Can social media save the world? Maybe, but not if we assert ‘social media power’ uncritically.

So I’ve been thinking that in addition to posting the full text of my responses when I’m quoted in various media, I might start posting my responses which I send in reply to press queries that are not selected for publication. This isn’t sour grapes, but I do spend some serious time and effort in responding to these and they might as well get published somewhere, even if it is on my own blog.

I got this question last week: “As the We Movement launches this week — a state and potentially nationwide social networking site connecting those in need with providers of everything from housing, legal aid, education, health care, youth programs and clothing to soup and nuts (literally) — the question arises, is the power of social connections, supported by sophisticated search and match software going to fill the increasing gaps left as local, state and federal government services cut back?”

The article was posted a few days ago. A snippet:

Now, social networks are drawing on the high-tech tools of the 21st century. As more individuals and businesses push into the digital sphere, says Sherrie Madia at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, “people are feeling empowered by broader connections.” There is a growing trend, she adds, toward “people and corporations looking for a higher purpose.”

Such is the case with the just-launched WE Movement, an offshoot of the Ramsell corporation in Oakland, Calif. The company had developed a sophisticated search-and-match software for healthcare services and providers, but it wanted to broaden its work. “We wanted to go back to the way things were decades ago when people helped people, neighbors looked out for each other,” says chief operating officer Tom Loker, WE Movement’s founder. Government, he says, is not the solution.

It’s kind of too bad that there was nothing in the article that hinted at some skepticism of this claim that social networks could supplant or fill-in for government services. My offering is a direct response to Loker’s sentiment that, as we used to say in Alabama (and still do) ‘the guvment isn’t the answer’:

It is tempting, especially in times where budgets are crunched and groups ideologically opposed to government services have gained the national spotlight, to think that information technology driven social networks can offer ‘governance without government.’ However, such claims should be met with deep skepticism. Social networking sites, and other forms of digital media like Craigslist and blogs, might well be good at small-scale “search and match” activity. If you have a bike collecting dust in your basement and I am looking for a dusty bike, then a digitally-mediated social network could very well be just the ticket for both of us. However, as you scale up–to health care, housing, etc.–then the resource-intensiveness of the activity will likely strain most social networks. While the We Movement and similar endeavors are laudable and may well work in some capacity, to think that they might be able to pick up all the slack from an under-resourced public sector is reminiscent of anti-government arguments that presume charity could supplant Medicare/Medicaid or Temporary Assistance for Needy Families. Only government has the resources, and occasionally the willpower, to adequately provide public goods.

I wish the best of luck to the We Movement, but am frankly tired of reading articles that suggest that social media will solve all our problems. It’s almost been ten years–hasn’t the novelty worn off yet?