Social media's awesome power can really take your breath away when you take a second to step back and see the change that it can cause in the world. Many brands and traditional media companies are focused on social media's effects on their relationships with consumers. Yet it is social media's ability to fundamentally shift how people discover, connect, communicate and interact with each other that what makes the space so powerful.
The presidential race is a great example of shifting people's ability to interact and support through social media (e.g. campaign donations, grass roots organization, remixed political speeches on YouTube). This is social media affecting the very nature of politics. But the political season is only the tip of the iceberg. The greatest potential of social media lies in its ability to enable and encourage people to do social good.
The knock against social networks for a long time has been that they were glorified dating systems or popularity contests. But one look at applications like Causes on Facebook, and you can begin to see the swell beneath the surface of a new generation of social-media-savvy teens and young adults making it "cool" to be socially aware. I have always subscribed to the philosophy that in order to change the world, you don't need to make new laws, just make it popular to do the right thing (stolen from John Locke; for more on this topic, read "John Locke To Al Gore: Tech Changes, Advertising Remains").
Internet 1.0 exponentially accelerated the spread of information. Likewise, social media can accelerate the spread of cultural trends AND the rate at which people can actively support those trends (from going green to buying the new cool shoes). Look at socially conscious social media platforms like Kiva.org or DonorsChoose.org.
Because of social media, not only can people in need, be they classroom teachers or farmers in the third world, publish their stories and have them read, but these platforms actually make it possible for people to band together to make a difference. Finally, social media completes the loop by allowing the teachers, students or farmers to actually thank those that made the difference. Talk about value in connecting people.
Can social media make charitable giving market efficient? With less bureaucracy, more transparency into the actual effect of your dollars, it would seem that improving the efficiency of charitable giving is not only possible, but likely.
But monetary donations are only part of the story. Just as important is the ability for charities to spread their message. Whereas before non-profits counted on the donation of media from major media companies, now non-profits need only look to their supporters. People are media in social media. If 10,000 people support Charity: Water (http://www.charitywater.org/) and share Charity: Water's message and mission with their friends, that's real media exposure that wasn't available before. Social media truly democratizes the promotion of causes.
Finally, after providing exposure, and maybe donating some funds, social media also helps people get involved with charities as never before. Just look at social networks like the "Make The Difference Network" (http://mtdn.com/) founded by Actress Jessica Biel and her family.
One of my favorite examples of social good through social media is Participant Media (http://www.participantmedia.com/). Participant has been successful beyond belief in raising awareness of issues through traditional media, and now, with Jeff Skoll, Jim Berk and Adrian Sexton, they are looking at leveraging this success to create real change in the world through participation in social media on TakePart.com (http://www.takepart.com/) (in very early alpha right now, but with this group, I wouldn't bet against them succeeding).
The list goes on. Check out DoSomething.org (www.dosomething.org) and read "Ten Ways to Change the World Through Social Media" (http://sustainablog.org/2008/05/12/ten-ways-to-change-the-world-through-social-media/) written by Max Gladwell (Disclsoure: I'm not just saying this because Max lists my company here.)
One thing I have learned by listening while building a social media company is that people want to make a difference and be recognized for their ability to do so. Successful social media companies and campaigns will enable people to do this.