Despite the online fundraising success of the Obama campaign, the Washington Post reports that Facebook Causes, “hugely popular among nonprofit organizations seeking to raise money online, has been largely ineffective in its first two years, trailing direct mail, fundraising events and other more traditional methods of soliciting contributions.” Only the Nature Conservancy and Students for a Free Tibet have raised more than $100,000 on Facebook Causes, and most of the 179,000 non-profits listed on Facebook don’t even make $1,000 from the site. This is more depressing when you realize that Facebook usage has swelled to over 200 million. Twenty five million Facebook users show their affinity through Facebook Causes and their belief in the environment or women’s rights or freedom of choice, but fewer than 1% of such users actually donate.
Other experiments have shown that 1-3% of a nonprofit group’s e-mail list donate money when solicited, at an average of about $80 per person. That is more than 44 times the rate at which such users are donating online through Facebook Causes.
Note: one reader, Will Coley, brought to my attention two blog postings contesting the Washington Post report. See Fine Blog and Beth’s Blog. I don’t find these refutations all that persuasive; sure there are lot of Facebook Causes that are not NPOs (so the donation/cause is not the right statistic) and Facebook has a lot of young users (who are not big donors), but the original motivation of Facebook Causes was to help harness social networks to raise a lot for non-profits, and this has largely been a failure, although maybe it helps Facebook users to identify themselves with other users that share their values.
The more hopeful finding about Facebook comes from a recent paper “Social Capital, Self Esteem and the Use of Online Social Networks”. [This is a longitudinal follow-up paper to an earlier paper by Ellison, Steinfield, and Lampe in 2007 called “The Benefits of Facebook Friends: Social Capital and College Students’ Use of Online Social Network Sites."] Ellison et al. found in panel survey data they gathered at Michigan State University (MSU) stronger evidence that Facebook usage predicted later increased levels of “bridging social capital” than that “bridging social capital” caused increased Facebook use. [Note: see below on their strange measure of bridging social capital.]
It’s an intriguing finding, although one should note that the size of the panel is quite small (92 students completed the earlier and later survey) and there was attrition both in whom they originally asked to do the survey (where only 277 out of 800 students contacted responded) and then secondary attrition when only a third of those 277 students then filled out the follow-up survey. [Ellison et al. note that the 92 seemed demographically representative of the 277 students, but one can never know about hidden attributes that might have explained why people would stick with the survey and also explained why these same people would have made more friends.]
Moreover, one would suppose that the power of Facebook to build social capital and bridging social capital is probably higher at a university setting where most of the e-friendships are in the same town, and one is thus more likely to encounter budding Facebook friends in real life. (Almost all research shows that it is easier to build trust and stronger ties face-to-face, so having a strong geographic concentration of Facebook friends and ‘near friends’, in an environment where new students are establish friends, should provide Facebook with the strongest dynamic for friend-building.)
The paper, as I noted in a blog post on the earlier study, uses weird measures of bridging social capital. Bridging social capital is supposed to measure the degree to which one has social friendships to people of a different religion, or social class, or race or ethnicity. Their “bridging” measures are more about attachment to MSU as a community and include: “I feel I am part of the MSU community”, “I am interested in what goes on at MSU”, “MSU is a good place to be”, “I would be willing to contribute money to MSU after graduation”, “Interacting with people at MSU makes me want to try new things”, etc. I definitely had loyalty to my college when I was there, but I don’t know that this necessarily says a whit about how diverse my friendships were there.
With this unusual measure of “bridging social capital”, the researchers found that both higher-esteem and lower-esteem students were likely to benefit by increased “bridging social capital” (i.e., have a stronger attachment to MSU) from Facebook use, although this effect was highest for students with low self-esteem at the beginning of the study. And they found that Facebook produced greater attachment to MSU even after controlling for general Internet use and measures of psychological well-being.
While their survey doesn’t directly get at this question, it seems somewhat different than the common findings with technology that the socially-rich get richer, and, rather than leveling the playing field, it may fuerther tilt it. Ellison et al. don’t directly measure level of social capital at the outset, but in their finding that those low in self-esteem may benefit the most (at least in attachment to MSU), it suggests that at least in this domain the socially unattached may benefit more.
For more information, see :
Charles Steinfield, Nicole B. Ellison, Cliff Lampe. Social capital, self-esteem, and use of online social network sites: A longitudinal analysis. Journal of Applied Psychology 29 (2008) 434–445
To Nonprofits Seeking Cash, Facebook App Isn’t So Green: Though Popular, ‘Causes’ Ineffective for Fundraising by Kim Hart and Megan Greenwell (Wash Post, 4/22/09)