Book Review – CauseWired

Causewired Tom Watson‘s CauseWired is a book that left me interested, inspired and annoyed at the same time. I’ll start with what I liked about the book and then addressed the reservations I have with it. But let me say up front that I found it a very interesting read (Watson knows how to write… heh, he’s pal with Lance Mannion,  and they all have their cool clique at Newcritics, and so, what did I expect?).

Anyhoo, back to CauseWired. CauseWired is about what Watson considers to be an emerging powerful trend: the rise of the online social activist sector.

“This book also suggests strongly that what some refer to as online social activism and others call peer-to-peer philanthropy is quickly becoming a sector, bound together by a growing critical mass in usership and an expanding acceptance in the worlds of philanthropy, politics, activism, and marketing. Indeed, the brief period of creation of the past few years (perhaps dating to the beta launch of DonorsChoose in 2000) is giving way to the next evolutionary phase of growth, and the permanent mooring of several important financial models on our greater economy.” (xxi-xxii)

CauseWired refers to the unleashing of online social activism thanks to the technologies of Web2.0 and the availability of a variety of platforms such as DonorsChoose, Kiva, GlobalGiving, MicroGiving (and let me add the one of right sidebar here, Children International), or social networking sites such as Causes on Facebook or There is no denying that these platforms and sites are attracting a lot of small donors to the point where Kiva regularly runs out of projects to fund and has to cap donations to $25. And for Watson, the meteoric rise and power of CauseWired is visible in the immense success of the Obama campaign and its use of Web2.0 technologies.

The central thesis of the book is this:

“Rapid advances in media and technology, in the ways people communicate, are changing how people support causes and how we respond to that underlying human impulse to help others, improve our communities and change the world.” (xxx)

Or more romantically,

“New technology and the human urge to communicate will create the basis for a golden age of activism and involvement, increasing the reach of philanthropy and improving the openness of politics, democratic government, and our major social institutions.” (19)

[As should be obvious, I am heavily into CauseWired… just take a look at the sidebars. And for those who read this blog, it’s obvious that I am a big fan of microcredit and a donor ot Kiva, GlobalGiving and Children International. I subscribe to Causes on Facebook and am a member of and LinkedIn.]

In a big part of the book, Watson retraces the genealogy of Causewired through the social entrepreneurs (in a broad sense) that got moved to use Web2.0 technologies to promote progressive social change. That is on the supply side. On the demand side, you now have the “consumers” of both causes and technology: people who are not content with just writing checks to the Red Cross or any other large conventional charity organization but want a real connection to the end point of their donation, not just as a matter of making sure that the money goes where it is supposed to, but also to be able to “see” and be “connected” to those they support.

For Watson, these consumers of causes and technology (or, as Watson calls them after Alvin Toffler, “prosumers”) represent a generational shift:

“The generalization of a materially obsessed generation masks a vital and important movement – a subtle shift in priorities and aspirations that will have a huge impact on the future of philanthropy. At no point since the student movements of the 1960s have young people worn their cases so openly – but this time around, the Facebook Generation is not fighting the establishment. They own it. For today’s superwired, always-on, live-life-in-public young Americans, the causes you support define who you are. Societal aspirations have so permeated the “net-native” population that causes have become like musical tastes, style choices, and “blog bling.”” (16)

These net-natives create or absorb causes through their networks via a variety of portals such as Facebook or MySpace. However, what is also obvious is that putting a cause badge on one’s Facebook profile is not the same as funding or engaging in any type of activism. It is the lowest possible form of activism (just a few clicks) but what it does is to reveal something about one’s identity and build social capital. The badges one displays, or the widgets one puts on a blog sidebar, are one’s public identity. Identity does not necessarily translate into action.

And that is an issue that Watson addresses repeatedly throughout the book: a lot of online activism has had a limited impact in terms of fundraising or sometimes, actual change: Katrina victims are still homeless, people are still being killed in Darfur, etc. When it comes to the money, big foundations and organizations still rule the day.

But there is no question that Watson is fascinated by the net generation and its alleged idealism all the while recognizing that they might not “do” much, as in No One is Innocent’s song,… it’s not a coincidence that I posted the clip on the eve of Obama’s election. There is indeed a convergence between Obama’s campaign and the net generation, not all I find inspiring or idealistic, as much as Watson does. However, there is no denying that the campaign itself was very astute in the use of Web2.0 technology in promoting the Obama brand / cause (which I think is what it is).

That being said, I found the book most inspiring when Watson goes through the different tools created and the experiences of social entrepreneurs and their projects. It certainly gave a me a lot of food for thoughts and ideas as to how I could promote a social entrepreneurship online structure at my college to promote alongside the new global / environmental / peace / leadership studies programs we are creating. And I certainly plan on making a lot of people read the book for that purpose.

Now, to the critical side of things. Some of the problems I had were with Watson’s depiction of the net generation, the general characteristics of this new philanthropy. Let’s see if I can articulate them.

Watson’s description of the net-natives (and, from experience, I tend to think we overestimate technological prowess) ignore something that I consider major: social class. Those young people who are in college, have access to the hardware to enjoy all the fruits of Web2.0 technology are privileged young people, which is why they have the luxury to create and build their social identities through the various portals. They have access and time as well as resources. Not everyone in that generation has that ability. Which is why I find general description of that generational shift profoundly annoying. What is described as the net generation is the upper middle to upper classes. The non-wired are disappeared. I do not blame Watson for focusing on the privileged, I fault him for not even mentioning that this is the demographics he’s talking about, not a generation. Those he discusses are indeed invested in causes because they are materially provided for and secure.

And while we’re on the topic of social classes, there are two other categories of people lying in the shadows of the CauseWired: those who make the hardware the net natives use, and the disadvantaged they are supposed to help. In the book, these are either absent or simply objects. The only subjects are the CauseWired, the net natives, those who invest in causes to help these Others, less fortunate. These Others are objectified as props in the construction of one’s identity through the causes one supports and promotes in Facebook or MySpace.

But let’s focus on the net-natives again. If Watson’s descriptions are accurate (as I believe they are, minus again the certainty of their technological savvy), the net-natives are pure products of what Habermas calls the crisis of legitimacy. They do not believe in governmental power to solve problems (although, having just come out of eight years of Bush/Cheney, one cannot be faulted for believing that), but that skepticism extends to conventional charities as well.

Similarly, the net-natives are a product of liquid society and individualization. They seem skeptical of institutional structures and power and want to be philanthropists on their own terms, individually. And I mean individually in the sense of, as Watson puts it, peer-to-peer activism, one person helping another, or one individual helping a project. This is philanthropy and activism in the age of global consumption (in all fairness, Watson does address that aspect): one funds a Kiva project in the same way one orders a pizza online, deciding on the criteria which will make the recipient worthy of the donor’s $25. It looks like th freedom to choose from the donor’s point of view, but what of the recipient? I guess we never know except for the messages of gratitude left on websites.

As I read the book, that other side of this was constantly on my mind especially considering the fact that for all the revolutionary nature of all this (and again, I believe it is), there is not necessarily much to show for all this online social activism. But, we have to acknowledge that this is a nascent movement and we’ll have to see how it survives the next few years.

And then, there’s Obama. I have to confess that I was not in the mood to read about Obama. I’ve had my fill. Again, there is no question that he was the candidate of the net generation and his campaign took advantage of web2.0 technologies better than any others. But here again, let’s not forget the other side of things: the massive support from the mainstream media and major financial donors as well as the major progressive blogs. And let’s not forget the massive leveraging of rank misogyny, sexism and ageism from the net generation. Let’s count that as part of his success as well. If anything, the web2.0 technologies facilitated the spread of the most disgusting misogynystic memes along with a very superficial promotion of policy. Obama was first and foremost a brand, enthusiastically, but also superficially embraced by the net natives. That is part of the story as well. Identity over action and policy.

But again, this has more to do with my own fed-up current state with regard to Obama because the case study of his campaign definitely belongs in the book.

So, yes, these are what I consider major issues with the book and its subject. But as I mentioned above, some sections were truly inspiring to me and I will recommend it to many people with whom I work.

2 thoughts on “Book Review – CauseWired

  1. Hey there, thanks for the thoughtful review!

    Indeed, you touch on one of the frustrations I felt in writing CauseWired – that it didn’t have enough representation from the “other side” of the philanthropic equation. Sure, there was a bit on Katrina, Mukhtaran Bibi, and the bloggers of Madagasgar, but the focus was indeed on the social entrepreurship set – and yes, many of its movers and shakers are heavily advantaged compared to those they seek to assist.

    Plus, I didn’t address much of the digital divide question – that’s a whole other book, in truth. I will say that the preponderance of cell phones in society from top to bottom puts online social activism at most people’s fingertips….but your point about having the time, the point of view, the computers to build sites and programs is well taken.

    I’m glad you liked it on the whole – and even happier that it got you thinking about all this stuff. Heck, I finished the book last spring and so much has happened since then!

  2. Well, I hope I didn’t come off too harshly and yes, some of the critiques I had are just the sociologist’s reflex of always considering the big picture.

    Out of curiosity, on the topic of the net natives, have you heard of Jennifer Kushell?

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