In his 2003 book, Smart Mobs, futurist Howard Rheingold predicted the next social revolution would be triggered by the ubiquity of mobile phones and computers. Their ability to send and share text messages, photographs, videos, and other instant data directly, he predicted, would give people a powerful new way to organize themselves on the fly, battle social ills as they are happening and ultimately transform cultures and communities—for better or worse.
We're not there yet, but we're getting much closer. Social media, still in its infancy, is evolving—from social networking to mobilization. The rise of self-organized groups into cause-focused swarms is just beginning to chip away at the economic and political order of things. The first stirrings of this became evident last summer, during the Obama campaign; this week's mega-conference in San Francisco, SoCap09, convenes 800-plus social entrepreneurs bent on using social media to invent a new economy—one focused more directly on global problem-solving. "Americans are hungry to engage," says Jonathan Greenblatt, a SoCap presenter and president of All for Good, an open source platform that exists to press more people into service, and brands are only too happy to oblige.
The biggest driver of this shift toward mobilization, though, is not commerce—nor altruism. Historians and futurists suggest it's more about our increasing discomfort with the mass proximity we may now feel to communities and classes of people that previously lived outside our direct spheres of experience or influence. Thanks to social media, says Greenblatt, the old buffer zones of neglect or disengagement are shrinking—fast. "We have never been nor felt so adjacent to others," he told a group of online activists Friday at Mashable's Summer of Social Good conference in Manhattan. With mass globalization, we can see the same brands being advertised in central Dubai as in Manhattan; our closest neighbors are more likely now to be found online, everything can be googled, and we have never been so mobile. "There is more computing power in our Blackberries than there was in the control room in Houston that put a man on the moon," Greenblatt says.
All of this, of course, presents both opportunity and burden. "In a networked world where everyone is adjacent and everything can be known, we are seeing increasing evidence of the inequities around us," Greenblatt says. "When you are actually adjacent to these people—the have-nots (and when the have-nots know what we have)—it puts a burden on the 'haves' [in society]."
Indeed, says Greenblatt and others, we are compelled to invent new alternatives. "Twestival? What was that but a self-organized swarm?" Scott Henderson of Media Sauce told attendees at Mashable's event. "It's just the beginning." [Mark Pesce (see Collision Course) predicts a dangerous time ahead, with new, Web-strong "adhocracies" eroding—like sand against rock—our traditional systems and institutions.]
For SoCap's part, many attendees heading for San Francisco this week believe there is, already, a new "economy of integrity" in the making—fueled by social media. "It's like shoots growing out of the ground," Greenblatt says. "It's giving us different answers than the ones we've heard before to the questions we are facing" as a society. Think Zipcar, he says—the Netflix for cars. Or Living Homes, a Los Angeles-based construction business that is building homes that generate more power than they consume. Or Tom's Shoes, which will donate a pair of shoes to someone in need for every pair purchased. Or Revolution Foods, which is offering healthier meals to kids around the nation as an alternative to junk food in public schools. "This new economy of integrity is animated by these ethical brands driving values and creating values, and social media will allow this economy of integrity to take off," Greenblatt says. Social media, he says, will both "cohere this moment of opportunity and catalyze it...We have opportunities before us that were never before possible."
"Social media is not just about reading a story online and deciding whether to reddit or propeller it or digg it. This is noise. Noise. For me, social media is Wikipedia, with 10 million members all across the planet with a mission to be the repository of human knowledge, accessible to every person alive. It's Twitter and what happened in Iran. Did Twitter change the course of that election? Maybe not. But far more significantly, it changed forever how Iranians think of themselves. Twitter didn't change the outcome now... But it will."
For more on SoCap, check out this interview with Kevin Jones, a co-founder of the conference, which runs September 1-3. To follow it on Twitter, the hashtag is #SOCAP09.
—By Marcia Stepanek
(Illustration, Net Working, by Miroslaw Pieprzyk for istock.com)