders this summer to “check in” with them on Foursquare. For every check-in, one of Earthjustice’s major donors is pledging $10 to help the nonprofit’s attorneys fight environmental pollution. So far, so good: Earthjustice’s marketing manager, Ray Wan, says his Foursquare campaign has so far raised over $10,000 for the cause, and has brought a crowd of people to the Earthjustice Web site that didn’t know about the group previously. “We’re getting some amazing buzz from this,” Wan told me last month. “It’s an easy way to get people involved in helping us to fight for the environment.”
But while promising, it’s still all about phoning it in—what people used to call “click-and-give” in the ancient days of the Desktop and what people have more recently described as Slacktivism, that portmanteau of the words “slacker” and “activism.” Even new media visionary Clay Shirky, speaking on this year’s conference circuit, cites what he sees as a stubborn gap between online chatter about social action and real social action offline—a sort-of “talk” and “walk” gap that has yet to be widely bridged.
And it’s no wonder, perhaps. Josh Williams, the co-founder of Gowalla, says his company is thinking about how it can provide value beyond just the check-in, itself. “Sharing photographs, telling stories about a given location or whether someone’s had a romantic date there—that’s where things get really interesting,” Williams told Fletcher in TIME.
I, for one, am holding out for something more. While sitting in the lobby of Austin’s Driskill Hotel last spring, the real potential of this medium became clear. One minute, the Driskill’s lobby was filled with seated, lounging SXSW conference-goers and the next minute, everyone sprang to their feet simultaneously, as if heeding a digital dog whistle, moving to the exits en masse. The reason? They all got the “memo” via Foursquare, an update compelling them to move to the next After Party (and they did, like moths to flame).
I went, too. But I didn’t stay very long. What I’m waiting for is the day or hour or minute when I’ll get an update from someone that not only tells me where they are, but gets me involved in why I should be, too. Party? Sure, okay. But somebody, please, also make it an opportunity to do something different. Invite me to check in at the local homeless shelter to hand out a free meal to the homeless for an hour—or to check in at the local nursing home to read a newspaper to one of the residents, or bring them a box of their favorite cookies. Sure, I could do this without you and without Foursquare. But if you invite me to do it via my smart phone, chances are I’ll make it. And while you’re at it, make it easy for me when I show up to start helping.
Go ahead. Just try making me the mayor of the the Greater Harlem Nursing Home or the Atlanta Union Mission.
I (and just a few thousand of my closest online friends—and their friends) will be waiting for your update.