Social Media, Social Good?


A mutual friend of mine has gotten into the habit of posting pictures of himself doing good deeds on Facebook. Back in December, he took to the streets on Christmas Eve to deliver hot meals to a homeless encampment under the I-80 freeway.

The act itself is irreproachable, but what of the images posted to social media? Brian high-fiving a homeless man, Brian hugging a homeless woman wrapped in a blanket as she looks up at him gratefully.

These images feel reminiscent of the celebrity PR trips to third world-countries. The oft lampooned image of the glamorous female movie star with a nameless African child propped on her trim hip. There is something that makes me squirm looking at these images.

Yet at the same time, I ask myself two questions. One, if the Brians of the world are really only doing this for “likes,” but the homeless people he serves still get a hot meal, does it really matter why he’s doing it? And perhaps even more significantly, if likes were enough of a motivator to get more people to do good in their community on a large scale, is that really that bad?

It reminds me of the mother of a friend of mine. A suburban housewife living in wealthy Marin County, she bought a Prius at the height of the hybrid vehicle frenzy. But when asked why, instead of pointing to environmental responsibility, she said because “all her friends had one.”

This peer-pressure initiated good behavior brings all the benefits of a greener planet, even if the participant themselves aren’t doing it for that reason. And does it matter if they do?

This brings me to the subject of norms, my own counter argument to the squeamishness I feel  looking at Brian’s Facebook images. While posting photos of good deeds feels self-congratulatory, it does bring to people’s awareness — and their newsfeeds — that “everyday, average” people they know — not just nameless charities and nonprofits — are taking action to better their communities.

This is the “all my friends are doing it” argument mobilized for social good.

So last night I volunteered at a food bank, sorting crates of pears and packing them into family size boxes to be distributed to hungry households around the Bay Area. And I posted a photo. I hope you “like” it — and maybe even one day consider doing the same.

[Photo Credit: Aaron Alexander on Flickr via Creative Commons 2.0]