My professional interest in the social web and social media tends to focus mostly on the possibilities that the medium offers to businesses, universities, non-profits, government agencies, and so on. Most of that deals with positive potential: In the business world, it touches on improving consumer relations, attracting new customers, improving loyalty, yada yada yada. In the communications world, the focus shifts to facilitating education, protecting reputations, avoiding and managing crises, etc. And from a social standpoint, building communities, enhancing collaboration, and political action tend to top off the list.
Wherever I go and whatever project I work on, the most negative aspect of social media I usually ever have to deal with is a bad product review, angry customers, or public outrage over an incident (as with the BP oil spill) or unpopular policy (as with Nestle and its palm oil supply chain). But this weekend, I was introduced to a different kind of negativity on the social web, one that steps beyond the boundaries of consumer indignation and political discord. One that, although unprompted by contemporary injury or injustice, incited people to give voice to a shared xenophobic grievance.
After having spent weeks digging deep into the amazing impact that the social web has had in giving common, often disenfranchised people the power to unite in ways they never could before, impact their own elections, topple dictators, and finally give their voice a long overdue breath of life, running into the complete opposite this weekend felt like someone had just sucker-punched me in the gut.
On Saturday, I started noticing tweets and Facebook updates like these (screenshots):
#PearlHarbor may have even briefly become a trending topic on Twitter on Saturday (although the notoriously misspelled #PearlHarbour might have beaten it to the punch, which is telling in and of itself). This only hours after a devastating earthquake and tsunami struck Japan and left hundreds, perhaps thousands of innocent people dead.
Typically, I much prefer to focus on all the ways that social media can make the world a better place. For instance, Japan’s early earthquake and tsunami warning system sends texts to citizens’ phones, which is a pretty simple but clever use of SMS technology. That is a great story. Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Google helped people in the disaster-struck area let their loved ones know they were all right, and continue to help folks outside of the affected areas locate their missing loved ones. Again, brilliant. Critical real-time information was and is shared via mobile devices and social platforms to help save lives. Google’s Crisis Response project is another example of what can be done with the web to help save lives and rebuild affected areas. Stories like this rock my world. But the CNNs and BBCs of the world are already doing a fine job of covering that angle. What isn’t being touched on a whole lot is the flip side of that coin. The ugly side. So I want to touch on it for a couple of minutes because it too is important.
This little blip of shame deserves its own little moment in the spotlight, if only to remind us that in spite of the wonderful technology we enjoy today, humanity isn’t yet quite as evolved as we would like to think it is. A connection to the internet doesn’t necessarily make someone smarter. Having hundreds of “friends” on Facebook doesn’t necessarily make us more social or human. This #PearlHarbor hashtag incident is a subtle, yet important reminder of what always lurks beneath the surface of human interactions. It may be a mere blip on our collective radar, sure, but a blip on the radar can sometimes turn into something more. Something bigger and uglier and more ominous.
Here’s what’s important to keep in mind: 100% of the social web’s potential is tied to human potential. That potential can be fueled by innovation, altruism, progress, collaboration, and even kindness. It can also be fueled by little more than narcissism, idleness, ego and self-gratification. And sadly, it can be fueled equally by xenophobia, cynicism, hatred, indifference and even cruelty. Tools and platforms like Twitter, blogs and Facebook are blank canvases. We decide what we paint there. The “content” we produce for the social web is a reflection of the world we want to build for ourselves and others. We can build something worthwhile, or we can build something ugly and destructive. We can build something self-serving and predatory, or we can build something beneficial to all. We can use social media to facilitate and promote progress or hinder and weaken it. Through the use of social platforms, we can be a force for good, or a force for cruelty and hatred. The potential for both is exactly the same. We decide, both collectively and individually, where things go.
On a more positive note, the #pearlharbor hastag on twitter quickly rallied thousands upon thousands of outraged social web denizens who reacted with shock and disgust to the horrible racist statements which gave rise to this post. That’s a very good sign.
Here are a few ways you can help already start to help Japan today:
And lastly, this beautiful effort by signalnoise.com:
If you have more links to share, feel free to leave them in the comments.