Does professing your support for a cause online do any good? Or does it just make you feel like you accomplished something and keep you from actually doing anything in the analog world to realize the change you profess to want?
Well, Macolm Sadwell, aren't we glass-half-empty today? Did your Smart car get overturned in the recent Giants riots? (The correct answer to any Giants-related question, by the way, is, "WOOOOOOOOOOH!") The answer to your question, in a word, a less irritating one, is YES. Social networks and online communities are doing great things for nonprofits and other charity organizations. This is partially due to the mere fact that once an org has your information from Facebook Causes or MySpace Impact or Network for Good or what-have-you, then they can market to you directly, thus expanding their lists of potential donors and overall grasp on do-goodery.
One recent example comes from my other, less drunk life at Mother Jones, where we raised $1,500 through Spot.us in a matter of days, to finance a reporter's trip to Haiti. All people had to do was fill out a survey, which is, I'm pretty sure, precisely what Martin Luther King envisioned for the future of humanity. Another, far less impressive and impactful Haiti fundraising example comes from The Chronicle of Philanthropy: "In 48 hours, the American Red Cross raised $3-million for Haiti relief largely with the help of 2.3 million Twitter messages posted by Red Cross supporters."
According to the 2010 Online Nonprofit Benchmark Study, there has been a 14% growth in online giving overall. In terms of total fundraising though, online donations alone accounted for between 1 and 5% of contributions raised. So you know, it aint gonna break the bank or anything, but as I just said, had you even been listening, is that the power of online causes lies more in building and attracting new followers and fans, especially you rapscallions in your 20s and 30s whom nonprofits find notoriously difficult to seduce, even after they told you how great you looked misremembering the words to "Don't Stop Believing" during karaoke that one night.
That said, there are some "causes" that don't do much of anything, like last year's stupid Facebook "post the color of your bra as a status to support breast cancer" meme and this year's even stupider "post where you put your purse, but include the phrase 'I like it on the...' so that we all seem slutty but it's okay because we're talking about cancer" meme. Aside from the rather obvious message that breast cancer is something that exists, such viral campaigns have little impact, except to make you, as Tracy Clark-Flory from Salon put it, "experienc[e] serious ocular strain from all the eye-rolling."
Of course, taking a survey or wearing a "Twibbon" is not the same as activism or volunteering or any number of activities that require more than two minutes of your time, brain cells or hard labor. So if you're looking to become the next Gandhi, you should probably not expect to get very far if you plan to tweet the change u wish 2 c in the world. #kthxbai