Social media critics keep getting it wrong

Maybe social media can't save the world, but it certainly can unite it

Maria Popova had a great piece in Design Observer yesterday explaining why Malcolm Gladwell was wrong in his recent New Yorker article.  Maria argues that Gladwell uses a narrow definition of activism (the 1960’s lunch counter sit-ins in Greensboro, North Carolina) and instead suggests a broader one.

“Activism is any action or set of actions, be it organized, grassroots or self-initiated, that aims to resolve a problem that diminishes the quality of life of individuals, communities or society.”

Her post initiated a quick Twitter exchange about the potential of social media.  I lamented that most critics tend to compare social media to what came before (advertising, journalism, activism, strong tie movements) rather than what it might enable in years to come. Marketers criticize its measurability. Journalists question the accuracy and quality of consumer journalism. Gladwell denies the commitment of social media slacktivists, people who’ll support a cause as long as they don’t have to do too much more than share a link.

Maria’s last note to me summed it all up perfectly.  As far as all this new stuff goes,

“We can’t even IMAGINE the full possibilities today and we can’t judge what we can’t imagine.”

We can, however, begin to imagine, as we’ve seen early signs of what is possible.  Zeus Jones, a small digital agency in Minneapolis, showed us in 2009 that social media has the potential to eliminate waste and increase community efficiency by fostering city-wide sharing.  While this specific model hasn’t been implemented, versions of it have started to take shape. Pickup Pal, the eco-ridesharing platform, now has 150,000 members.

In the last couple of years another social media inspired community called Twestival both elevated awareness for worldwide shortages of potable water and attracted over $250,000 in donations to Charity Water.

On other fronts, individuals like Erik Proulx, with his Lemonade films, has connected hundreds of out of work people to each other and inspired thousands more to re-invent themselves. Sheena Matheiken and her Uniform Project raised $100,000 to send children to school in India and turned the experiment into a new social business model. And a 17-year-old New Jersey student used Facebook to quickly moblize thousands of high schoolers to march in protest of state wide tax cuts. Not quite the Civil Rights movement, but activism nonetheless.

These examples don’t even take into consideration the possibilities inherent in crowdsourcing, a tactic that can both identify a solution and enable each of us as individuals to contribute to something greater.  If you aren’t familiar with Open Ideo, take a look. Its purpose is simple and eminently possible: get a broader group of people to solve some of the world’s most difficult challenges. It may not mobilize a large group of people to collectively revolt against anything, but one of its recent initiatives might save the lives of a few thousand kids by getting them to eat better and avoid diabetes.

But I believe we’re still thinking small. At a recent TEDx conference at which I spoke I met Carl Hobert, the founder and executive director of Axis of Hope, a non-profit organization dedicated to developing in adolescents and understanding of alternative, non-violent approaches to conflict resolution, locally, nationally and internationally.

Today Axis of Hope teaches conflict prevention through interactive workshops.  It introduces students to the study of international conflict and cultural differences. But Carl and I spoke briefly about how social media could connect school kids across countries, perhaps even countries at odds with one another. Via Skype and Facebook it could allow them to share fears, wishes, anxieties, dreams and daily struggles. It could foster a deeper understanding. Create enduring friendships.  All with the purpose of letting young people understand each other before someone else teaches them hatred and distrust.

Then perhaps someday, when they sit across from each other at a conference on global warming, or a summit on human rights, or at United Nations meeting, they’d find common ground and actually work together for the greater good. That’s right, social media could do that.  If we harness it properly.

OK, I’m dreaming.  But hey, we finally have the tools. Let’s stop criticizing them for what they can’t do and think about what we can do with them.

Your thoughts?

photo from: Axis of Hope

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