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Viral philanthropy

Little literature is available when specifically considering the viral dimension of philanthropy on social-media since it is a fairly recent topic, publicly revealed by online phenomenons such as the Ice Bucket Challenge or the Movember campaign. However, scholars and Non-Profit-Organizations (NPOs) have long identified the importance and impact of online communication technology over the practice of philanthropy. This paper aims at setting an overview of the field with as primary research question: To what extent do the mechanisms of social virality provide a fertile ground for the practice of online philanthropy?

Although philanthropy can be perceived as a well understood type of idea, event or action, defining its meaning effectively and in a comprehensive way seem to have been attempted only recently (Sulek, 2010). Over the course of history, the definition of this term which finds its origin in the classical Greek era has significantly evolved, reflecting “dominant philosophical and cultural trends in modern Western society” (Sulek, 2009, 195). First English writer to use it in a modern sense in 1612, Francis Bacon employs the word as follows: “I take goodness in this sense, the affecting of the weal of men, which is that the Grecians call philanthropia; and the word humanity (as it is used) is a little too light to express it” (1985, p. 96). Nevertheless, some working definitions are commonly accepted amongst scholars. Notably, the formulation proposed by Lester Salamon, “the private giving of time or valuables (money, security, property) for public purposes” (Salamon, 1992, 10), embodies the necessary ideas for our field of study. In its modern definition, philanthropy has been tightly associated to the practice of fundraising and public relations, putting communication strategy and information technology at the very center of this activity (Schneider, 2003). Like Waters puts it : “One of the first communication strategies newly formed nonprofits should adopt is the development of an Internet site to relay information about the organization and its programs” (2007, 62). Since then, handbooks and best practices have been proposed to successfully conduct philanthropist matters. Waters argues: “The Harvard Business School’s Social Enterprise Initiative predicts that online giving will become a significant source of organizations’ fundraising efforts even though online giving remained a small percentage of the total income until then” (2007, 62). With the emergence of social networks, the need for elaborated content strategy and social marketing expertise have appeared as the next key in this sector and calls for a deeper understanding of the mechanisms of virality: “Knowing what motivates people to join, to act, to respond, to investigate and to pass along messages to others is the basis for philanthropy on the Web” (Soyak, 2008, 52).

Many authors have contributed to the general debate on virality of online content and questioned the mechanisms involved in the act of sharing, with findings that are particularly relevant to our concern. An essential starting point is the work of French sociologist Gabriel Tarde, who established in The laws of imitation some ground theory for the concept of contagion for social phenomena as opposed to biological (Marsden, 1998). Analysis of imitative physiological behavior like yawning or blushing can then be considered as stepping stones of this research area. Arguing Tarde’s theory, Tony D. Sampson brings a significant contribution to the field by transposing it in the age of networks. His main argument consists on the idea that too much connectivity allows for neuromarketers and politicians among others to prime social atmospheres and influence people’s desire. Accordingly, we can assume that social media users can be unconsciously inclined by their network to think, feel and eventually behave a certain way, if the messages and signals they receive are designed with such purpose. Among other case studies, Sampson enlightens how Barack Obama’s presidential campaign achieved to control the feelings of electors by carrying and spreading a message of love, hope and empathy. These three last words are particularly relevant from a philanthropic perspective, as they are the ground emotions for almost any initiative. Yet, they also appear to be conditions favoring virality. (Sampson, 2012) This finding naturally leads us to a parallel ongoing debate discussing whether positive or negative content is shared more. While some scholar argues that users are more likely to pass along negative news (Godes et al., 2005), recent quantitative researches tend to identify the opposite. (Berger and Milkman, 2010). Under the hypothesis that the online expression of philanthropy uses a positive rhetoric (this hypothesis should be verified by a further study), its virality appears even more probable.

Aside from these considerations about the nature of the viral content, the structure of social networks is another essential factor of the phenomenon and academic authors have significantly contributed to document this domain. A commonly used theory of virality was proposed by Malcolm Gladwell. His intuitive model suggests that viral contents follow a linear progression through influencers and tipping points (Gladwell, 2001). On the opposite, other scholars argue that the Gladwellian model lacks of tangible elements and suggest that “most social change is driven not by influentials, but by easily influenced individuals influencing other easily influenced individuals” (Watts and Dodds, 2007, 442). The evolution of analytical tools has allowed recent examinations to adopt a more data-based approach and confront theories with real world experiments, revealing remarkable structural diversity of diffusion events (Goel et al., 2013) for some and providing predictive methods for virality (Weng, Menczer and Ahn, 2013) for others.

As we saw, the emergence of a viral event on online networks relies on many variables that the authors we’ve mentioned have already greatly described considering the relatively recent appearance of this phenomenon. Yet in our research, we must approach these texts in regard of a very specific type of content which apparently transcends and maximizes all virality factors. By combining the effects of word-to-mouth, structural virality, participation of influencers and mass media spread to the intrinsically call to share of its positive and emotionally engaging nature, philanthropic content has already proven its virality by facts and numbers (Scott 2014).

I wrote this essay in the context of the Master Programme in New Media Studies & Digital Culture
I am currently following at Utrecht University.


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Godes, David, Dina Mayzlin, Yubo Chen, Sanjiv Das, Chrysanthos Dellarocas, Bruce Pfeiffer, Barak Libai, Subrata Sen, Mengze Shi and Peeter Verlegh (2005), “The Firm’s Management of Social Interactions,” Marketing Letters, 16 (3/4), 415-428.

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Sampson, Tony D. 2012. Virality: Contagion Theory in the Age of Networks. U of Minnesota Press.

Schneider, Jo Anne. 1988. “Information Age.” Telematics and Informatics 5 (4): 342. doi:10.1016/S0736-5853(88)80046-7.

Scott, Ryan. 2014. “Philanthropy 2.0: Ice Buckets, Mustaches and Sniffing Strangers.”

Stenovec, Timothy. 2014. “The Reasons The Ice Bucket Challenge Went Viral.”

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Sulek, M. 2010. “On the Classical Meaning of Philanthropia.” Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly 39: 385–408. doi:10.1177/0899764009333050.

Tarde, G. (1903). The laws of imitation (E., Parsons, Trans.; French ed., 1880). New York: Henry Holt.

Petronzio, Matt. 2012. “Viral Philanthropy: The Impact of Crowdsourced Compassion.”

Waters, Richard D. 2007. “Nonprofit Organizations’ Use of the Internet: A Content Analysis of Communication Trends on the Internet Sites of the Philanthropy 400.” Nonprofit Management and Leadership 18 (1): 59–76. doi:10.1002/nml.171.

Watts, Duncan J., and Peter Sheridan Dodds. 2007. “Influentials, Networks, and Public Opinion Formation.” Journal of Consumer Research 34 (4). The University of Chicago Press: 441–58. doi:10.1086/518527.

Weng, Lilian, Filippo Menczer, and Yong-Yeol Ahn. 2013. “Virality Prediction and Community Structure in Social Networks.” Scientific Reports 3: 2522. doi:10.1038/srep02522.

Accademic essays