Forget Social Networks, Think Social Impact

      I'm often amazed at how poorly companies use social media. They display information on Twitter or Facebook. They broadcast news and press releases. They develop entertainment, to "engage" their audience. I believe we can do much better. 

Here's a story of an actual, positive transformation powered by social networks. This is an approach that was striving for impact. An initiative that has leveraged collaboration and activism to produce concrete outcomes. It took place in the field of health, but it could really happen anywhere - where you have a purpose.

Below is the video and the transcript of my presentation at TEDxBedminster on Sept. 2014.

TEDxBedminster [Video]

Some big issues require people to change their behaviors. Some of those issues require radical changes, and this is especially true in the field of health. Dengue is one of those big issues.

Imagine you live in a place where you are constantly at risk of catching a potentially serious disease, just through the bite of a mosquito. Imagine your children, your parents, your friends, your colleagues are equally at risk. Then, you are one of the 2.5 billion people living in Latin America and Asia – even in the Southern part of the US. Dengue was almost nonexistent 50 years ago, but now it’s everywhere around you. There’s no prevention, and no cure against this disease. When outbreaks occur, hospitals are overwhelmed with thousands of patients at a time. Half a million people with severe dengue are hospitalized every year. Some of them will recover, but thousands will die – that’s dengue.

A vaccine is under preparation, and yet to be launched. Currently, the only way you can try to limit the risk is by avoiding the mosquito bite.

Constantly, you have to protect yourself and your loved ones by wearing long sleeve shirts, long pants, by using repellents, bed nets, by removing all standing water around your house, your office, your kids’ school.  And you’d better pray for your neighbors to be as serious as you are. Every. Single. Day.

So, how can this be less troublesome to people? How do we ensure such behaviors become habit? Communication campaigns are the usual response. Many governments in affected countries are doing just that. Some of them try community-based approaches, in line with the World Health Organization’s recommendations. They’re successful – but at a limited scale. How do we make this more efficient? In 2014, a natural answer would be: let’s use social networks. 

Well, no. We need to go back to the fundamentals of social networks, and revisit some misconceptions around them.

Social networks are not an additional tool for pushing information. Social is much more than communication. Revolutions in technology and the economy, and the crisis of authority, have marked the end of passive listening. It’s now the time of active participation. Citizens, customers, employees, now contribute, they check facts,  they demand feedback. They connect and exchange with trusted interlocutors who derive their credibility from what they do, not just what they say.

This is a transformative shift for communication and activism, and this has huge consequences for healthcare. Health organizations and companies have to adapt to this new interaction model. We have to “strategize change from a social movement perspective”, says Helen Bevan, Chief Transformation Officer at the NHS. We need to engage in more than a conversation with diverse people across the world: we have to act together. But first, we need to listen to them actively, because they can tell us about our blind spots, they give us insights. We have to disseminate this insight throughout our organizations, and create the conditions for serendipity to happen. We need to offer people exciting engagement opportunities, not just information.

Traditionally, healthcare is pretty uncomfortable with that. It is not in our culture to promote on-line discussions or co-creation. Total control tends to be the norm.

So, think about that: engaging about health with crowds of social networkers, who are free to talk about anything. Embracing social activism. How big of a change do you think it means for healthcare practitioners? … Massive. This requires a massive transformation. Not just an organizational change, but a mindset and a culture shift.

Well, it’s possible, in practice. We’ve done that. For dengue. It all started with listening to what all those people were saying on line. 

Twitter conversations about Dengue before Break Dengue

Twitter conversations about Dengue before Break Dengue

We wanted to find out who was talking about dengue and who they were talking with. We turned to Twitter because there seemed to be a significant discussion about dengue going on there.

We collected all tweets over 3 months that contained the word “dengue”, in many languages. This gave us 250,000 tweets. Then we visualized how the accounts were related. And we came up with this map.

It showed us, first, that no institutional activist was present in this conversation. You could see just a few sporadic clusters of conversations, colored, that related to outbreaks occurring at that time in some countries. But the most interesting was the big black hole at the center. Just like a real black hole: this is a region of social space from which nothing was escaping. This big black hole was made of… 

… thousands and thousands and thousands of people who spoke a lot about dengue. Who did they speak with? No-one. They were not connected. They spoke to no-one but themselves. You have in front of you the big black hole of dengue monologues. An untapped pool of ideas and engagement. And it was the same everywhere, not just on Twitter! Lots of interest, but a striking absence of collaboration.

We figured out that, by simply harnessing this enthusiasm, connecting those voices and brains, we could contribute to better fighting dengue.

It took us 7 months to build extraordinary momentum. In December 2012, we shared with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation a draft of what could be a worldwide community against dengue. They liked it. We decided to go ahead, and to look for partners to diversify our expertise pool. We are 7 supporting partners to date, from both private and public sectors. All content comes from an external, independent editorial board, and from the public media. A non-profit organization is operating the coalition of partners. In June 2013 it launched the digital hub. Break Dengue was born.

This is a non-profit, open platform that links all dengue fighters to help empower the initiatives, track their progress. It is also a global social movement against Dengue, leveraging the power of social networks.

In August 2013 the Facebook page was launched. In the 1st week alone it attracted 10,000 followers. After 2 months, 50,000. After 3 months, 100,000. Now, just a year after it was born: a quarter of a million followers! There had been another initiative campaigning against dengue before. In many respects, they had followed a very traditional communication model.  Do you know how many people followed their Facebook page? 318. In 3 years! It wasn’t a bad initiative at all. But it was the wrong approach. Informative, institutional, and one-way.

So, how can we be social and impact-focused? Let me share just 3 very real initiatives that came out of this movement.

The International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies is doing a fantastic job against “Silent disasters”, that include dengue. Break Dengue is a natural ally in their awareness efforts, and a joint campaign was organized in June this year. Same support was brought to the World Health Organization’s “Just1Bite” campaign. 

But social is not just about awareness. It’s also about making things happen, bringing new solutions to life. 

The first Break Dengue Awards were organized in India in December 2013, to reward the best project against dengue with a significant money prize. Very interesting projects were submitted from anywhere. Tough job, for the jury! The winner was a project to geo-locate the dengue mosquitoes. They’ve received the grant but they’re also supported through an incubation program. In the future, people will be able to receive alerts on their mobile phones when dengue mosquitoes are identified close to where they are.

Alejandra Laiton

Alejandra Laiton

 Then, there’s Alejandra… Aleja is from Colombia, and a student in sustainable development. For six months, Aleja traveled the world for Break Dengue. My version of the best job in the world! She interviewed people who fight the disease wherever they are, and she collected fantastic human stories that were shared on the site and social channels. This was amazing, both educational and very emotional. Alejandra ended up her tour at the World Cup, with this: the Red Card campaign against Dengue.

What those examples show is that social create links, it builds bridges that enable conversations and collective action. Think of Break Dengue as a global e-café, a space in the web where people can come, get trusted information, share a conversation about dengue, and make things happen. 

I was really proud that our work paid off: in the Oscars of social media, the Shorty Awards, in April 2014, Break Dengue was recognized for the Best Use of Social Media for Healthcare. It’s a wonderful achievement, but we clearly know that this is not enough. What matters to us is to actually impact the disease, by leveraging collective intelligence. If this project makes the dengue burden less heavy, we’ll reach our objective.

This type of initiative is rebooting thinking in healthcare, but not only, simply because it’s a radically different approach compared to the norm. Think Girl RisingAshokaPregnancy & Medicine! We all share the same spirit.

It’s been a success so far, because it’s centered on a cause, on a purpose; it’s an alliance of partners, it connects all stakeholders rather than segment them, and it’s constructive. It worked because it was a combination of all these factors. It worked because it was brave and disruptive. We went against the flow, to innovate, because the magnitude of the disease demands it. It got us to listen, to question, to interconnect, to evolve, and to realize the true power of bringing people together to create shared value.

Has it been easy? No. It was, and still is, such a huge change. Moving from territorial thinking to network thinking is probably one of the hardest challenges. Robert Philips, a British writer and consultant, says: 

“Networks and coalitions, not institutional hierarchies, are the business models of the future: collaboration, not control; thinkers, not technocrats."

It’s exactly that. The future is “activist, co-produced, citizen-centric and society-first”. He calls this: "Public leadership". 

Well-established institutions need to embrace the change, and walk hand in hand with initiatives like Break Dengue. We've heard a lot of: “What’s this digital community, we’re the expert group on the topic, we were here before and we know better!”. So we have to explain: social initiatives are not competing for territory: they’re building bridges between the various territories. 

Social networks are not the enemies. Let’s not be afraid of them. They offer tremendous opportunities to institutions, scientists, companies, individuals simply exercising their good will – to connect, and shine, and contribute to the common good.

We have amazing capabilities and tools at hand. Let’s use them to improve our lives. To do something for our communities, and why not? Make our lives more meaningful with something that benefits others, as well.

So, do something. Do anything. Join one of the initiatives. Follow them, contribute, and share. Talk to your organization . Explore the possibilities. Or, even better, design something similar for a cause that's worth it, a cause that’s very dear to your heart.

Way beyond the mere recreational or informative scope of digital media, it’s about leveraging the incredible power of social networks.

That is a fantastic opportunity to create positive impact together. Let us not miss it.