Can mandatory social media service save America?

America has lots of problems: unemployment, poverty, obesity, urban violence. But there’s actually a more pressing problem. It’s the “us versus them” mindset that permeates our country and our politics.

Our communities of concern have become too narrow

Before the Occupy Movement even launched, I heard Robert Reich speak at Google’s Zeitgeist 11 Conference. In a brilliant talk he clarified how our communities of concern are shrinking. We don’t do everything as a country to solve unemployment because those in power don’t really care. Why? Because they are college graduates. And the unemployment rate, while 35 percent for high school dropouts, hovers at a mere five percent for college graduates. High school dropouts are not in the community that matters.

Reich extended his argument to rationalize why the poverty rate for senior citizens in America has been reduced significantly (from 20 percent to five percent) while poverty rates for families with small children has sky rocketed (an appalling 37 percent of US families with small children now live in poverty). The former reside comfortably in the community that congressmen care about (powerful voting block; closer in age) while the latter sits outside it.

Whether his assessment is right or not, two facts emerges as crystal clear. Each of us – blue, red, old, young, urban, rural, black, white, gay, straight – tends to care disproportionately about those with whom we share empathy and interdependency. And as our country becomes more fragmented rather than unified, our communities of concern get narrower. In fact, even the Occupy Movement, which has  effectively called attention to the most obvious “us and them” gap, has been criticized for its lack of diversity, particularly in southern cities where there are large African American populations.

This is ironic in an age of social media when we have remarkable tools to connect us to each other. But what do we use them for? To find more people just like us. Take a look at your Facebook friends, your Twitter followers, your Google + circles. Chances are they are a mirror reflection of your upbringing, your background and your profession. When I went to college, 30-plus years ago, even unimaginative housing administrators worked hard to match you up with someone from a different background. Now our kids use Facebook to find roommates whose tastes match theirs, reinforcing a tendency for both parties to stay in their mutual comfort zone.

As I thought about Reich’s argument, something else struck me. There are two places where we create “communities” that do work — juries and military service. Granted in the case of the latter, people’s lives depend on one another. But think about juries.* We stick 12 strangers in a room, present them with a very serious responsibility, and in most cases they fulfill their duty with the utmost of diligence.

So here’s my idea for saving America in case the Occupy Movement doesn’t work. It’s an idea that could help us increase empathy. It takes full advantage of social media’s true potential. It’s a program that steals from the military and juries — practices that do work — when it comes to creating interdependency.

Mandatory social media service

  • We require every 18-year-old in America to participate in mandatory social media service as part of a daily or weekly routine for one year.
  • We assign our young adults to a racially diverse online social group comprised of 12 people from different regions, backgrounds, income brackets. (Google+ is a potential platform.)
  • We present each group with a social challenge – obesity, jobs, poverty, high cost of education, even the problem of young men getting their sex education from watching online porn – and we ask them to solve the problem.
  • We give them benchmarks,  goals, and require an outcome in the form of an idea, a program, a new policy or maybe just a video.
  • Finally we aggregate all of the solutions on one public website where the press, our legislatures, businesses and educators can access, rate and maybe even implement the ideas.

No doubt there are details to work out. Does each group have an official moderator, someone to coach and keep track? What happens when partisan differences challenge collaboration? How do we make technology and Internet access available to everyone? Is there translation software good enough to serve multi-lingual users? But these are all solvable through trial and error in the course of developing the program.

More importantly, we’re not asking anyone to give up an entire year of his or her life or make a significant sacrifice. We’re simply asking them to work together, as a community of concern, to find some kind of common ground that might yield a solution to a problem or an idea worth pursuing further.

Will a group of strangers on a social platform really solve big issues like unemployment, poverty, obesity, and urban violence? Maybe not. But as a society, we might solve our most pressing problem. The need to create greater empathy and understanding between and among people who are different but share a vested interest in America.

Think this idea has potential? Send a link to this post to your congressman or woman. Got a better idea? Please share.

Photograph courtesy of: Konstantin Sergeyev, who has some great images of the Occupy Movement on his Flickr page.

* A thought put in my head when Esther Dyson asked Sandra Day O’Connor a question about their effectiveness.

26 comments
evelynonline80
evelynonline80

Yes, taking advantage of existing platforms makes sense. I'm just wondering if making something mandatory effects (affects?) real change. Maybe the returns for this effort wouldn't be known until later in someone's life. Sort of like looking back and realizing your parents WERE right most of the time :-)

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Conuiti
Conuiti

This is a brilliant concept for all but for two of your benefactor categories, "Education" and "Legislation" (which I assume you and your readers rank highest of the trilogy). Your claim appears to be that crowd-sourcing and listening (by them) will have a positive impact on behavior/economy. This will only perpetuate our catastrophic state of 'what's in it for me'. I'm fine with your 3rd pillar of "Business" which would benefit by using the information learned to create actual and sustainable economic value. Oh wait, those groups are already being created by business in the form of community managers and digital marketing directors...never mind.

wymanhome
wymanhome

So, no one seems to have seen any red flags as to possible downsides of "mandatory," or considered what might at least theoretically go wrong with making people get together so that they are all on the same page, somehow. I might suggest that there have been countries that tried things much like this in the 20th C, and the results were not good. There seems to be an underlying assumption that if the people who generally disagree with you were just exposed to different POV's, then they would start to lose the prejudices that keep them from seeing things your way, and become better citizens. And it's good for them, so they should be made to do it.

Wow. Quite a chilling thought, that. Any chance that people who don't see things your way might actually have thought about the issues and not just be stupid bigots who won't listen? Any chance that well-meaning people who want a just society might have nonetheless not thought through all the possibilities?

commoncents
commoncents

" ....The more corrupt a society, the more numerous it's laws....": edward abbey. http://en.wikiquote.org/wiki/Edward_Abbey He was a neighbor and an author. I applaud his love of his physical country and his profound way of voicing it. I think the above quote also can be used in corporations, as well as government, tax laws and by our system of equal justice. Adding layers to laws and rules makes the law much less effective... I find that the more layers the more areas to hide corruption.

Assimilation just seems a bad idea to me. Diversity makes a society rich and full. Our ancestors came to America for a better life under a democratic form of government. Not necessarily a different life.

zimpeterw
zimpeterw

Good idea, except that we (I am in Canada where it's even worse) already have too many laws, regulations and mandatory requirements. I believe that and the resulting stifling of individual rights and initiative are the problem. Focusing on diversity is divisive, we should be focusing on assimilation and one set of national values, then whether we are black white or green, straight or otherwise becomes irrelevant. Focusing on, and legislating how we MUST treat others is counter productive.

Using your military service example (and I have served in the military in a much more racially divided part of the world), I believe that as you stated, it's the objective (staying alive) that produces the synergy and cooperation, not official directives on how to treat people of different backgrounds.

Why not pursue your idea through education or perhaps competitions but please not even more legislation.

As a relatively new North American, I continue to be astounded at how both our countries seem to have abandoned the very values and beliefs that made them such great nations.

cswhit
cswhit

So why make this mandatory and why limit it to just 18 year olds? Is it only that age group that would except this challenge? We all have the power through social media and to borrow from the comic books with great power comes great responsibility. But I have seen great things come from love through social media, including the Pittsburgh Tote Bag Project in my hometown. It is my belief that if we take just 10% of our social media time and use it for good then we can do great things. One of my camera guys is a staunch conservative republican. I sent him to the food bank to cover a story and there he realized that it was people just like him in line and that his family was indeed food insecure. I'll keep at it one open eye at a time if I have to, but I encourage others to use their power of social media. We have begun using #smhero on Twitter to recognize those that do. We also invite you to join our small band on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/JustGiveMe10. Work together? Get over our differences? Let's try.

JeffShattuck
JeffShattuck

Cool idea. My one add would be to filter the ideas. I remember Obama did something before the election, it was an online idea storm to solve the budget crisis or something and so many people posted that there was just no way to make sense of it all. Same thing with überpopular figures like Paul Krugman who get 500+ comments. So... I would suggest that there be some way to vote on the ideas, for the best ones to rise, and for those to then be presented in some sort of national forum. I would also make participation more demanding; we need to ask something of people, "ask not what your country..." etc. In Germany, they mandate one year of military or social service, or maybe it's two, a good idea. We are being divided because we're easy to divide. We would not be if we felt a stronger sense of our total (national) community. Of course, then you've got to watch out for nationalism! Man, I could go on and on, but my comment is long enough.

PrometheeFeu
PrometheeFeu

What happens when some of the participants decide that the problem assigned to them is not in fact a problem?

BeaconZA
BeaconZA

@brandacity I like the sentiment, given the global truth of this piece, but I am not sure that it is workable given basic demographic splits

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

Great post Edward. The Economist covers how we tend to do this to ourselves. That Liberals will move to Austin and Conservatives to Dallas. And that even in our neighborhoods we self segregate. I also think a year of National Service could be a great idea too.

Never made that connection with sex ed via online porn I guess because I was already 27 in 1994 when the web started exploding.

commoncents
commoncents

I agree with your assessment about people and agree with Reich's words. It's true, we care more about those like us because we identify closer with them.
5's marry 5's and hang out with other 5's. 10's have attractive, socially acceptable friends as well, but they don't hang out with the local hardware manager who is a 5. The movie "The Breakfast Club" focused this fact straight at kids 20 years ago.... Stay in your class, go slumming a bit, and then marry well. If you remember hippies and the Woodstock generation, classes mingled for awhile voicing a more noble purpose, and ultimately the majority went back up to the 'establishment' that their parents created. Observe the generation of kids those parents begat and what those kids have contributed to America. I hope your plan can change some thinking. Social media can be a teacher like the film industry was for the last few generations.

The Occupiers have a vested interest in why they are grouping. (I can not quite figure them out) When interest wanes they will probably return to what is comfortable for them. Maybe our next generation of children will have the capacity for empathy and understanding. It depends on how civilized their parents are.

jannaAdgal
jannaAdgal

Count me in Steve. How do we get started?

PrometheeFeu
PrometheeFeu

The Canadians may be overdoing it, but I've seen what "assimilation" looks like and it's not pretty. It's what we tried to do in France. The result: widespread racial tensions which we are not even allowed to measure...

edwardboches
edwardboches moderator

@PrometheeFeu An awful lot of countries have mandatory service. And America once did, too. I am definitely not after assimilation, the opposite in fact. It's just that right now we have very little respect and empathy for people who are different because we all live such isolated lives, separated by color, race, education, income. Don't you think a bit of mutual respect and appreciation might be a good thing? How many people different from you do you choose to actively interact with. Be honest.

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zimpeterw
zimpeterw

Apologies, I know what you mean about the situation in France and , I believe even worse in Holland. What I meant by "assimilation" was the same rules for every one. In other words, if an immigrant comes to the USA or France, he or she is subject to exactly the same laws as every one else. No special "group rights", no special treatment for different religions. Same with all citizens.

It seems that many immigrants change countries to enjoy better conditions and then set about trying to reduce their new country to the level of the one they left.

There are things I do not like about Canada, if they become intolerable, I have the freedom to leave. The same goes for every one else.

I re-iterate though, my concern at how the Western democracies seem to be abandoning the very values that made them great and in danger of legislating themselves into extinction.

zimpeterw
zimpeterw

@edwardboches@PrometheeFeu

@edwardboches Good reply, this is developing into an interesting debate, I think, in a perfect world we would agree on many things. Perhaps I have seen too many examples of mans inhumanity to man in our imperfect world to be anything but cynical about the future of Western society on the road we are headed.

Mandatory service? Yes many countries do have it in some form and it might do some people a lot of good, but unless it is essential for national security, or in a 1930's type depression to create employment, I stand by my original comment that we already have too many laws, regulations and government programmes. I also share @PrometheeFeu 's concerns about indoctrination and unpaid labour.

Mutual respect and appreciation, yes absolutely, but we should respect every one, not just those that are different.

We seem to be getting hung up on my choice of the word "assimilation" the point I am trying to make is that newcomers (from whatever background) to, for example, America should strive to become American, not demand that America changes to accommodate their different beliefs, values or customs.

I know that diversity is currently a politically correct term, but how diverse can a society become before it loses its original identity and the very fabric that made it great?

How many different people do I choose to actively interact with? For me, as a newcomer to North America, every one I interact with apart from my wife is different. But I think you are asking do I go out of my way to interact with people of other races, religions or beliefs?

I will give you an honest answer, no I do not make an effort to do that. I am quite happy to, and do, interact with and learn from people of different backgrounds should I meet them in the course of my daily life, but I prefer to interact more with people who have similar backgrounds, beliefs and upbringing to myself.

That same preference also excludes many people of the same race and religion as myself.

It seems we have forgotten the concept of live and let live.

PrometheeFeu
PrometheeFeu

"Don't you think a bit of mutual respect and appreciation might be a good thing?"

Definitely.

"How many people different from you do you choose to actively interact with. Be honest."

Let's see. Most of my co-workers and friends are of a different race than mine. My friends are in very different professions and of varying socio-economic status. While most of the people I interact with have higher degrees (BA at least) almost all of them were in completely different fields than mine. There is a substantial minority who do not have degrees. My friends while most are within 2-3 years of me, a substantial number of them are much older or much younger. I have lived in 3 countries and half a dozen cities. My partners have been of multiple races, socio-economic status and educational level. So I would say that the vast majority of the people I choose to interact with are very different from me.

More importantly, I find it very troubling that anyone would consider forcing others to perform unpaid labor. Especially when the goal of that unpaid labor is to indoctrinate them. Even when the indoctrination is in something as noble as tolerance and community. It has too much of a Maoist re-education camp feel to it.

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