The UN established the 8 Millennium Development Goals (MDG) to rally the world around a worthy BHAG (big hairy audacious goal) which can be summed up as end poverty by 2015. Talking about social media in relation to some of the catastrophic problems they are trying to solve like gender equality and HIV/AIDS seems like, well, it seems trivial. But I actually think social media can help.
I spoke on a panel at the UN during International Literacy Day. The event featured former First Lady Laura Bush who has been a champion of education every since her early career as a teacher. The focus of the event was clearly on literacy and education and how they can contribute to reaching the MDG. These goals require global commitments to build and staff schools, change culture and a whole lot more to make any of this add up. So, why does the emerging world of social media matter? Simple, I think they are looking in every direction for solutions big and small. And while I admit that teachers, schools and shoes for children to get to those schools are clear priorities, I do believe social media can help.
Social Media Literacy
There are two ways that social media can even come close to addressing any problem in the MDG. One is by giving individuals more choices through the benefits of digital and social media. The second is by strengthening the efforts of the worldwide non-profits trying to solve the problems head on. Unlike the field referred to as 'media literacy' which generally talks about understanding the vast media landscape and how messages are crafted and delivered, social media literacy is that plus understanding how you, too, can use it to reach your goals.
Here are 5 practical applications for digital and social media literacy. These could be described as the benefits of knowing how to use and understand aspects of social media accessed by mobile devices, PCs (including the One Laptop Per Child) and other emerging devices.
Communications via a Social Graph: building a network of “socially useful friends.”If I can connect with others in my community quickly, they can offer help, advice or verify my experience. If a citizen is turned away from a polling place they might check with their friends/social graph to see if they had a similar experience.
Relevant Information On-Demand: getting and sharing relevant information when most needed. When Indian farmers access crop prices via mobile they are tapping into market information when they most need it. MetroTeenAIDS in DC uses an SMS text system to let teens find HIV/AIDS testing facilities in DC.
Social Grassroots: growing and activating support communities to change conditions and behaviors. Six people were arrested in Mozambique for sending the original text messages protesting the price of water and electricity.
Collaborative Communities: Building global connections around affinities vs. political or geographic boundaries. We are building global wikis all the time around interests. They are intended to help people collaborate on work across all sorts of geo-political boundaries. Ogilvy’s social media wiki is a great example albeit a professional one.
Spontaneous Innovation: Digital and social technologies combined to solve community problems. The everyday application of new technologies sparks development of new ideas like the use of M-currency in Africa that allows people to send unused mobile minutes as currency to family members (M-Pesa from Vodafone is a commericalized version of this phenomena)
Some of these 5 are more practically useful to organizations trying make a difference in markets with low Internet or broadband access. But remember, there are 5 billion mobile phones in hands across the world. Add to that a few other tangential data points and the possibilities of social media in the hands of individuals across developing countries becomes real: 1/5 of Facebook access is via mobile device and even Uganda has almost 220K members. Social media literacy - understanding and capacity both for the individual and the organization trying to help the individual could contribute to reaching the goals.