Why social media help people want to solve public problems

A few years ago, during the huge flap among Facebook users about its then new “News Feed,” a journalist asked Mark Zuckerberg why it was so important to have that new feature, author/activist Eli Pariser relates in a TED Talk. Zuckerberg responded, “A squirrel dying in front of your house may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa.”

Whether or not Zuckerberg intended it to, that statement illustrates why social media can get people off couches, out from behind screens, and into solving problems “out there” (I’m not talking about “clicktivism,” but activism, civic engagement; and I hope it’s clear I’m not just talking about Facebook). Because – in addition to allowing you and your network to talk about the squirrel that died in your front yard – it also brings the deaths of those people in Africa closer to your mental front yard. As you and your network grow beyond school or work, those distant events are increasingly in your “News Feed,” part of what the people you care about care about. Does that make sense? I hope so. Because this is what’s happening, along with all the privacy questions it raises. Social media not only brings events occurring on the other side of the planet closer to us; now – in real time, in the middle of your day – makes personal what in the old mass-media environment felt impersonal and distant in terms of both time and space. In other words (it may sound sappy, but it’s really just logical), while mass media brought world developments to our attention, our heads, social media brings those developments to our hearts. And one other thing social media does: By bringing public problems into our personal social networks, it sends the message that problem-solving is more doable because social media is, by definition, a collaboration – and it just may be making civic engagement a social norm.

Unless, of course, social media sites and services only put on our pages what they “think” (through algorithms) we want to see and act on – as Pariser goes on to show in his talk. That could have the effect of canceling out the urge to act. Something to take action against! But one way to beat “the new [algorithmic] gatekeepers” of today’s media, as Pariser put it, is to actively seek multiple sources and use human and digital gatekeepers (e.g., follow a mix of humans on Twitter). Just because the information gatekeepers are changing doesn’t mean the new ones have to narrow our minds and scope of action.


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