THE BLOG

Is "Social Media" Really Changing the World?

I dislike the phrase "social media."

"Social media" is merely a way to describe new tools in an old and narrow paradigm where we measure success by how many people are reached. This lends itself nicely to competitive obsessions over who has more Facebook fans, whose blog gets the greatest number of hits, whose video goes the most viral, and who has the largest number of Twitter followers. And who are the people who focus on these things? It is those who like to use the technology as opposed to those who need it.

I just returned from the Alliance of Youth Movements Summit in Mexico City, which is the world's only event that brings together young leaders who emerged from virtually nowhere to achieve remarkable grassroots impact by using technology as a tool. Those in attendance were non-traditional leaders from a cross-section of socio-economic, age demographic, and educational backgrounds. The groups who spoke at the summit were aware of their challenges: unlike traditional NGOs, most lacked official training, experience, and resources. Instead, they used urls and websites instead of offices and leveraged open source platforms in the absence of budgets. In each of their cases, these technological tools are about more than the exchange and posting of information; they have also allowed them to organize and mobilize in real time to raise funds, circumvent restrictions on civil liberties, hold governments accountable, build tangible documents like petitions, orchestrate counter or parallel elections, and connect people with judicial and legal resources.

Another key theme of the Alliance of Youth Movements was the use of technology as a tool for staying one step ahead of the media, which was of particular importance for groups in places like Iran and Moldova where people using technology to organize needed media to report after they were in the streets, not before.

The Moldova case study is of particular importance, not just because the tools enabled people to go to the streets in protest and challenge an election result, but also because they achieved the tangible impact of new elections and a new government. Moldova's leading Twitter revolutionary told the tool's founder that their success at overturning the election results in April had less to do with how many people visited websites, followed them on Twitter, or were fans of their Facebook page, and more to do with connecting people to resources in real time while the "social media" sites were blocked. She explained how in the midst of massive blockage, one guy with only 37 Twitter followers (as opposed to Ashton Kushner who has 4 million) used five characters (#pman), named after the main square where the demonstrations were to take place, to enable people on the street to mobilize in real time through SMS and to let the world know what was happening.

For those who remain skeptical and think I just had a neat experience in Mexico City, turn your eye toward places like Afghanistan and Kenya, where mobile banking is providing a means for financial empowerment to unbanked populations. Kenya transferred $1.3 billion in mobile payments last year and in Afghanistan police and army are now paid salaries via mobile phone, reducing corruption and improving efficiency. In Rwanda, technology empowers farmers by connecting them with valuable commodity tools. Throughout the developing world, telemedicine makes it possible for remote diagnosis in some of the world's poorest and most disease prone environments. And in Mexico, technology is providing a tool to connect people with justice in an environment where there is mistrust of local law enforcement and fear of retribution from the drug cartels.

The term "social media" as we know it today appeared in July 2004 as a reference to participatory media like blogging, wikis, social networks, and related technologies. This is all well and good if technology was still primarily about connecting people to information, which is really the essence of media. However, this term has become obsolete in a world where technology has become a critical tool for connecting people not only to information and ideas, but also to other individuals, entities (NGOs, companies, governments, etc.), and more recently actual resources be they financial, medical, or judicial.

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.

Isn't connection technologies--or ConnectTech--a term far better suited for the 21st century?

* The views expressed in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of State or the U.S. Government.