I’m 32 years old. To me that age seems young, but I am old enough to remember MyPage and AOL chat rooms.
During my family vacation this summer I mentioned MyPage and my 15 year old cousin had to google the phrase to find out what it was. I remember getting those AOL 2000 minute free CD’s in the mail every few months. I’d grab the CD and a friend and we’d log on for hours to play games online. Usually we played Life. I remember that was my first exposure to social media to get more Instagram followers.
As I grew older and I went off to college Facebook was developed; and it exploded my freshman year. Everyone was on Facebook. It was the bees knees. It’s funny to remember what life was like before Facebook and Instagram or the use of land lines instead of cell phones. Explaining these things to my 15 year old cousin is usually met with genuine dismay and horrified gasps. Let’s not even begin to discuss pagers or the fact that I recently saw the Motorola Razor flip phone on display in a museum. (I let out a horrified gasp when I saw that!).
In 2010 I went to Afghanistan as a humanitarian. I was teaching English and healthcare practices to women and children. During this period of my life I started my own company and we developed mobile phone apps to help educate women on maternal and infant healthcare (what may surprise you is that nearly every single person in Afghanistan has a cell phone, or has access to a cell phone). One of our projects was using an interactive, online map that could track the number of infant and maternal birth and death rates in some of the rural clinics. We worked with different midwives and asked them to text us the number of children born, died and mothers that died as a result of childbirth to our iSMS modem daily. The midwives cooperated and texted us the numbers religiously. But they also started to text us just to talk! To ask questions about some of the medical cases they were experiencing. There was a need for further education for each of them, as they were the primary healthcare providers in most of their villages (at a whopping age of 14) but they also really wanted to connect with like individuals. We found a group of girls that had very similar life experiences, but were from different villages and had never met one another – but their desire to connect was as if they all had known each other long before. Despite what culture your from, or how you were raised, we all have the desire to connect with other people and social media allows for that.
Also during this time I was involved in a lot of different cell phone technology development organizations; mostly for education and awareness. My company was contracted by USAID to put on an innovation lab in Afghanistan in order to provide a creative workplace for young Afghan students to come together and generate different cellphone applications and technologies that can be used in the areas of healthcare, media, education, government, religion and agriculture. We brought in a team of technical guru’s who had been developing apps and running their own companies for years to act as judges and mentors throughout the program. The ideas that came from these students were innovative and inspiring. I was so proud to be apart of that initiative. I mention this story because the same concept prevailed in most of the technologies that were developed; connecting people to people.
During this program I learned of a program that was developed in Egypt by a few young female students. It was called the ‘Harass Map.” It was created like a speed trap application, but instead of informing users about nearby speed trap locations, it would inform users about which roads were safest for a woman to walk along. Users would pull this app up on their phone and it would track their travel route (usually on foot). During the girls walk, if she was harassed at all by any passerby’s (cat called, yelled at, spit at, had something thrown at her, or actually been touched) she could plot that on her map and it would alert other users of the incident. These alerts would then be used by other girls as warnings to avoid certain streets or areas along their route. As upsetting as the thought was that these young ladies had the need to develop such an application, it was still inspiring to learn that they had created a product that could be used to help one another.
My favorite concept behind social media is that of connectedness. Sure people will argue these days that we spend too much time on our phones or on the internet and that we’re steadily losing the ability to communicate with people face to face. But think about how amazing it is that I can communicate via Skype with a woman in Pakistan about her pregnancy. Or how we can watch a protest in Kiev that’s streaming on UStream. Social Media like Twitter, linkedin, Instagram allows people to understand different cultures by providing us the exposure into another person’s life; in real time. That is an amazing concept and one I believe to be the most beneficial and important aspect of social media.
I believe that our purpose in life is to connect with other people. I believe shared experiences are fundamental to humanity and it’s during these shared experiences that we grow closer to one another and develop bonds. Social media allows us to connect and discover other people who are like ourselves and gives us the opportunity to develop deeper bonds with others. Social media plays different parts in our lives; from the most mundane Facebook update to a useful application like the Harass Map. But at the very core of it, I believe the connection it provides is what makes it most important to our lives.