The rare instances when I put out some new photos on Facebook, the only social network I use, or update my status there, I almost always receive comments from the people I don't know. I've got about a thousand Facebook "friends" from all over the world but, honestly, I am not acquainted with about half of them. Or at least I don't know them personally, perhaps only through other people, friends of friends' friends.
There has been a lot of speculation lately on how social networks and modern technology in general alter the way we communicate. A popular take is that they limit personal contact, alienating people from each other and boosting constant virtual attention-seeking. There's also growing talk of a "friends overload" that many network users, Facebookers in the first place, experience getting numerous friendship requests from strangers. I share these opinions, but only in part. The truth is, those thousand Facebook friends of mine are giving me an inexplicably comforting feeling. Granted, there's a dose of narcissism in that. I also know that most of these people aren't the friends who are going to show up at my door in the middle of the night when I am in trouble. In fact, I may never meet those virtual buddies in person. Perhaps some of them don't even exist. Even so, one of our most basic existential needs is in some way to be connected to other human beings. And I believe Facebook and other social networks manage to give us that feeling of being linked to each other by invisible but prominent ties. They depolarize the world, erasing, at least virtually, all sorts of distances between people: physical, social, class, race, age, cultural, you name it.
There are actually a few celebrities on my friends list, too, but to me they are just fellow Facebookers. I am not sure how often Lady Gaga and the Russian president check their Facebook accounts and if it's really Medvedev twitting about Russia's victories and losses in sports, but it somehow still feels that we are all pretty much on the same page. Same Facebook page, I mean.
Have you ever heard of the Six Degrees of Separation theory? This almost century-old notion suggests that any two individuals on Earth, be it the Queen of Britain or a street vendor in Manila, could be connected through a chain of at most six other people. (There's a Six Degrees of Separation group on Facebook, too. It's aiming to test this hypothesis following the network's bonding methods, but many sociological and statistical experiments have proved it right anyway.) With almost 700 million Facebook members and the overall number of social-networking accounts (about 10 billion, according to the market analysts' data from last year) having already surpassed the entire world population, I am starting to seriously believe in this theory as well.
But what do we choose to do with our growing interconnectedness? Keep bragging about our lavish travels, typing in meaningless status updates, flirt and collect virtual acquaintances mainly for personal gratification? Nothing too wrong with all of the above, but social media could serve as a much more powerful global tool. They have become indispensable during the recent protests in Arab countries. Young activists used Twitter, Facebook and other sites of the kind to call for action, make actual demonstration plans and provide an uncensored news feed. More important, social networks offer immense opportunities for raising social awareness and responsibility.
"All I've been using the Facebook for lately is to call for help while fundraising," said Olga Pavlova, editor of Forbes Woman magazine who leads various charity projects on a regular basis. "The revolution in Egypt started through Facebook; why can't we involve this resource to engage in helping other people?"
Another friend, Alexandra Olsufieva, an incredibly bright and inspiring girl who speaks five languages fluently, recently quit her job at an international law firm to become a full-time fundraiser. She founded Coolcoz, an online philanthropic community that organizes charity events throughout the world. According to Olsufieva, it's still the real life events in the first place, not our virtual interactions that motivate us to do something. "Just asking people to click and support a cause or click and give out some money will never give a person the same experience as attending a special event and, say, baking and then sharing a chocolate cake there for a good cause," she said.
"But social networks are great in giving more visibility and publicity to each act of kindness and therefore encourage more people to get involved," Olsufieva said. In fact, one of her signature projects, Dinners With a Cause (home charity dinners put together across the world with fees paid for the attendance going to a particular charity or cause) became well-known in Europe partly thanks to its Facebook presence. Olsufieva thinks it's the way to go, sticking to smaller online groups and communities united by an idea or a message that you really believe in.
The world's indeed shrinking at an enormous speed, and there's no turning back. Why not get something really meaningful out of it? We've never had this many chances to make a difference.
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Russia has always been referred to as feminine and Russian women have been one of the most popular stereotypes of this nation, both positive and negative. But is this an all-male fantasy? Here is a hip, modern, professional and increasingly globalized Russian woman looking at the trends around her, both about her gender and the society at large. She talks and lets other women talk.
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