How social media and smartphones can help save the world

Within a few years of Facebook’s entree into the online scene back in 2004, its popularity had exploded. By mid-2008, Facebook had reportedly attracted an astonishing 100 million users, placing it as the number one social networking site in the world.

Initially, it seemed, Facebook’s appeal to the masses lay in the fact that it provided the perfect platform for allowing people to reconnect with others from their past, be it old friends from high school, or family members that had lost touch over the years.

Certainly, my own personal excitement over the whole Facebook phenomenon began when I realized I could catch up with friends from my high school days that I hadn’t heard from in over a decade. It was great to touch base with these people and learn how they’d gotten on in life since our “less mature” days.

However, after this initial wave of nostalgic experience, it became apparent that Facebook was becoming a fun and effective means for keeping in constant touch with the people in our lives, including those who we saw on a regular basis. As the media sharing capabilities of Facebook became more and more sophisticated, people were able to easily showcase pictures of their last vacation to all their friends, and have a blast sharing goofy (and sometimes incriminating) pictures from a recent night out on the town. Essentially, Facebook, as it firmly carved out a strong position for itself in – and to a large extent, influenced the evolution of – the world of social media, was becoming the way for people to share their experiences within the various interpersonal ecosystems in which they were involved.

As Facebook became more and more feature rich, it even began to gain traction in the business world, providing a powerful tool for businesses – ranging from sole-proprietorships to small-medium enterprises, to full-on big business – to market their products, services, and brands to the mass public. While small-scale photographers could use Facebook fan pages to generate hype surrounding their latest work, large businesses could incorporate Facebook business pages and advertisements into their broad spectrum of marketing strategies. Instead of simply throwing out a passive advertisement that uses one-way communication to connect with prospective customers, businesses can now use Facebook (and certainly other social media platforms, such as Twitter; I have conspicuously left these other social media services out of the article, for no other reason than to avoid boring people to tears with an excessively lengthy piece of writing) to create an interactive venue for soliciting the active participation of customers in online discussions surrounding particular products and services.

Brilliant. So, obviously, it’s not for no reason that Facebook has recently been valued at $50 billion dollars by people who claim to be able to accurately assess the valuation of such things. But, you might ask, aside from offering a way for people to kill time at work quietly giggling over ridiculous pictures of their friends from a party the previous weekend, or for businesses to subtly work their way into the psyches of millions of unsuspecting “customers”, how does Facebook – and social media in general – help make the world a better place?

Well, as modern hardware technology has enabled us to hold small versions of what not along ago would have been considered super computers in the palms of our hands, the convergent evolution of smartphones and social media has empowered a very significant portion of the worldwide population to communicate across the globe near-instantaneously. The repercussions of this are profound.

Events occurring within the last several months, most notably in the Middle East, have given the world a taste of the potential power of social media for globally broadcasting critical events that occur in localized settings, within a very short period of time. Now, when a woman is being raped in the middle of a crowd in a destabilized country where sanity has fallen to the wayside, the rest of the world will quickly be made aware of what’s going on – sometimes even before what’s occurring has come to an end. The potential for inspiring positive reactions in both local and worldwide communities is therefore enormous, and could effect changes that, at the very least, could help prevent similar situations from occurring in the future. In some situations, this could even cut short certain damaging events, or prevent them from occurring in the first place.

Enter Vancouver, Canada in the middle of last week. After a long, drawn out, and very high-tension hockey playoffs, the Vancouver Canucks lost the Stanley Cup to the Boston Bruins. A small part of Vancouver, a city that is very passionate about its hockey, went crazy. Almost immediately after the final nail had been put in the Canucks’ coffin, a riot broke out in downtown Vancouver. So as not to digress too much, I won’t get into the details of how I feel about the unfathomably pathetic nature of this riot (especially compared to recent riots in other countries, which were sparked by far more important issues than a hockey game). But I would like to use this event as a gleaming example of how social media, coupled with smartphone technology, helped mitigate the damage, and hold many of the lowlifes involved responsible for their actions.

It’s hard to give reliable numbers of an exact nature, but I’ve heard that in as little as 20 seconds of the rioting breaking out, Facebook was lighting up with status updates and pictures from the riots, and that within a few minutes, Vancouver police had caught wind of what was going on. Incredible. Social media was allowing first hand coverage of this event to be spread across the city, and indeed across the world, within seconds of it starting!

Aside from simply reporting the events very quickly to the rest of the community, by raising immediate awareness of what was happening, the police were able to respond to the incident and contain it within a relatively short period of time (not to say it didn’t drag on for some time, but it could’ve been even worse had social media not been a factor).

The kicker though, and perhaps the most impressive aspect of how technology contributed to this event, was how social media was used after the riots had ended. Amazingly, pictures and videos that had been taken with smartphones during the riots were uploaded to Facebook, and the next day, used to identify and arrest some of the people who had reeked havoc (for example, set police cars on fire, looted Future Shop, and committed other acts of inconceivable genius) on downtown Vancouver the night before. The entire Facebook community was banding together online to identify people they knew from pictures, and bring to the attention of police incriminating Facebook conversations relating to the riot. For example, see http://www.facebook.com/pages/Vancouver-Riot-Tag-The-Hooligans/117540624999727?sk=wall.

On another front, and in a way that very showed that not all of Vancouver is a bunch of crazed, rioting morons, Facebook was used to organize a massive cleanup of downtown Vancouver a mere hours after the rioting had come to an end. A Facebook group, called “Post-riot clean-up – Let’s help Vancouver” (http://www.facebook.com/event.php?eid=219286898091948), was able to attract thousands of extremely generous volunteers to the areas affected by the riot, to help city crews clean up the mess. The publicity of this clean up effort on Facebook, aside from actually getting it going of course, was able to show the rest of the world the true spirit of Vancouver, and hopefully minimize the impact on the international perception of Vancouver as a city.

So, although Facebook and other social media is single-handedly responsible for wasting what is probably millions of dollars in employee time, with the help of powerful handheld devices, it has evolved to the point where it can have a positive influence on an entire community. Who knows what other world-changing applications of these technologies will rear their heads in the coming years.