Facebook’s Haiti meme gets it right

I felt helpless after the earthquake struck Haiti on January 12. Watching the news, I was horrified by the stories and images of despair and destruction, as well as the country’s abject poverty and lack of access to the most fundamental basics.

Now, as the death toll rises, threatening to surpass 50,000, here—miles and miles away in Sacramento—I still feel largely powerless, unsure how one person can make a tangible difference.

But there mixed in with that sense of shock and sadness is also a small glimmer of optimism, one spurred on by a collective sense of spirited, tech-driven activism.

Within 24 hours of the earthquake, a movement spread online as Internet users spread a short but powerful message via Facebook and Twitter: Donate $10 to the American Red Cross’ relief efforts just by texting the word “Haiti” to 90999.

The result? Americans raised more than $21 million as of press time, according to mGive, a mobile donations provider that teamed with the U.S. State Department and the Red Cross. The donations, which are still rolling in, are charged to your cell-phone bill, and the money goes straight to the Red Cross’ efforts in Haiti—your wireless carrier won’t pocket even a penny of it.

Don’t have $10? Donate $5 by texting the word “Yele” to 501501, and your money will aid the region through Wyclef Jean’s Yéle Haiti foundation.

Aid doesn’t come much easier, and on the heels of another social-media-fueled attempt at activism, it gives me renewed faith in the belief that the Internet isn’t utterly and hopelessly stupid.

I was ready to swear it all off completely after a recent meme that asked women to post their bra color in a Facebook status update—all in the name of raising breast-cancer awareness.

Call me jaded, but I’m pretty sure that knowing the details on my Victoria’s Secret special informs you of little more than my color preferences.

That short-lived viral phenomenon was so-called “slacktivism” at its hollow worst, futile in a way that set the bar below last summer’s movement to change Twitter avatars to green in a show of support for Iranians after that country’s much-disputed election.

(Yes, I participated, although I saw it more as a simple but symbolic show of solidarity rather than a half-assed attempt to “educate” people.)

In contrast, the bra color trend was truly pointless, meaningless and senseless.

Be honest: How many women posted that juicy tidbit without even knowing why they were doing so?

And how many actually added useful breast-cancer facts to go along with that declaration of “pink!” “purple!” or “none”?

Better yet, who actually read one of those status updates and felt even one iota more informed, more educated, more aware of anything other than the fact that, too often, social media falls incredibly short of its global potential.

But not this time—this time we got it right, to the tune of millions of dollars in aid.

It’s the least we can do and, doubtless, we should do more—educate ourselves on Haiti, donate more supplies and money, volunteer at a local Red Cross—but it’s a very commendable, very easy start and material proof that the Internet can, at least when it counts the very most, effect goodness, change and cold, hard cash.