The social networking giant has the power to change the world for the better. But does it want to?

By David Kirkpatrick

Toward the end of 2008, Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg was musing about a massive political rally in Colombia earlier that year. A young man had started a Facebook group to show his revulsion against the FARC guerrillas, and one month later, on Feb. 4, millions of people across Colombia and around the world rallied in opposition to FARC.

The anti-FARC protests were the first ripple in what would become this year’s global wave — the use of social media in massive political movements, as Facebook and Twitter have almost overnight become the world’s collective soapboxes, petition sheets, and meeting halls. It may have started in the Middle East with outraged friends on Facebook, but the chain reaction eventually led to landscape-altering citizens’ movements and demonstrations not just in Tunisia, Egypt, and Libya, where despots were toppled, but also Syria, Yemen, Bahrain, and later in Spain, Israel, India, Britain, the United States, and elsewhere. Facebook is a common thread in all these movements — it has become the new infrastructure of protest.

And more is coming. Zuckerberg has taken up the study of Mandarin in preparation for a Facebook push in China — not as part of a Facebook political vanguard, but out of Zuckerberg’s keen interest that his service succeed in China. Who knows what change, political or otherwise, it will bring?

Zuckerberg had a hint three years ago of what was to come. “In 15 years,” he predicted, “maybe there will be things like what happened in Colombia almost every day.”

Clearly, his time frame was much too conservative, which is why it’s probably a mistake to call 2011 the Year of Social Media. Future years will likely see even more impact from these evolving online tools. Facebook, not even eight years old, is poised soon to pass 1 billion active users. Twitter may be smaller — 100 million users — but it’s an elite crowd: media, political, business, and technology leaders. Meanwhile, legions of entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley and elsewhere are working on new social-media products that may eventually be even more efficient at helping ordinary people organize themselves. Read more…

David Kirkpatrick was for many years Fortune’s senior editor for Internet and technology. He is the author of The Facebook Effect: The Inside Story of the Company That Is Connecting the World.

As published in www.foreignpolicy.com (December 2011 edition).


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