Social Media and Social Justice

by David Deutsch

From September 20 through 24, Los Angeles (along with Bogota, Buenos Aires, Milan and Mexico City) hosted Social Media Week, an ongoing worldwide event which, according to their website, provides “a global platform that connects people, content, and conversation around emerging trends in social and mobile media.” While there, I learned about a trend in social media: firms, governments and nonprofits are using it to promote social justice in myriad and fascinating ways.

Before investigating this, we should understand what social media is, what it isn’t, how it has evolved, and why it has become enormously popular in just a few years. When the Internet gained popularity back in the late 1990s, investors and firms poured billions of dollars into online investments, assuming that the Internet was the newest and greatest thing ever. This irrational exuberance fueled a speculative bubble (I previously wrote about such bubbles here and here) which popped, as bubbles tend to, taking much of the economy with it.

Even though many of the dot-com firms went bust, it was clear the Internet wasn’t going anywhere. At a seminar in 2004, Tim O’Reilly and other Internet experts discussed its future post-bubble. O’Reilly popularized the term “Web 2.0,” which he used to describe those websites which not only survived but thrived after the bubble burst. O’Reilly and his fellow Internet pioneers noted that a certain subset of websites, now broadly understood to be social media (or Web 2.0, or whatever) endured beyond the bursting bubble, and that these sites featured certain characteristics in common. Time Magazine put it this way when they named YOU to be the Person of the Year:

[The Internet is] a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before. It's about the cosmic compendium of knowledge Wikipedia and the million-channel people's network YouTube and the online metropolis MySpace. It's about the many wresting power from the few and helping one another for nothing and how that will not only change the world, but also change the way the world changes.

Social media applications have changed and adapted significantly since O’Reilly’s conference only six years ago, or even Time’s Person of the Year gimmick a mere four years back. Since that time, it has become relatively clear that the two qualities which define social media today are interactivity and narcissism.

Allow me to illustrate, using two of the best (and most popular) social media sites: Facebook and Twitter. Facebook allows users to post information about themselves (narcissism) and provides unique and fun ways to communicate with others [interactivity], including tagging of photos, posting on walls, and commenting on other people’s postings. Meanwhile, Twitter allows people to post pithy comments and photos, and share thoughts and musings of others instantly. Twitter also allows people to communicate with one another publicly, something few other applications have succeeded in doing. The Twitter feed #ShitMyDadSays even led to a TV show starring William Shatner.

Online communities are also great examples of social media. Let’s not forget that we would not have a President Obama if not for pioneering social media sites such as Daily Kos, not to mention the President’s own social media applications, such as Obama for America (now Organize for America).

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So how does social media relate to social justice? An example: I have always been a Twitter skeptic (at best) and never saw the value of it until I attended the SocialGOV panel and heard Eric Garcetti, L.A.’s City Council President, speak about how he uses it. Garcetti regularly tweets information about all kinds of citywide issues, including emergency information, chronic traffic problems, pothole repair, complaints about criminal activity, and anything else that happens to his constituents. He also uses his Facebook page as a way to directly interact with citizens and address their concerns, thus improving the effectiveness and usefulness of government.

Then there's CitySourced. This brilliant concept allows citizens to report problems in their communities, such as illegal trash dumping and road quality issues, to their local government, instantaneously. And a friend in the NYPD told me they use Twitter to monitor gang activity in New York. Yes, folks, the Gangs of New York now tweet. Bill the Butcher must be rolling around, cracking up in his grave.

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This is the first in a series of articles on the intersection between social media and social justice, providing in-depth interviews and analysis from people who use these emerging tools to create a more just society. In the spirit of online interactivity, I’d love to hear your thoughts on this intersection. (Incidentally, you can follow Fourstory on Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn.) I hope we can collaborate in the spirit of Social Media Week, to help guide the future of social media to promote social justice.

Let the conversation begin ...

David Deutsch is Principal and Founder of Synergi Communications. He is also a former Federal Auditor at the Department of Transportation, Office of Inspector General. He can be reached at .(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address).

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