As someone who grew up during the rise of social media, Grace Castonguay’s “The Pressure Behind the Post” hit close to home. Comparing yourself to someone else is never easy, especially when sites like Instagram allow for users to find thousands of accounts in the blink of an eye. With these comparisons, came the subsequent pressure to live a “perfect life,” and there were numerous times when I considered deleting my online one altogether.
Other callouts against social media often point to its lack of substance, drawing attention to the opportunities it gives users to waste time while mindlessly scrolling. These callouts seem to be growing in number as social media expands, with 320 million accounts being registered between the months of September 2017 and October 2018 alone, according to the United States Census Bureau. This means that a profile was created approximately every ten seconds over these 13 months.
While this number may seem large, it represents less than one tenth of all internet-based accounts. Totaling at around 3.4 billion world-wide users, there is no doubt that social media has become a normalized part of life, for better or for worse.
However, in the midst of hearing all the discussion around social media’s seemingly bad reputation, I was struck with a question: could Instagram be used for good?
The immediate answer seems to be yes.
In a survey of over one hundred 10-12th graders with social media accounts at Oyster River High School, over seventy percent reported that they saw social media making a positive impact within their communities.
Social media user Tyler O’Connell (‘19) spoke to this trend, noting, “I’ve seen social media be used to help cover medical bills through sites like GoFundMe, people posting fundraisers for organizations through Facebook on their birthdays, and other support for events like a Polar Plunge fundraising for the Special Olympics.”
O’Connell herself encountered fundraising through social media back in 2014 with the introduction of the “Ice Bucket Challenge.”
This viral trend involved participants dousing themselves with buckets of ice water to raise money and awareness for Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS). The result was thousands of posted videos that raised over 115 million dollars for research and diagnostic treatment for those with ALS, which included providing most of the funds that later led to the discovery of the responsible NEK1 gene, according to “The ‘Ice Bucket Challenge’ Helped Scientists Discover a New Gene Tied to ALS,” by the New York Times.
“I think the fact that [the Ice Bucket Challenge] was created and ran through social media was what allowed it to be successful,” said O’Connell. “The fact that it went viral so quickly showed that social media could be used for good, or at least used to try to raise awareness for a serious disease.”
Alongside encouraging her participation in the Ice Bucket Challenge, social media also encouraged O’Connell to try fundraising for herself. “I participated in the Polar Plunge for Special Olympics with my advisory last February, which involved a lot of fundraising through Facebook. I think this allowed our groups’ efforts to raise money to reach a wider audience, as well as to raise awareness for the Special Olympics and encourage other people to plunge as well.”
Through Facebook, O’Connell and her team ended up raising close to two thousand dollars for Special Olympics, and they are planning to revamp their efforts and online presence this year. O’Connell noted that social media will be a big part of this, saying, “I think social media will continue to help us spread even more awareness and reach a bigger audience, which makes campaigns like this more successful.”
Social media can also be an important tool for marketing, as is the case for current New York University student Olivia Kelly. As the owner of a repurposed clothing account called @Garmentfindz, Kelly was drawn to using Instagram as her business’ only platform due to its widespread reach. “I chose to advertise Garmentfindz on Instagram because of the site’s popularity among my peers. I knew I’d be able to reach a lot of people, and that it would be easy.”
As well as recognizing Instagram for being an effective reach tool within her age group, Kelly also enjoys spreading the messages behind the pieces of clothing that she produces. “I was inspired to start repurposing and selling because I really believe that thrifting is the best way to buy clothing. Thrifting reduces consumerism via recycling, which is not only good for the environment, but allows patrons to dress uniquely and creatively.”
Social media has additionally given Kelly the opportunity to make new connections that she wouldn’t have been able to otherwise. “So many small businesses have taken off after starting with just an Instagram page. It really is the easiest way to connect with people, and you can get a feel of the business by just looking at their Instagram page. It’s so cool, and I’m so glad I chose to start up my business this way,” she said.
Connecting with others was also one of the driving forces behind Amy Jancey’s (‘20) decision to start using her own social media platforms for sharing facts and tips about veganism, which highlights another opportunity that social media allows for: activism. “I love using social media to talk about issues such as [veganism] because nearly everyone has an account. It allows me to post something quickly and with minimal effort,” said Jancey. Being a vegan has since become a huge part of Jancey’s life, as explored further in an Mouth of the River profile by Carola Davis.
In fact, Jancey noted that she wouldn’t have even been inspired to try veganism if she had not learned about it through social media. “I love following other people who are passionate about various subjects on Instagram and other platforms. If some of my friends had never informed me about what eating meat can really cause, I would probably still be eating animals today,” she said. “Now, I want to start a dialogue around a topic that is so easily ignored by using my own platforms.”
Like Kelly, Jancey believes that social media is key towards helping her spread her message, saying, “I definitely believe that social media helps me reach a broader audience. One post has the potential to reach hundreds of people whereas, in real life, I may only talk to half of those people.”
As mentioned by Jancey, accessibility of social media has made it one of the most effective marketing and reach tools to date. And with the growing number of active accounts, the opportunities for fundraising, activism efforts, and business management are only multiplying. “The benefit of all viral campaigns is the sheer number of people who can see them,” said O’Connell. “Social media users can also take advantage of their influence to reach more people and help give legitimacy to a cause, which is unique in and of itself.”