Making Social Media Do Good

Last month I attended Social Media Week New York. As most of my career has been spent in non-profits, I registered for panels on non-profits, international development, and using social media for social good. There was a good deal of discussion about events happening in the Middle East, and opinions were divided on how much (or how little) social media like Facebook and Twitter were influencing the democracy movements.

Friday around noon I returned from an early lunch break for a panel discussion. Every venue (that I know of) had wi-fi, so after finding a good seat I cracked open my laptop to check e-mail and Twitter. Twitter was alive! Reports that Hosni Mubarak had resigned were lighting up my timeline, so I switched briefly to my News list, which was also crazy. But this is a new medium, and the contradictory reports of the Gabrielle Giffords shooting in January had shown me that misinformation can propagate just as easily as reliable information. So I quickly looked at the websites of the New York Times, the BBC, and Al Jazeera English. All of them reported Mubarak’s resignation, so I accepted it as true.

Double Check Your Facts. Then Triple Check.

Social media accelerates the flow of information, both good and bad. Rumor and misinformation can spread just as rapidly as accurate news, so confirm what you read against other sources. That first report you read may be true—it may even be a scoop, in which case you won’t find confirmation for a while—but unless you are an eye-witness or know the source to be extremely trustworthy, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

What Social Media Can Do

Before this sounds too negative, I need to say: social media has enormous potential to do good. But like any tool, it’s all in how you use it. Here are a few thoughts on how to make social media do good:

  • Stay informed. Develop a trusted network of individuals and organizations that you can rely on in a time of need—or any time. Discover who provides reliable information about topics that interest you (social good or otherwise) and can both keep you up-to-date on current news and be a fact-checking resource when you need one.
  • Share. Contribute to the conversation, share what you know from your offline experience, and forward information you glean from your network. When sharing, always double-check before you forward or retweet; be sure that what you share is relevant, useful and that the links work.
  • Choose your subject. Nobody can do everything, so focus your attention on a subject that interests you and/or a particular skill you have to offer. By all means stay informed about everything that interests you, but if you’re going to delve deeper, narrow your focus to be most effective.
  • Use the best available technology. One of the greatest things about technology is that it gives us so many channels to communicate. Sometimes the difficult part is deciding which to use. In emergency situations, such as the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear hazard in Japan, some forms of communication may be unavailable, so you may not have access to the very best channel—but choose the most appropriate from among those you do have.
  • Get involved. Opportunities to do good may be virtual, or you may want to carry your helping into your offline life. Use online sources to be informed, then connect via social media and carry your good deeds forward.
  • Collaborate. The thing about social media is it’s… well, social. One person acting in isolation isn’t social, nor a network. You’ll have much more impact in whatever you do if you collaborate with like-minded folks online. So before you rush off to reinvent the wheel, check out what others are doing; then join up with an existing network that matches your own ideals, or start your own project knowing exactly which gap you’re filling.
  • Inform your friends, but don’t push. Just because someone likes you doesn’t mean they are passionate about everything that you are—or that they have the time, money or energy to contribute. Let your friends know what you’re interested in, but keep the requests for help low-key; those who want to participate will, especially if they know you’re the person to contact if they want to do more.

Social Media in Times of Crisis—One Example with a Happy Ending

If you have any doubt that social media can do good, watch this CNN report about how Akiko Kosaka, a young Japanese woman attending college in the US, learned on YouTube (YouTube!) that her family had survived the recent earthquake and tsunami. It demonstrates better than I can the ability of communications technology to connect people in time of need.

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