The Hard Facts: Sweet Charity

It’s Research Wednesday! Where I share the latest, or most fascinating, in the science of friendship.

“New research suggests the more friends we have on Facebook, the less likely we are to share information about charitable causes. … When we have larger online social networks, we rely on other people to pass on information about opportunities to give. This phenomenon is called ‘free riding’. [The researcher] also suggests we may even rely on others to donate.” (“Too Many Facebook Friends Bad News For Charities, Research Suggests”; Science Daily 8/6/2011)

This is not good people. More friends should mean more giving – more friends running marathons for charities, volunteering with do-gooder organizations, and raising awareness of worthy causes. But alas, it’s a bit of Kitty Genovese bystander effect (remember social psych class?) — we all think others are spreading the word and donating, so we don’t make an effort ourselves.

Well, wrong. Huge social networks are actually having the opposite effect.  The work of Kimberly Scharf, the professor behind this study, found that, in the long run, “there is more giving in smaller, closer-knit groups of individuals who share common interests.”

We all know that social networks hold a lot of power—one post on a Facebook wall and you can speak to hundreds (thousands!) of followers—and usually when that power is harnessed for good, that’s when it gets lots of press. I love checking out the  Twitter Stories site to find tweets that changed the world. It’s less interesting to talk about when social networks prevent good from getting done. But if Scharf is right, that’s sometimes the case.

So for now, I’m using this social media platform to encourage you to do good. You could donate to Big Brothers Big Sisters, the organization that set me up with the 11-year-old Little Bro that Matt and I mentor. Or you could donate to the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, where my BFF Callie is the development director. Or give to Be The Match and the National Marrow Donor Program, the organization that my dear friend Ann has volunteered with for years. She’s even heading their Tribute to 25 Years and 50,000 Transplants in Minneapolis in September.

Friends and giving should go hand — even if those friends are just the Facebook kind.

Admit it: Have you ever fallen prey to this “free riding” effect? Feeling inspired to give today?


Filed under The Search

14 responses to “The Hard Facts: Sweet Charity

  1. I have certain causes that I follow and will share when I think it will have an impact, but I can see how having a bigger network could make you hesitant to post too much — you don’t want to be “that friend” always asking for a donation or a vote or a petition signature, especially if your network contains lots of people you don’t know well.

    I do rely on my friends to share things in their areas of concern — for example, my friends can count on me to share important news about gay rights, while I rely on one friend to share if there’s something I should take action on regarding human trafficking, and another regarding homelessness. I can’t be passionate about EVERY cause all the time, so I focus on what I care most about and rely on my friends to tell me about the best opportunities to take action in other areas.

    Finally, I think this could possibly be a positive thing if it means people are engaging less in what’s often called “slacktivism”; i.e., doing something and thinking you’ve done your good deed for the day when what you’ve done had no real impact on anything. I wrote about this and related thoughts in a post called “When Is Raising Awareness Valuable?

    • “Slacktivism” is immediately what i thought of too. Love the meme of the poor African child saying “So let me get this straight? You think that by liking a Facebook status I’m going to get fed?”

    • Donna

      Yes! Siblings can be best buds. I have 3 children, and they have a tight bond. They look out for eachother, help with homework, and drive the younger ones to the pool. You can imagine how I am loving my new found freedom and alone time. Which is why I am writing you to begin with! I JUST finished your book, loved it!
      I laughed and learned. Thank you for the insights, and lessons.

    • Slacktivism! I’ve never heard that term but love it.

  2. I love charities I usually always volunteer for big sisters this year I didn’t do it. Wonderful article..

  3. tunie

    I have, several times, been inspired to contribute to worthy causes via the blogs I read regularly. Because I read them regularly, I ‘know’ them enough to trust their referrals and if I read about one that rings a bell, I am actually grateful for the tip and the chance to chip in.

  4. This is so interesting to me! I’ve been wondering a lot lately why social media communities reflect “real” social communities in so many ways – but often minus the charitable works. Fixing this problem seems like a good place to start – if we take responsibility for what we post, maybe we’ll post some responsible things along with the fun ones.

    You might be interested in a recent post I wrote for my friend David Postic on social media and social change:

  5. Interesting post. I pick and choose what I pass on based on my passions. I’ll have to pay attention to the patterns though to see if the “free riding” effect has gotten me. But really, who wants a friend that is always asking for money to be sent to a charity? That’s marketing, not friendship…or am I wrong?

  6. The bottom line is to be a cheerful giver of your time, talents and riches. It is when you give, your rewards will follow. Not if you give.

  7. I guess I keep my charitable gifts close to home. I donate both time and money to a few charities for children and animals locally but never really saw Facebook as an avenue for charity. I do tend to compartmentalize my life quite a bit, so I’ll blame my character flaw and start paying more attention. Thanks for the awakening! 😉

  8. I don’t know what it is, but I think people are afraid of inconsistencies between who s/he is, their Facebook self, and how certain people perceive of him/her. Facebook is just so fast-paced that a lot of your friends just ignore your posts, but you still feel like you’re saying something to the whole wide world, and it has to be something worth saying, and it has to be reflective of your Facebook self (which is basically consistent with how other people perceive of you). I feel that instinctively, people would ignore whatever I post about charities: it just FEELS like advertising (which is definitely un-you, if you know what I mean) and it doesn’t feel meaningful unless you share it only with people close to you.

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