Is it possible that in 2011 social media could help bring peace on earth, goodwill toward men (and women)? I’m enough of an optimist to hope so but enough of a realist to appreciate how naive that sounds. Still, I believe there are encouraging signs that social media can have a positive impact on the world — but only if it first has a positive impact on each of us.

If I predict that social media will bring peace to the world and am subsequently proven wrong, at least I’d be in good company. History is full of examples of technical advances that carried the promise of beneficial change but delivered something less. Alfred Nobel invented dynamite, a more stable version of nitroglycerin, to make mining safer; he eventually used his wealth to establish the Nobel Prizes after reading an erroneously printed obituary that called him “the merchant of death” for “finding ways to kill more people faster than ever before.” 

Cable television also once was seen as a force for positive change. A 1973 report from the National Science Foundation predicted cable television would “become a medium for local action instead of a distributor of prepackaged mass-consumption programs to a passive audience.” Alas, Bruce Springsteen accurately summed up cable television’s present and future when he sung almost 20 years ago that “There was fifty-seven channels and nothin' on.”

If innovative technologies failed to bring education, culture and peace in the past, why might social media succeed in doing so today? In part, because yesterday’s technical advances were about empowering the individual while social media is about connecting them. Unlike television or even the World Wide Web, social media isn’t about access to information but access to people.  

Certainly social media can be used to spread hate or create problems, but it also is used to fight the good fight. We’ve already witnessed evidence of this such as: 

  • A groundswell against terrorism. In the prologue for the book “The Facebook Effect” (which is excerpted on The New York Times site), David Kirkpatrick tells the tale of Oscar Morales, who created a Facebook group out of rage against FARC’s actions in Columbia. Within days his group amassed thousands of fans and a month later 10 million people marched worldwide against FARC, an effort coordinated on Facebook.
  • Bureaucratic roadblocks diminished. NBC-TV reporter Ann Curry was traveling on a Doctors Without Borders plane on its way to Haiti following the earthquake. When she found the plane could not get clearance to land, she tweeted, "@usairforce find a way to let Doctors without Borders planes land in Haiti." They were soon on the ground delivering humanitarian aid and assistance.
  • A political prisoner freed. James Karl Buck was on his way to an Egyptian jail when he tweeted a single word: “Arrested.”  The message was received by friends and caused action in the United States; 24 hours later Buck was released.
  • Bills advanced in the US congress. Earlier this year, I had a terrific discussion with Alan Rosenblatt of the Center for American Progress Action Fund. With an anti-genocide bill stuck in Washington DC, the group asked members to turn to Facebook and Twitter to urge action in their representatives. Within 48 hours, 1,200 activists had posted on the Facebook walls of 10 members of congress. Within days two of these congressmen agreed to sponsor the bill, and it was soon passed and signed into law. So successful was this effort that one of the senators reached out to the organization and asked that they send activists back to Facebook to thank elected officials in order to close the loop in a positive fashion.

There is no question that social media can bring great and positive change in our world, but here’s the problem: It cannot do it alone. In each of the examples above, it was not Twitter or Facebook that created change but the action of people (or the threat of action of people) that did so. Oscar Morales, James Karl Buck and Alan Rosenblatt were not successful simply because they used social media tools but because people acted as a result of how these tools were used. If no one marched against FARC, responded to Buck’s tweet or acted on an anti-genocide call to action, then nothing would have been accomplished. 

And it is this sort of action that allows social media to be a sort of “social change multiplier.” For example, Ann Curry’s tweet didn’t need to bring about a groundswell of action to get the Air Force to permit an aid plane to land — it only needed to threaten to do so.  The decision-makers at the Air Force may have been unaware of the plight of the Doctors Without Borders plane, but it’s also likely they simply didn’t want to deal with the repercussions of Curry’s tweet. After all, the military may be largely independent of public opinion, but even it doesn't want to deal with a flood of questions as to why it's preventing aid from reaching suffering Haitians.

That shows the power of the “social change multiplier.” If people take action in sufficient numbers a sufficient number of times, those who care about public sentiment (including elected officials, corporate executives and others) will react as much to the threat of social media action as real social media action. But if there are no repercussions because people fail to pay attention and act, then the threat goes away.  No action means no social change multiplier.

French historian Fernand Braudel suggested that a way to predict the future was to consider the past, not in terms of recent trends and changes but the things that do not change in human behavior. Called “projective history,” his theory implies that only by studying the eternal truths of history (and not the front page of newspapers) can you see what must come next. If we use projective history, the future of social media doesn’t look bright. Cable TV failed to live up to its promise of “becom(ing) a medium for local action” not for any failure of the technology but because of unchanging human nature. As a result of viewer habits, it is more economical for cable providers to take infomercial money to sell abdominal tightening machines than it is to provide educational and community content.

As social media continues to commercialize (as it must to survive), the question is whether it will follow cable TV and become a vast wasteland of meaningless minutiae, a force for positive change or, if we’re lucky, both. In the end, that doesn’t depend upon what happens in the halls and cubicles of Twitter and Facebook but what happens to those of you reading this. If you act on the things you read and see in social media merely by following and friending, then little will change. But if the things you read on Twitter and Facebook encourage you to act — to donate, post, call, write or change your behaviors — then social media may succeed where so many other technical advances have failed mankind.

Regardless of what happens in social media this coming year, I wish all of you a prosperous, safe, healthy and peaceful 2011.