Can Social Media Make a Real Difference?

My friends who don't understand social media dismiss it as a fad. “I don't do Twitter,” they say. Or, “I don't have a blog.” They shrug dismissively, and that's the end of the conversation.

I honestly don't know how to respond. I don't think everyone needs to be on Facebook or share photos of their family on Instagram, but this attitude bothers me. It seems short-sighted.

Because I've seen how social media can make a huge difference.

Social Media Makes a Difference
Photo credit: Johannes Fuchs (Creative Commons)

Sure, social media can be another channel for people to promote themselves. But it can also bring out the best in people — I've seen it.

The social web teaches us three simple values that we all need to be reminded of. We would do well to follow them.

1. Story over information

Social media is not a fad. It is a new way of communicating, and it's not going away, quickly replacing traditional media outlets as the means by which people get much of their news and information.

Every day, people are using tools like Facebook and Twitter to incite rebellions and stage revolutions. They're launching discussions about things that matter and gathering adherents along the way.

How are they doing it? By inviting people into a deeper story.

For me, using this potent tool is not an option; I've seen the good can that can result. I've been amazed by how much a simple story can be shared by ordinary people and, in effect, change everything.

Not too long ago week, I saw this when over 10,000 people signed a petition to tell the world about a small orphanage in Haiti that was trafficking children.

We invited people to be a part of another story, one that didn't end with seventy orphans being trafficked, and they responded. A few days later, the Haitian government intervened. The orphanage was shut down, and the children now have a new home.

Apparently, this social media thing can make a difference.

2. Community over self-centeredness

While the Internet can be a place for showboating and promoting your own personal brand, it's best used as a one-to-one medium (as opposed to one-to-many).

Ever noticed how few companies and products thrive on Twitter? Whereas leaders like Chris Brogan and Ashton Kutcher thrive? Why is that? It's because social media connects people to people. It's all about relationships and connection, not how awesome your widget is.

Shaun King saw this when he started tweeting about child trafficking, and celebrities like Eva Longoria took note. Even movie stars want more than a stage and microphone. They want to make a difference. They long to play a role in a story worth telling, to be part of the global community.

And social media allows them the outlet to do just that.

3. Hope over despair

The world is a dark place. At times, it can even seem hopeless. But when you connect people together through social media, they stumble upon another story.

Alece Ronzino saw this when she started blogging the gritty parts of her story, including her painful divorce, and others joined the redemption chorus. Now, every time she shares a thought on her blog, hundreds of people stop to listen.

Why? Because transparency brings hope.

A well-put phrase, a potent blog post, a provocative tweet. These can make people feel like they're not alone, like someone understands. Your words can give purpose to others' pain and bring significance to their suffering.

So don't waste this opportunity.

We have a choice

Online, people are looking for more than someone who wants to show off. They want to be understood. And it's up to you, all of us really, to give that to them.

A “following” doesn't have to be just another stroke of the ego. It can be an opportunity to be part of something bigger than yourself. And social media makes this possible like never before. Of course, it also makes it easier for marketers and anarchists to misuse such tools for short-term gain. But that's the risk you take anytime you tap into something powerful.

The question is what will we — what will you — do? Will you harness the power of social media and use it for good? Or dismiss it as irrelevant, stupid, and pointless, because you've seen it abused and exploited?

The choice is yours.

How have you seen social media make a difference? Share in the comments.