Of late, social media has been acquiring a dark hue. Twitter is associated with slander, Facebook with bullying, and YouTube with sectarian hatred. But those dejected with its decline might be heartened to discover opportunities in social media that are transforming our social order.

For instance, 27-year-old Mayank Sharma from Delhi woke up one morning with no memory of his previous life. He suffered from a strain of tubercular meningitis which destroyed brain cells that enable us to remember our past.

Mayank did not understand the meaning of relationships. Even though he lived among them, he didn’t know his parents, siblings or friends anymore. If our lives are made up of memories, then Mayank had just lost his life. When he was well enough, Mayank logged onto Facebook and started re-learning things about himself. He discovered that if he saw a photograph, he could remember fragments of the incident and build a lost part of his life around it. The feature of “people you may know" reconnected him to friends and acquaintances who were in his past—sometimes for short but important parts. Each person’s response gave him more fragments until he could rebuild his life like a jigsaw puzzle.

Canadian Brent Murray’s experience transcended continents. Brent was born with clubfoot, a condition that required several operations well into his childhood. He was mocked and tormented till after many surgeries and physiotherapy sessions, he was finally able to walk normally. Brent knew what it meant to have broken legs. As did three-year-old Loic Mbeze, thousands of miles away in Congo. Loic did not want to go to school because he was ridiculed and his mother watched helplessly as Loic hobbled on his deformed legs, seemingly doomed for life. One day, from a site focusing on needy children with disabilities, Brent learnt of Loic’s plight and wanted to help. Using social media, Brent located Mercy Ships—an NGO of doctors who sailed along the coast of Africa performing surgeries on poor children. Brent coordinated the meeting between Loic and Mercy Ships until he was operated and able to walk like a normal child to his school.

Or take the case of Patrick McGuiness, a 45-year-Londoner who spent 15 of those years in prisons. Patrick grew up in a dysfunctional family and was a drug addict and a criminal by the age of 15. In and out of trouble, he had been stabbed, kidnapped and in jail several times before he entered into rehab at 33. Twelve years later, Patrick decided to take the “Knowledge".

The Knowledge is an especially hard examination which every London cabbie has to pass to get a licence. The candidate has to learn over 3,000 street names and their shortest directions within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross station. For weeks, Patrick mounted his scooter and traced the routes, trying to learn them by rote. But it is a tough task for any man. So Patrick went to a place where he could meet other cabbies who were willing to help. The social media. Within days, Patrick had a group of mentors and mates who passed on tips and advice. Thanks to their support, Patrick now has an image of himself sitting behind the wheels of the black cab of London, as a member of an elite group who earn their badge after passing the “Knowledge".

My favourite is the story of kids from Layag Layag, an island village in the Philippines whose homes are built on stilts because of high tides. Close to 200 kids from this community could attend school only by crossing 2km of water to reach the mainland. Each morning, they packed their uniform and books in plastic bags and swum across the mangroves holding their bag above the water with one hand while they paddled with the other. They would change their clothes on reaching the opposite bank before being able to attend school. When Jay Jaboneta, an avid blogger and philanthropist, learnt of this he started a movement called the “Yellow Boat of Hope", leveraging the power of social media to harness thousands of passionate people who not only collected funds for boats for the children but also by sheer participation with this fringe community, transformed the lives of thousands of similarly affected people, helping them get scholarships and build schools closer to their communities.

These and thousands of such stories are harbingers of an emerging social order. Individuals can now reach across geographical, linguistic, economic and social chasms to help causes and total strangers. For the first time since evolution, we have the ability to participate and help in the struggles of people we may never meet and in the process realize how blessed we are.

Some denizens of the social media world seek pyrrhic goals of followers, likes and views. They broadcast every mundane event presumably for followers seeking vicarious pleasure and titillation. But perhaps these czars and czarinas of cyberspace aren’t the ones making a difference. Perhaps we need more of meaningful information and less of mindless inflammation. Our communities need people who bridge resources from those who have it to those who need it. A self-centred status update is simply an attention seeker but a call for action to help others can start something meaningful.

After all, each one of the stories above started with one person wanting to make a difference.

Raghu Raman is a commentator on internal security, member of the www.outstandingspeakersbureau.in and author of Everyman’s War (www.fb.com/everymanswarbook). The views expressed are personal.

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