Social media and random acts of kindness

Image by LiminalMike via Flickr

Is the world becoming less friendly? Some people might lead you to think so. “People don’t help out their neighbours like they used to”, they might say, “I’d never ask a stranger to help me”. It might be true that in some areas, especially in highly urban communities, people are less engaged with people who live near them. Statistics might show that people are less likely to hitch a ride on a Highway than they were 50 years ago. But at the same time we are seeing people becoming much more ‘friendly’, helping out friends and strangers alike. They are just doing it in different ways.

Social media, and online communities in particular are all about people helping other people because of a shared interest, aim, goal or question. They might help people to find the answers they are looking for, share their own experiences or help people to sort their content and ideas so that the most relevant comes to the front.

In one of the online communities that we run at FreshNetworks, we see such examples on a regular basis. Over the summer there was a particular poignant one. A group of women on a community focused on anti-aging and beauty were blogging about their diets and lifestyles. Then one of the lady’s husbands was rushed into hospital. She blogged about this, going off topic but writing from the heart about what was happening in her life and her trips to the hospital every day. It was wonderful to see the rest of the community rally round, supporting her, giving her advice and looking after her. People who have never met each other offline giving each other real help and support.

The internet, and social media in particular, is designed to allow people to connect not because they know each other, or they happen to be in the same place at the same time, but because they share genuine interests and concerns. People connect around these bonds rather than the happenstance of location or time. This results in an environment where people empathise with people more, and more easily, and want to help them out. Random acts of kindness are becoming commonplace online and with the growth of social media will be more so.

Jonathan Zittrain recently spoke at TED Global on this very issue, about how the internet is made up of millions of random acts of kindness. The video of his talk is our Required Reading for the week.

Jonathan Zittrain: The Web as random acts of kindness