By Rachael Chong
Arianna Huffington is the president and editor-in-chief of the Huffington Post Media Group, a nationally syndicated columnist, and author of 13 books including biographies of Picasso and Maria Callas, a political satire, and several scathing political commentaries. In 1998, she famously changed her political affiliation from conservative to liberal, underscoring her commitment to meaningful political engagement beyond bipartisan entrenchment. She's a vocal supporter of numerous social good causes and a proponent of sleep, and she serves on the boards of A Place Called Home, El Pais, and the Committee to Protect Journalists--she's also got a great accent.
Co.Exist: In your Co.Exist article The Rise of Empathy in America" you said that "service is in the zeitgeist." What did you mean by that? How has social media helped create this zeitgeist?
We are seeing the manifestations of the "epic shift" that Jeremy Rifkin wrote about in his 2010 book The Empathic Civilization: the growing realization by individuals, businesses, and advertisers that there's much to be said for appealing to consumers' better instincts, and engaging them with something other than materialism, sex, money, and self-interest. People are hungry for meaning and a life lived as something more than just consumers. They want to play a role in the life of their communities and their country and make a difference in the lives of others.
And it's not a coincidence that this trend is escalating at the same time social media have risen to the forefront in the worlds of both marketing and activism. Social media allow like-minded people to coalesce, and have increased the ability of companies to tap into their customers' humanity. But there's a twist: While companies want to use social media to tap into this and because it does a lot of their outreach for them, it also requires something more of the companies that enter the social space. There's a much higher bar for engagement with social media and, once in, a company can no longer easily hide behind a glossy, expensively photographed ad campaign.
You're an outspoken champion of causes you believe in and social media is the megaphone for your efforts. When did you first realize the impact you could make using social media?
Well, first, social media are a means, not an end. And when it comes to championing causes, social media can be a valuable tool for sharing your values and your causes. But calling it a megaphone isn't quite right, because that implies one-way communication, when the essence of social media is their potential to start conversations and make connections. On a daily basis, I'm invited to media conferences filled with panels devoted to social media and how to use social tools to amplify a message. But very few panels are asking what the hell is the message. "We are in great haste," wrote Thoreau in 1854, "to construct a magnetic telegraph from Maine to Texas; but Maine and Texas, it may be, have nothing important to communicate."
Every day has its reminders of social media's impact, but some stand out. I remember visiting Greece last year, at a time when protesters were gathering in Syntagma Square, across from the Greek parliament. Like the others around the world, the Greek protests were fueled by social media, including a protest-themed Facebook page that collected more than 152,000 "likes," but it was amazing to see just how closely interconnected the social media campaigns were with good old face-to-face interaction. The social media engagement was mirrored by physical engagement, and everywhere I went I was stunned to find that everyone--waiters, taxi drivers, storekeepers, salespeople, anybody sitting next to you at dinner--was talking about the same thing. Social media can be used for mindless escape, or for the opposite, for connection and meaning.
Why is giving time different than giving money?
When we do give of our time, it can transform the giver as much as the receiver. Whenever my daughters have gone through difficult times in their own lives, they've found strength, connection, and meaning by helping others. Years ago, for example, one of my daughters had problems with an eating disorder. When she started volunteering at A Place Called Home in South Central Los Angeles that helps take care of at-risk children, it began to change her own sense of her problems, of how she saw herself. There's nothing like reaching out to help others to put your own problems in perspective, and the only way to do that is giving of your own time. Of course, giving time and giving money is the fastest way to change the world.
What does it mean to be generous?
My definition of generosity comes from my mother, whose generosity was infectious. She approached life by liking everybody, and because this feeling of trust and connection is contagious, everybody liked her right back. She also had absolutely no sense of hierarchy. One night, while I was living in London, a friend brought the Prime Minister Edward Heath to dinner. My mother was in the kitchen, where she could be found most of the time, talking to the plumber, who had come to fix a last-minute problem. As I was leaving the kitchen, I overheard my mother asking the plumber what he thought of the prime minister. The plumber complained that he didn't understand the working class. So my mother proceeded to go in the dining room and ask the prime minister if he could please talk to the plumber. And talk things out they did. Her generosity of spirit touched everyone she came into contact with, and as a result it was impossible for her to have impersonal relations.
What advice would you give a social media wonk looking to make a real difference in the world?
Remember that all the new social tools at our disposal can help us bear witness more powerfully or they can help us be distracted more obsessively.
Who are three individuals who inspire you most with their generosity.
Jacqueline Novogratz. As head of the Acumen Fund, she has combined her financial expertise with her gift for empathy, investing in startups around the world that help improve the lives of people unable to do so on their own. Under her leadership, the Acumen Fund has invested more than $75 million in South Asian and African companies to bring essential resources to the poor. She's an inspiration to those who see the injustices and inequalities in our world and long to make a difference.
Brian Boyle. After suffering a life-threatening car accident in 2004, he lost 60% of his blood and needed 36 transfusions during the multiple surgeries that followed. Now he's an Ironman triathlete who runs with the American Red Cross logo, raises awareness for blood donation, and hosts blood drives across the country.
Jennifer Pahlka is an example of a very special kind of generosity: Using her gifts to create new and better opportunities for others. As founder of Code for America, she understands the need to tap into our own innovation and ingenuity in order to solve our most urgent problems. By embedding young tech professionals within city governments, Code for America is equipping communities with the resources and technical expertise that can actually make a difference in people's lives.
Come back Wednesday for our next piece on Jennifer James.
Copyright 2012 by Fast Company. Reprinted with permission.