The Nobler Side of Social Media: Voices in a Choir

First published March 3, 2011 in Mediapost’s Search Insider

Last week, I took social media to task for making us less social. This week, I’m in Palm Springs for TED Active — and on day one, saw three very real examples of how the Internet is also connecting us in ways we never imagined before. They provided a compelling counterpoint to my original argument.

Eric Whitacre is a composer and conductor. In “Lux Aurumque (Light and Gold)” he conducts a choir singing his original composition. The choir, 185 strong, never sang together. They never met each other. They live in 12 different countries. Whitacre posted a video of himself conducting the piece, and every one of those 185 members of the choir submitted their individual parts through YouTube. The 247 separate tracks were combined into a rather amazing work that has been seen almost 2 million times. One of the contributors lived in a cabin in the remote Alaskan wilderness, 400 miles from the nearest town. Her satellite link was her only connection to the world.

The Johnny Cash Project is an equally amazing collaborative effort. Aaron Koblin and Chris Milk took archival film footage of Johnny Cash, dissected it frame by frame, and asked artists from around the world to redraw each frame. The contributions were stitched back together with Cash’s song, “Ain’t No Grave” as the soundtrack. The result is mesmerizing.

But perhaps the must stunning example of digital collaboration came not from art, but the very real world of the Middle East. Wadah Kanfar, the chief of Al-Jazeera, told us how the voices of many, amplified through technology, are bringing democracy and new hope to Egypt, Tunisia and Libya.

These examples speak of something much broader and powerful than just the typical applications of social media. And, like social media’s less attractive side, the impact of these new connections on society is yet to be determined. There is a social experiment being conducted in real time — but the results will only be fully realized through the lens of hindsight. Can true democracy be established in a place like Libya, even with the power of connection? Time alone will tell.

The new technology of connection releases things that are deeply human: the need to be part of the greater whole (for example, the choir member from Alaska); the need to contribute something of ourselves to the world (for example, the Johnny Cash Project); and the need for fairness and justice (as in the protests in the Middle East). In the last example, these connections illuminate the human condition in the darkest corners of the world and force accountability. Since the beginning of time, unfairness in the tribe has been punished. The difference now is that our human tribe extends around the world.

Kanfar told an amazing story that unfolded during the height of one of the protests. The demonstrators pleaded with Al-Jazeera to keep the cameras rolling through the night. “If you stop, we’re lost. But as long as you keep showing what’s happening, we have hope.”

Perhaps the true paradox of social media is not that we’re becoming less social, but that we’re becoming social in different ways. As we spend less time in our flesh and blood engagements, we spend more time establishing connections that were impossible before. In the ’70s, Mark Granovetter found that our social networks are composed of two distinct types of linkages, which he called strong and weak ties. The strong ties are the family and friends bonds that generally require both proximity and significant time together. The weak ties are the extended bonds that we might call acquaintances. As Granovetter found, it’s the weak ties that carry the surprising power of a community, especially when they’re mobilized for a common purpose. We rely on weak ties for referrals, favors and job offers. They extend beyond our immediate circle and provide important social capital when required.

Perhaps social media has had a negative impact on our strong ties, as I alluded to in my last column. But, as I was reminded today, it has dramatically increased our ability to form weak ties that align to concepts, interests and causes. And don’t let the name “weak ties” fool you. When they’re synchronized, they can be tremendously powerful. You might call them the harmonized voices of a global choir.


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