October 15th, is Blog Action Day. The concept being to encourage blogs around the world to all write about one issue on the same day – hoping that through the various niches (social media types, big shoes, ZX Spectrum nostalgia) the message will reach as many people as possible. This year the theme is poverty.

Blog Action Day is a fine example of “organising with out organisations” as Clay Shirky puts it, how social media can facilitate a co-ordinated effort without the need for huge hierarchies. Started only last year and by only a couple of committed people (who all have other jobs) and now in its second year there are 8,240 Sites with a total of regular readers 9,203,161. Those nine million plus are subscriber numbers by RSS — demographics-wise I would say that puts those 9 million in the most digitally savvy groups of people that there are.

The web allows ideas to spread quickly, social media helps people to connect quickly, to collaborate on actions. It could usher a new era of awareness, or protesting could become so easy that it ceases to mean anything.

When talking of the internet and poverty the ‘digital divide’ is what is often focused upon. There really a couple of different things that this covers: the first, inescapably, is poverty. Some people are to poor (or too isolated in undeserved areas) to be able to get access to computers. This is where governmental effort or philanthropy is needed — moves like the OLPC (One Laptop Per Child) might do it, eventually, but my best guess is that the technology will change faster than any initiative.

The second ‘divide’ is the more complicated, those that could access computers or the ‘net, but don’t. This is the divide I’ve been thinking about a lot recently, especially since I’ve become involved with We Share Stuff a social enterprise in Birmingham that hopes to use social media (and real social media “experts”) —  to cross that divide in a new way.

I attended a panel session at at the recent Conservative Party Conference (sponsored by the New Statesman and UK Online Centres) – the topic was “Does Online Equality Matter?”. Even given that the intended audience was political types rather than “nerds” (as we were charmingly refered to), I was dissapointed with the focus of debate. They’re so intent on providing “access” that what that access is for proves difficult to grasp — Helen Milner (UK Online Centres) at one point described online grocery shopping as a “key service”.

Combined with the way an awful lot of the current teaching in this area is based on specific skills (word processing, spreadsheets) I see huge opportunities being missed. The We Share Stuff idea is to use tools as a way to breed confidence in computer and internet use, and to make sure they’re all about real human relationships — sharing rather than shopping.

In the near future it’s possible that the inability to use (or disinterest in using) the internet will become a contributory factor in poverty — work that doesn’t in some way use it will become rarer and rarer.

Social media can help in the fight against poverty, in a number of ways — but it’s still down to people.

If you’ve got your own blog, why not sign up to Blog Action Day and write a post yourself, if you’re in Brum and wanting to know more abut social media for your organisation then a group of local bloggers have organised a special drop-in ‘surgery’ tonight at BVSC – more details here.

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