We First: How Brands & Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World by Simon Mainwaring

Reviewed by Michael Connor

The only thing hotter than social media these days may be the business of writing about it, with pundits by the Google-load now relentlessly analyzing the impact on everyday life of technology platforms like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and dozens of new social apps that promise to connect us all in ways that we’ve never before imagined.

The same might also be said of corporate social responsibility (CSR), with observers and analysts of that movement sometimes seeming to outnumber true practitioners in the field, speculating on how the world could be a much better place if only companies would try harder.

Combining the two – CSR and social media – can lead one to believe a revolution is just around the corner. The theory seems to be that if one could hit a CSR “reset” button on traditional corporate attitudes toward environmental and social issues – while at the same time inspiring consumer action through millions of tweets and status updates – we’d be well on our way to solving many of the world’s pesky and complicated problems.

WeFirst Book CoverWe First: How Brands & Consumers Use Social Media to Build a Better World is not the first book to suggest a linkage between digital media and social change.  But author and advertising executive Simon Mainwaring is more forceful than many, making a powerful argument to “temper the excesses of free-market capitalism” before proceeding to outline nothing less than a consumer-driven “comprehensive system to build a better world.”

“The application of We First means that corporations must recognize that they are part of society and have a responsibility to create something more than profit,” Mainwaring writes.  “As for consumers, they, too, need to understand that they play a role in preserving the Earth and helping a better form of capitalism take root by requiring the businesses they deal with to become responsible corporate citizens.”

The We First plan for building a better world has two specific elements.  The first, which builds on fundraising precursors such as 1% For the Planet, is what Mainwaring calls “contributory capitalism,” in which every single consumer transaction for products and services globally “would include a contribution toward building a better world.”  The second element is what he calls the Global Brand Initiative, an association of hundreds or thousands of leading corporate brands working together to put their “collective power and resources” to work addressing some of society’s most difficult problems.

Simon Mainwaring

Simon Mainwaring

It’s difficult to imagine this becoming reality.   Then again, CSR was a nascent movement only 10 years ago; WalMart embracing sustainability would have been impossible to imagine in 2001.  And the modern Internet was still being born only 20 years ago, before web browsers were introduced.  Who would have imagined then that democratic movements in countries like Egypt and Tunisia could harness the power of status updates and tweets to help overthrow entrenched dictators?

Social media has its limitations, and Mainwaring acknowledges a phenomenon that critics of these new platforms call “slactivism” – slacker activism – wherein “it is easy to sign up on a fan page for a cause and do almost nothing.”  But Mainwaring says the future will be more complex than that, and he outlines six levels of engagement offered by social media which provide “a complex and rich infrastructure for the activist processes of social transformation.”

The hope, of course, is that such “social transformation” will be positive.  It’s also possible that new forms of media could be employed more nefariously for less desirable social outcomes.

In an interview, Mainwaring admits the challenges are huge. “In the context of being realistic, if consumers do not shift their behavior sufficiently, none of this will happen,” he says. “At the same time, we should not underestimate the engagement of consumers both with social technology and with their responsibility to improve the world that they want in the way that they want.”

“Still, the world we want will not be built by fiber optics, cell-phone towers, or social media platforms,” Mainwaring writes. “It will be created choice by choice, in our hearts and minds, and with our hands.” The process could take many years, he says.  At the moment, “we’re at about 3 o’clock on Day One.”

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