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Three Ways Social Media Has Negatively Affected the Nonprofit Sector (and What We Can Do About It)

August 3, 2011

[tweetmeme] No doubt. I absolutely believe in the power of the Internet and social media to foster social good and create social change, and I’ve written plenty of blog posts that say as much, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t also acknowledge that the rise of the Social Web has created some very real and serious challenges for the nonprofit sector, such as:

1) The 24/7 bad-news-is-#BreakingNews cycle.

All day, everyday the online masses are being bombarded with terrible news. From famine in Africa to war in the Middle East to global economic collapse, people are increasingly becoming overwhelmed by all the tweets, status updates, photos, and videos of gloom, doom, and despair. If it continues as it has, then I fear that many people will begin to check-out and become numb to our calls to action. Two years ago when I sent out urgent tweets or status updates, the online masses would respond instantly with concern and generosity. Today, there’s a deafening silence – not because people don’t care, but because the constant barrage of bad news is perpetuating the feeling that our problems are insurmountable and that people can not make a positive impact. That’s not good, not good at all.

What nonprofits can do about it: Share more success stories, please.  People need to hear more good news. They need to feel hope. As the agents for social good, nonprofits are in a unique position to help reverse this trend of extreme negativity in the online collective consciousness. Even the most challenging issues have stories of success. If your nonprofit assists the poor, share a story of someone who finally secured employment or got a raise and can now feed their family and buy their kids new shoes for the school year. If your nonprofit works in disaster relief, share a story of survival. Or, if your nonprofit works to protect the environment or animals, for every tragic loss of habitat or endangered species, share a story of conservation or progress. Of course, I am not suggesting nonprofits turn a blind eye to the problems of the world, but some more good news on the Internet definitely couldn’t hurt.

2) The rise of the Internet troll.

Over the last few years there has been an obvious rise in the Internet troll. Fueled by ego and discontent, these people rant, scream, complain, critique, and hate for hours upon hours on blogs and social networking sites – usually anonymously or using a fake name. Even worse, misery loves company and where one troll finds an online home, many others follow and settle in. Internet trolling has become so widespread and ridiculous that I (and many others) don’t even look at blog or Facebook Status Update comments anymore which defeats much of the purpose and the power of social media for social good.

What nonprofits can do about it: We can’t stop the trolls, but we can prevent them from infecting our online communities. Block, delete, ban, report, and move on. There are plenty of other websites where they can spew their hate and negativity, but believe me – they are toxic and can easily destroy the good will and good vibe of the communities your nonprofit has spent years building for your cause. There’s a difference between disagreeing respectfully on issues, but Internet trolls have no respect for other people’s opinions. Engaging them just makes it worse. Block, delete, ban, report, and move on.

3) Social media burnout

In most cases, social media practitioners in the nonprofit sector spend their days living and breathing the 24/7 bad-news-is-#BreakingNews cycle, and if they work on controversial issues, Internet trolls are likely a daily occurrence. Those two factors alone can easily burnout the most committed and compassionate of nonprofit staff. When you add to that the constant multitasking required to implement social media campaigns well and the addictive nature of social media, burnout is a given. Indeed, I struggle with it often.

What nonprofits can do about it: Make an effort to get away from your computer, tablet, and/or smartphone! Seriously. In 2009, I wrote up 10 tips on how to deal with social media burnout and for me they still ring true, but another I’d like to add now is to watch much less cable news. I can’t tell you how much I am dreading the next 15 months of 2012 election coverage and its potential impact here in the United States. If it’s anything like the last three weeks of cable news coverage about the debt deal/crisis, I just don’t see how it will serve the social good.

Thoughts? Other ways that social media has negatively affected the nonprofit sector that we need to be aware of and deal with? Troll stories? Tips for handling social media burnout? Information overload?

17 Comments leave one →
  1. yktdan permalink
    August 3, 2011 5:14 am

    This is not a new phenomena. In the 50s my father had a regular radio news show called “Good News” to counteract all the robberies, auto accidents, etc. If it bleeds, it leads mentality. My father was a minister, but the show was rarely about religion. Perhaps the show needs to be revived.

  2. August 3, 2011 12:07 pm

    Thanks, these were very true words and yes, often struggle with how much and in what way. I have actually tried to “move” the virtual world offline – just to give people a break  in stead of asking them to do a check-in via foresquare at our venue, they are asked to do a handshake check-in with our volunteers and get a “badge” (sticker). It also illustrates that communication with people is more important than even and often leads to chats about what we do and why we do what we do. Getting a break from the online world now and then is not a bad thing.

  3. August 4, 2011 12:46 am

    One that Wikipedia had to learn:

    Taking someone seriously just because they’re paying you attention is often a bad idea.

    (Most people learn this one as teenagers.)

    You don’t have to talk to the press just because they want to talk to you. I sincerely believe that if we’d spent 2005-2008 *absolutely ignoring* the technology press – “it’s on a computer!” is not a reason – we’d have saved considerable futile effort and stupidity.

  4. nonprofitorgs permalink
    August 5, 2011 6:59 am

    Thanks. Cable news had today pegged as the beginning of the Great Depression of 2011… and no doubt contributed greatly to the drop the 500 point drop yesterday. They foster and perpetuate fear and paranoia constantly…CNN, FOX, MSNBC… all of them. It’s getting ridiculous. Amazing how much better I feel about the future if I just turn off TV.

  5. August 5, 2011 8:46 am

    I’m a devoted reader and webinar attendee, but rarely comment here. However, I have to thank you today. We all have to stop — just stop — and think more about what we’re doing in social media and how we are supporting–or not–our causes. And we have to look very closely at the trends you’ve mentioned. I especially appreciate your mention of the 2012 election. I have already started to tune out because it all seems so negative and futile. But then I lapse into a sense of powerlessness that is dangerous for our society. Each of us has to figure out how to stay engaged without burnout or dropout.

  6. August 8, 2011 6:44 am

    I think that we need to help people spend less time in engagement with media of all kinds, and more time sitting around front and back porches, or even talking with actually people in the mall (with the sound levels turned down so that we can hear each other).

    The addictive and numbing qualities of television and internet need the attention of social activists, since they are such effective tool to manipulate how people think. Just jumping in and trying to use the same media, but more effectively, or with better content, is not enough, in the same way as accepting the terms of the recent “debt crisis” “negotiations” in Congress was not enough.

  7. August 8, 2011 7:15 am

    I’m not sure why I’m commenting, since “…I (and many others) don’t even look at blog or Facebook Status Update comments anymore…” LOL!

    Positive stories on our FB page do seem to get a lot of “Likes” and positive comments from our supporters. We find it most beneficial to post precise (statistical) or very compelling stories. The average nice story just won’t cut it.

    We’ve only had one really negative comment on our FB page (8k fans). Rather than delete it as a troll-post, we openly (but gently) rebuked the young man. The discussion that continued on our post seemed to go quite well after that. I guess he wasn’t really a troll, just a confused teen.

    Side note: Did you mean “deafening silence” rather than “defining silence”?

    • nonprofitorgs permalink
      August 9, 2011 4:55 am

      Thanks… yes. “deafening”

  8. August 8, 2011 12:42 pm

    Bravo for the burn out suggestion…especially the news cycle over the next 15+ months…and let’s not even think about TODAY?
    Thanks for all your good ideas as well Heather, hope all is well with you.

  9. Nancy permalink
    August 8, 2011 9:14 pm

    Thank you for your posts. I chuckled when you referred to “success stories” as I do just that on my Facebook and Twitter, mostly Facebook. There are more issues involved as well. My Facebook and Twitter will be 2 sources that are working towards and are evolving to being a non-profit “helping hand” universally (Nancy Mangan and the picture represents a path leading out of the forest – meaning solutions/encouragement/hope/direction (& even further developments)…bit by bit…
    Grateful that you developed this avenue of resources and for your enabling through your teaching. I will look forward to learning …
    Kind regards

  10. Yoli permalink
    August 15, 2011 6:00 am

    Another one is that people are becoming more skeptical of non profits. Online fundraising, clickactivism without a purpose.. the all too well known picture of the hungry child.. its makes people numb. Its not just the bad news that alienate people, also a lot of recycled or information-without-a-point, specifically a call to meaningful action.

  11. Nancy Patterson permalink
    August 19, 2011 2:17 am

    I love my iPhone. It is ridiculous how life-changing it has been to my work in the nonprofit sector. But sometimes, you just need to tune it our. An old-fashioned tip to cope with social media burnout is to get back to the basics: spend time face to face with your supporters. Communicating online is speedy and handy, but individual attention rules.



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