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Is social media making us better people or just more selfie obsessed?

Is posting pics of ourselves on Facebook and Twitter always about me, me, me, or can it ever be a force for the greater good, asks Nel Staveley

So, the make-up was off and one of the biggest charity fundraising campaigns social media has ever seen began. In case you've managed, somehow, to miss it, here's a brief summary: women (and some men) wipe off their mascara and foundation, take a photo of themselves, then post it on Facebook or Twitter, with a natty #nomakeupselfie beside it. The idea is that they then also donate £3 to Cancer Research UK and Breakthrough Breast Cancer, and nominate a few friends to do the same.

For anyone languishing in their last-minute London Marathon preparations, or who's ever climbed mountains/cycled jungles/abseiled skyscrapers, it might seem like a slightly easy way of 'doing your bit' for charity.

For many people, it also jars with: a) the idea that women not wearing make-up is in any way 'brave' (which wording in the trend states), out of the ordinary or remotely noteworthy, and b) that a campaign about cancer, and the horrors it can ravage on a person's body, should be represented in a stream of photos focused on someone's appearance.

And yet, there is no denying the campaign's surging success. In six days, a number nudging three million had posted their 'natural' snaps and over £8m had been raised.

Slightly 'off-brand' messaging aside, that is incredible.

Incredible, too, not only for very worthy causes (though the charities deny they started the campaign, saying it began virally instead), but for anyone waving the flag for social media not being inherently narcissistic. Because that's what it's often dismissed as. Addictive, yes; powerful, yes; global, certainly; a source of constant information, obviously. But a force for people coming together to do something amazing and think beyond themselves and their self-promotion? Probably not.

Yet – tying in with a new survey (by Apollo Blinds) showing that 82% of people asked said they'd got involved in a local community project thanks to sites like Facebook and Twitter – this #nomakeupselfie campaign has proved social media is not only about the individual, it's about the individual uniting with other individuals to find a common voice.

It was certainly an episode which caught the imaginations of industry experts with plenty to say on the matter.

"The #nomakeupselfie is a great example of how an essentially indulgent activity – in this case taking a picture of yourself – can be translated into something brilliant that raises awareness, and more importantly, raises funds for vital causes," says Ali Brice, social media editor at the Breakthrough Breast Cancer charity.

"The best and worst aspects of social media – that it gets people talking about themselves, but also to each other – make it such a powerful tool, and one that can be used to foster a real sense of community. When just the right measures of certain elements are thrown in – a call to action, a cause, and a simple mechanism to take part – social media can force a real change in the world."

Angela Everitt, content lead and social media strategist at creative content agency, Southerly, agrees that the #nomakeupselfie has been "a force for good".

"The campaign has gone viral because it gets to the heart of what is good about social media: the spirit of community and fun," she says. "We get to have a giggle by nominating friends to do something we know they'd never normally do. It also allows people to help a cause with very little personal commitment – uploading a photo and texting a donation is easy and quick, but it still makes us feel like we're part of something worthwhile."

For social media phenomena expert Nik Pollinger, however, the #nomakeupselfie selfie viral was not the best example of a sense of community spirit being engendered online "because it primarily involves online-only interactions".

"A more profound and enduring sense of togetherness is created when on and offline social interactions reinforce each other," he says.

"However, before we get too carried away about the potential of social media to counter individualism, we need to remember that a community spirit is not always a positive thing. All sorts of nasty groups have one. A really good example is the London riots of August 2011. Social media platforms were widely credited as a main cause, helping communities of gangs to attack targets.

"When local people co-ordinated the clean-up operation in the aftermath of the riots, in part using social media, they not only repaired the damage done to the city, they also repaired social media's reputation. By itself though, social media is neither the cause of, nor solution to, individualism in society."

To take part in the #nomakeupselfie and support Breakthrough Breast Cancer, text PINK to 70300

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