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Spencer West climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro on his hands and in his wheelchair to raise money. (Courtesy of Free the Children)
Spencer West climbing Mt. Kilimanjaro on his hands and in his wheelchair to raise money. (Courtesy of Free the Children)

We Day

Spencer West: Determination meets the power of social media Add to ...

For the past four years, Spencer West has been inspiring Canadians the old-fashioned way – by giving speeches to packed crowds. But more recently, the Toronto-based author and motivational speaker has been using a different medium to galvanize the public: social media.

After seeing the uprising in Egypt last year and how social media has helped Free the Children – he’s an ambassador for the organization – Mr. West realized that social networking could be a powerful tool to help motivate people.

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In June, Mr. West, who lost both legs when he was 5 and talks about the struggles he’s had to overcome, was planning to climb Mount Kilimanjaro. His mission was twofold, he says. He wanted to show the world that people can “redefine what’s possible” and he wanted to raise $750,000 for sustainable clean water in Africa.

To raise money, Mr. West took to social media, where he posted, in almost real-time, pictures and blog posts of his climb. With thousands of people following him and more than 100,000 fans of Free the Children’s Facebook page, he was able to raise $500,000 in just a couple of months.

While he thinks he would have eventually hit that amount, he says it takes a lot less time to spur people to action these days. “Social media got the word out much faster than we could do on our own,” he says.

It’s clear from events in the past couple of years that social media can help motivate the masses.

David Faris, a political science professor at Roosevelt University and author of the soon-to-be released book about Egyptian digital activism, Dissent and Revolution in a Digital Age, says social media gives people a voice and a community where there may not have been one before.

In Egypt, people first used blogs to talk about their frustrations with the Mubarak regime, but then took their dissent to Facebook and Twitter. “It’s a place where people can express themselves and build solidarity,” he says.

Social media didn’t cause the uprising, he explains, but because of their immediacy, they definitely sped up the process. “Eventually, the regime, the way it was running the country, would have caused a large-scale reaction,” Dr. Faris says. “But it wouldn’t have happened in January, 2011.”

While Egypt may be the most famous case of social media causing social change, these sites rouse people to support causes all the time. Free the Children often uses social media to rally people to different causes and the organization’s director of digital media, Alex Apostol, says a recent bullying incident in the United States acutely demonstrates the power of social media.

In June, an American bus monitor was bullied incessantly by kids on her bus and videos of the verbal assault were posted online. Days later a Toronto nutritionist took to the Web to raise money to send her on a vacation. Thanks to social media, both the video and the donation plea were seen by millions of people and more than $700,000 was raised.

“One day something is not a cause, then suddenly it becomes a cause,” Mr. Apostol says. “There’s something to be said in how quickly something on social media can catch on.”

Mr. Apostol has seen first-hand how influential social media can be. When We Day started in 2007, it was a day-long event with no social media presence. As the event grew, Free the Children saw that more and more people wanted to get involved, but only so many people can fit into the Air Canada Centre. In September, 2010, they started a We Day Facebook page so people could follow along with the event.

In one month the page received 100,000 likes; it now has more than two million fans. Not only does the page cover We Day and keep everyone up to date on what’s happening that day, but it is a place where people can discuss social issues all year. One recent post about rapper Chris Brown and domestic abuse elicited more than 80 comments and more than 300 likes.

The We Day page, says Mr. Apostol, “is a place where people are talking about big issues. They’re tapped into something that’s really happening.”

One major advantage that social media has over other mediums is that it encourages youth to get involved. Younger people are consuming an increasing amount of information on social networks, so when they see several friends like a cause and see other people post stories on that cause, it gives them the go-ahead to like something too.

“When someone sees an article posted by a trusted friend, they’re likely to engage with that article in a certain way,” Dr. Faris says. “They may not care about something at first, but after seeing hundreds of messages on a topic, they then realize that maybe they should look into it.”

Of course, not every cause will resonate with people. It’s often about being in the right place at the right time and on the right social network. It also has to be a cause that people are thinking about – it could be married to a news event or another big issue that affects a lot of people.

It also helps to have a network of influential people. If only 10 people are following you on Twitter, it’s unlikely your message will get out.

After witnessing social media’s power himself, Mr. West says he’ll definitely use the Web to continue raising awareness – and money. Free the Children recently launched an initiative to provide clean water to 100,000 people around the world, which he’s helping promote by telling more stories about his Mount Kilimanjaro adventure.

“I’m going to travel the world to tell stories about my climb and push this campaign,” he says. “And I’ll be posting to Twitter and Facebook along the way.”

Editor's note: This is a corrected version of the story.

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