Jared Cohen, a member of the policy planning staff at the State Department penned an essay on HuffingtonPost asking whether social media was really changing the world. He has some good perspective, an interesting background, and definitely some credibility on the subject of global organizing and social change. But he's still presenting the same old tired conversation about social media and social change.
You see, his answer to the question of whether or not social media is really changing the world is, essentially, yes — but he says we shouldn't call it social media, and suggests we look at where technology and human connection are coming together to have significant impact. In other words, he's not talking about social media. And in most cases the examples he is citing aren't about broad social change or impact.
That's ok, and I agree. Social media isn't changing anything - yet. Put another way, the campaigns that get all the attention, and even those that raise significant amounts of money, aren't moving the needle when it comes to meaningful, measurable impact - yet. The well-known tools and new platforms that are offering ways for people to talk with each other, and conceivably organizing, aren't living up to their potential - yet.
Using the internet and technology to bring people with shared interests, and a passion/focus/self-motivated interest/nothing better to do/whatever together to impact our society has huge potential. We aren't close to realizing that potential yet because that's not how people are using social media for the most part. They are using the tools to communicate, socialize, explore, and in some cases learn. The actions they are being asked to take, or in most cases are figuring out how to take on their own, don't relate directly to impact.
Why aren't we doing more/better? The main reason, I would argue, is because the companies that want/need to make money from people using their tools either don't understand, or aren't committed to the ways people organize and behave in order to address serious issues. Real change takes time. Real impact requires sacrifice and commitment. Those things are very hard to measure on a quarterly balance sheet. They don't easily make for a compelling story that will get you on the front page of the paper, or drive huge audiences to your site (to view advertising which generates you much desired revenue).
I don't fault companies for not being entirely focused or committed yet to significant social impact or societal change, but I think its important we don't fool ourselves into believing that a lot of attention alone will fix what ails our society. To achieve significant social change, or social impact, we will need better understanding of the fundamentals that drive human behavior, online and offline, and a better, deeper connection to how that understanding can be applied to the issues that confront our society.
Cohen addresses this point as follows:
In this networked century, where access to technology is increasing exponentially, almost everybody is reachable. But more importantly, almost everybody has the ability to connect. This new ability to connect is leveling the playing field and breaking down previous age, gender, socioeconomic, and circumstantial barriers to who can emerge as a leader, activist, or grassroots agent for change. The power of technology today will be determined not by web traffic and viewership, but by its ability to strengthen and more importantly facilitate connections in real time.
Again, I agree. The tools have leveled the playing field. Our ability to connect - across borders and beyond language and time zone - presents the possibility of doing something really incredible.
But it won't happen on its own. And it won't happen, as Jared Cohen suggested (perhaps inadvertently), by coming up with a new frame or phrase to describe what we are doing. The stories of people's lives being changed, or new innovations and solutions being created are just stories. As compelling as they are, they are not a broad shift in behavior in the making. We are still lacking the appropriate focus and commitment to systemic change. We still haven't proven that the internet supports sustainable shifts in behavior - or at least not in the context of serious issues like poverty or climate change.
Unless, or until, we figure out what will change our society, and the role that technology and the internet can play, we will keep having this same discussion and not enough will change/get done.