While social media can fuel unprecedented civic engagement, sparking mass protest and even revolution, the impact of most online activism appears to be limited, a study published in Sociological Science finds.
The report, The Structure of Online Activism (9 pages, PDF), analyzed the giving and recruitment activity of members of the Save Darfur Coalition's "Cause" page on Facebook. Based on activities recorded between May 2007 and January 2010, the study found that although the cause was one of the most popular on the social network, with more than a million members, 99.76 percent of those individuals never made a donation, while more than 72 percent never recruited a new member to the cause. With a 0.24 percent donation rate — compared with typical rates of between 2 percent and 8 percent for direct mail solicitations — the Save Darfur effort raised only about $100,000 on Facebook, while the broader campaign raised more than $1 million through direct-mail contributions in fiscal year 2008 alone.
The study also found that the 20 percent of members who joined the Facebook cause independently were both more likely to donate and recruit new members than were the 80 percent who had been recruited by others. According to the report, those who recruited others were nearly four times as likely as non-recruiters to donate, while donors were more than twice as likely as non-donors to recruit new members.
"The study is an important counter-balance to unbridled enthusiasm for the powers of social media," said Kevin Lewis, a sociologist at the University of California, San Diego who co-authored the report with Kurt Gray at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and Jens Meierhenrich at the London School of Economics and Political Science. "There's no inherent magic. Social media can activate interpersonal ties but won't necessarily turn ordinary citizens into hyper-activists." For the vast majority of the members, Lewis added, "the commitment might have been only as deep as a click."