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Social Media & Cancer: Fluffy Stuff or Super Smart?

Posted May 20 2010 7:55pm

Sadly, a family health issue is preventing me from attending and speaking on the Social Media Panel the OMG Summit this weekend. Urgh! So please allow me to wax about the subject here instead

Social media (like a phone or radio) can be used for fluffy, brain draining, and fun diversions. It can also be a tool to advocate for big young adult health issues like access to affordable care and clinical trials. So how do you use your social networking time wisely to become an educated and effective cancer activist instead of a slacktivist?


Think about Pepsi. They’re brilliant for not to spend millions on Super Bowl ads this year because they’ve managed to rent our brains for free instead. Pepsi Refresh, and similar campaigns, award money to do-good projects receiving the most votes in their online contests. But popularity does not equal value. The popularity of a project, a person, or organization has zero to do with their efficacy, necessity, skills, or smarts.


These seductive social media campaigns often enticing us to mobilize our networks to raise money or awareness to impact cancer. But cancer is about much more than contests, awareness campaigns and fundraising. In fact, most cancer issues that impact our lives are about science, industry, politics, prioritized evidence-based research, and policy. If you don’t understand these words and how they relate to cancer, you will not significantly impact the future of cancer prevention, outcomes, and quality of life measures.


I have no degree in science or public policy – only a BA in InterArt Studies. But I know what I’m talking about when I stand in a Senator’s office asking that Congress demand more funding from the National Cancer Institute for young adult research. And, I can write good letters to my newspaper asking that pharma not be allowed to hold a patent the BRCA gene. I’ve taught myself what I know largely through being a smart with social media.


Using social networking as an educational tool might sound boring or daunting, but I think it is addictive and that smarts are the sexiest thing out there. So if you want to make a serious impact as a cancer activist too, consider these tips

1. Multiply By Five.
Keep track: For each tweet or facebook message you post or comment on, spend five minutes reading a journal or news article about healthcare policy or scientific research. The topics and jargon seem foreign, but the more you read the more you’ll understand. If you don’t have this much time to spend reading, then you’re spending too much time on twitter and facebook!

2. Retweet Only What You Read.
Retweet information only if you have read the entire article/post, have an opinion about it or ask an intelligent, know who wrote it and their motives, and think it’s valuable to others. You’ll have fewer tweets/updates going out which in turns elevates the quality, rather than quantity, of conversation in the cancer community.

3. Get Stingy With Your Time and Attention
I don’t waste my brain or clog my inbox by joining any old facebook group. Before supporting an organization I ask: Is the staff or director spending more time on facebook and twitter than working on the backbone of their mission? Are they filling a niche high on the list of cancer priorities and goals? Are they willing to speak up on controversial issues if it benefits their constituents? Will they educate me? @bcaction @cancerandcareer are great orgs doing it right!

4. Online Petitions? Feh!
Elected officials want live phone calls, not form e-letters and certainly not online petitions. If you get an online petition, research the cause and if you support it, take a more effective form of action.

5. Old Fashioned News Feeds
I still subscribe to daily and weekly email updates from professional sources and journals. Why? Because the smartest, most effective people I know are not spending their time twittering or on facebook. They are engaged in science and policy and write more than 140 characters about their discoveries.

How many hours per week do you use social media to do good in the cancer world? Does social media change your knowledge or feel like a brain drain? Any tips for making the most of social media?

For more tips about how to spend your cancer time online, read Everything Changes: The Insider’s Guide to Cancer in Your 20s and 30s.

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