Twitter, Facebook and the many other social networks that have emerged are reminding us exactly how small the planet is, and how seemingly mundane or personal issues (where you live, what you feel) have all kinds of ramifications.
While Facebook is busy increasing our awareness of other people's lives around the world, it stamps on globally sensitive nerves with one apparently very simple question: where do you live? Last week it started a controversy when it allowed residents of the Golan Heights to choose whether they lived in Syria or Israel. To put this in context: Israeli forces invaded and occupied the area in 1967, capturing it from Syria. They've controlled most of the area since. (The UN considers Golan a illegitimate part of Israel, and labels it Israeli-occupied territory.) But apparently Facebook considers itself an important enough global player to offer a re-drawing of the map. It's not the first time: Facebook deems people in Kashmir as residents of India, though Pakistan and India control different portions of the embattled region, which has been in dispute for decades.
These politically sensitive examples appear trivial, but they highlight something extraordinarily important about internet-powered social networking: Facebook's membership transcends borders in the way membership of a nation cannot (despite Facebook's stupid heavy-boots stance on disputed regions).
Twitter may be even more potent in terms of its trans-global power. Being an open one-to-many system means an Iranian Tweep can share life experiences, feelings, political and social comments with anyone on the planet who cares to listen in—unlike Facebook's closed system. And it's no more difficult in Iran than it is in Washington or London. Check out the new Twitter Trendsmap service to get an incredibly graphic demonstration of this. It charts Twitter trends based on their geographic location, and lets users get a feel for what the whole world is talking about at a single glance.
Twitter's potential for global change was, of course, most ably demonstrated when it was recently used by protestors after the recent Iranian elections scandal. President Obama's election demonstrated that social networks could be effectively leveraged as a tool to effect political change as part of the democratic process. China's so worried about Facebook and Twitter as a vehicle for un-Chinese thoughts it has frequently blocked access to the sites.
But it may be that we're just starting to learn how social networking will become part of our global (and political) consciousness in the future. Will Twitter be used to foment a revolution via empassioned Tweeps? Will millions of Facebook devotees one day use the service to push a government to change a bad policy? Will our differences become more pronounced or will we find more ways to listen to one another?