On the burner: Bacon’s Six Degrees

May 12, 2011, 3:04 a.m.

It was just late last month that producers released the new X-Men: First Class international trailer. But yesterday, Paul Brest Hall was filled with students and faculty eagerly awaiting the appearance of the upcoming film’s “Sebastian Shaw.” Fulfilling expectations, Footloose, Apollo 13 and Animal House star Kevin Bacon took his place in the cluster of burgundy leather chairs on stage.

Ideas of social media and social change came together on May 11 as Jennifer Aaker, Stanford GSB professor and author of The Dragonfly Effect, Bill Strathmann, CEO of Network for Good, and Bacon spoke about the evolving, interactive form of social good–social networking.

On the burner: Bacon's Six Degrees
On Wed, May 11, at Paul Brest Hall, Kevin Bacon talked to students about the social good of social media. GSB professor Jennifer Aaker and Network for Good CEO Bill Strathmann joined Bacon for the discussion and the announcement of the One Degree challenge winner (KYLE ANDERSON/The Stanford Daily).

The Haas Center for Public Service helped sponsor this event because of the One Degree service challenge associated with the talk, a contest SixDegrees created for Stanford students to propose charitable ideas involving social media.

“The challenge that preceded it gets students thinking differently about public service and about how social networking can be used for the common good,” said Thomas J. Schnaubelt, assistant vice provost and executive director of Haas.

Aaker admitted her initial skepticism of social media. In 2008, she attributed social media to three things–narcissism, stalking and lack of concentration.

But everything changed over a summer at UC-Berkeley. Some of her students showed her a PowerPoint on the impact of social media and its effect on two men’s lives. The men, Sameer Bhatia and Vinay Chakravarthy, harnessed social media to register over 20,000 South Asian bone marrow donors for cures over the course of only a few weeks.

Bhatia and Chakravarthy had a four-point mantra–“focus on a single goal, grab attention, tell a story and enable others to act.”

“After listening to this, all I could think about was, ‘What could I do now?’” Aaker recalled.

Aaker now works closely with Stanford students on social media and the 100K Cheeks Campaign.

“The goal of the organization is to utilize some principles of The Dragonfly Effect and to create tools to allow other people to take action,” said Vineet Singal ‘12, a member of 100K Cheeks.

The focus then moved to Bacon as he described what motivated him to start SixDegrees.

“I was at a point in my life where I was feeling as though I was doing little things here and there, and I could keep doing little things,” Bacon said. “But I felt like I wanted to make a difference.”

Bacon expected “Six Degrees,” a trivia game based on his celebrity social web, to eventually fade out.

“I thought it was going to go away; I thought it was a joke at my expense,” he said. “It didn’t go away.”

So, Bacon embraced his brand, but he wanted to take himself out of the equation. He asked celebrities to choose charities to write about on his website. However, he realized that celebrity faces alone aren’t enough to convince people to donate.

“Most people get connected to causes through the people they really have a connection with,” he said.

Schnaubelt recognized the potential of social media, but pointed out some of its imperfections.

“We need to recognize that this tool also has limitations,” he said. “Social media relationships aren’t a replacement for real relationships. People didn’t go to Tahrir Square just because somebody tweeted them. They likely went because someone they really knew tweeted them.”

“The same thing will likely be true of using social media with any form of public service,” Schnaubelt added.

When asked if social media might have a negative impact on social activism, Bacon replied, “It’s here. It’s not going away. So why not see if it’s a tool for good?”

Aaker echoed Bacon, describing any dichotomy between social and “traditional media” as a thing of the past.

“Anyone who’s doing any marketing, any branding, any social activism, they’re thinking how they’re here right now and how social media complements groundbreaking acts,” she said.

Strathmann recognized that social media groups for social change do have the potential to fail, which he said can occur when groups don’t provide “a very clear and simple action” or when “actions are too complicated.”

After fielding questions from the audience, the panel introduced the three finalists of Bacon’s One Degree Challenge.

The three finalists–NetEffect, Billionaire Effect and Dispatch and Response–each gave presentations on their ideas.

“I think all three ideas are absolutely remarkable,” Bacon said, announcing Billionaire Effect as the final winner. “There are aspects of all of them that could be used.”

The talk closed fittingly with Aaker describing how to realize change.

“Most revolutions are sparked by the actions of a few ordinary people, and your biggest mind is a clear mind and a very large idea,” she said.

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