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She's just a housewife and mother, but if you Google "Regina Holliday" today, you'll get 4,870,000 hits. They'll take you to her blog about her Medical Advocacy Mural Project, to media coverage of her story, and to other "Health 2.0" bloggers who coached her and helped spread the word. You'll see her at a press conference with Kathleen Sibelius, where the Secretary of Health and Human Service thanks Holliday for her heart-wrenching testimony. Hearing Fred's story helped convince lawmakers that patients, not just medical personnel, should be included in the "meaningful use" portion of the Health Information Technology for Economic and Clinical Health Act (HI-TECH). Holliday says that her story was "bad enough" to attract attention, and it played out against the backdrop of national healthcare reform. She knows she couldn't have done it without the help of her consequential strangers in D.C. and online. "A husband and wife who own a deli gave me a wall [to paint on]," she writes on her blog. "A man who owns a gas station gave another wall. I painted and you blogged, tweeted, and posted on Facebook."
The New Social Contract
In 2008, Chris Elam, director of Misnomer Dance Theater, a small avant-garde troupe in New York City, launched an "Audience Engagement Platform," using videos and viewer comments, live chats and blogs. "There are people who are hungry for meaningful engagement with the arts," says Elam. His goal was to connect with fans and pique the interest of people who weren't yet dance-lovers. "Social media can extend our experience of the performance at all stages of the process." Why not allow patrons to comment on directors' decisions, vote on costume design, listen to dancers' conversations, volunteer to help out in ways beyond just writing a check? "They can see themselves as coproducers, not just bystanders."
A devil's advocate might point out that "audience engagement" translates into greater ticket sales, and that social media, in the world of commerce, is just a new kind of advertising, the elusive "killer app." Everyone seems to be trying it. But something else is happening as well. The most successful social media experiments—whether spearheaded by one person, a group of individuals, a company, or an institution—invite you in, treat you as a friend, and make you feel at home. Look around, they say, and tell us how we can make things better; get to know us. Get involved and tell us what you think.
"The Internet has changed our relationships and our social contracts with one another," maintains Beth Kanter, a veteran of the virtual world. Coauthor, with Allison Fine, of The Networked Non-Profit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change, in 2009, Fast Company named Kanter one of the most influential women in technology. When she talks, her 300,000-plus Twitter followers listen. "On my blog, I share everything I know." If a person or organization isn't genuinely committed to establishing relationships, sharing openly, and really listening to its constituents, Kanter says, social media is just window dressing. "In order to use the tools effectively, you have to change the way you work. There's a loss of control—transparency means having more porous boundaries. The norm now is to be open."
Ironically, a short 15 years ago, when a 28-year-old computer scientist named Pierre Omidyar created "AuctionWeb," a software program that enabled people to buy and sell over the Internet, few believed that strangers would trust each other enough to exchange money online. But Omidyar "founded the company on the notion that people were basically good, and that if you give them the benefit of the doubt, you're rarely disappointed." His goal was to create "an honest, open environment," which, he believed, would "bring out the best in people."
You probably know the company as eBay. Omidyar built it, and we came. "It would have seemed like a crazy idea even a few years ago," says Rachel Botsman, a branding expert and coauthor, with Roo Rogers, of What's Mine Is Yours: The Rise of Collaborate Consumption, "yet 99 percent of the trades on eBay happen successfully. Technology enabled trust between strangers."
True enough, we're less afraid to talk to strangers online. We (mostly) use our real names when we display images or twitter our opinions and our favorite links. In return, we get a glimpse of other people's lives. Deanna Zandt, author of Share This! How You Will Change the World with Social Networking, thinks of social networking as the "digital version of consciousness raising" because each tweet or status update says, "This is what it's like to be a person in my shoes." We help and are given help, we share and snack on morsels of information or inspiration. These brief encounters are surprisingly satisfying—and compelling. Being a participant is rewarding, like winning in Las Vegas—you want to go back for more.
Seriously, those of you on Facebook, admit it: it's not like spending a week at a soup kitchen, but when you say a kind word, wish happy birthday, or even "poke" someone just to say hi, don't you feel like a good citizen of Our Town? It puts a high gloss on your self-image. You see yourself as someone who cares about, and cooperates, with others.