First and foremost let me say that I went into this class expecting something completely different. What I have experienced over the last 8 weeks has truly been eye opening in so many ways. I have looked forward to the Frontline videos more so than I ever thought I would and have already watched others just to gain more information that I’ve been depriving myself of. I’m sad this course is over but I’m appreciative to the knowledge that has been given to me over the summer and the kick in the pants to be more cognizant of what is going on in the world around me.
The first community action project that came to mind when I read the questions regarding cognitive surplus was that of the meaningful efforts provided to the blog Blessed by Brenna, started right here in Springfield, Illinois. A brief background about this blog – Brenna Westlake was born in 2011 with a severe skin disease called Harlequin Ichthyosis. She went through horrible blood infections and had to undergo major surgeries and her parents didn’t know if she would make it or not. Courtney, Brenna’s mom, began posting on Facebook asking for prayers and for the support of her family and friends. The posts quickly circulated throughout the community due to shares, posts, and eventually attracted major networks such as CBS. Her blog, Blessed by Brenna, has made it global allowing for other families to reach out to her with their experiences with the rare disease. What started out as a plea for help and prayers has turned into a collective effort and all because people cared enough to do something about it.
Tie that all in with what we have learned and what you can easily see is how cognitive surplus has gone to work in the Westlake family. Just like the start of Ushahidi and Wikipedia, all it took was one person with an idea. Last week when we discussed Generation Like and how there is obvious power in that little blue and white thumbs up, we saw it more so in the concept of companies trying to promote themselves. However, causes such as Brenna and others of the like (i.e. non-profit organizations, Animal Protective League) can utilize social media for a collective benefit. Whereas I may not benefit personally from sharing the Blessed by Brenna blog or the current needs of the Sojourn Shelter, I am indirectly helping someone else out there which is what Shirky calls our civic value. Individuals volunteer in food shelters to help others for example, but what it also does is it fulfills that gap inside all of us that urges us to do good and help out our fellow peers.
It is fascinating to me how we have progressed from the Pony Express and the electronic telegraph to being able to video chat with groups across the world and make a YouTube video go viral in a matter of seconds. When Marshall McLuhan introduced the theory of technological determinism, I believe his reaction to current social media takeover would not be that of surprise. However, I think he would shake his head at the waste of resources and bombardment of non-talented material that circulates the internet currently. Nonetheless, when there are sites like the Brenna Facebook page that turns global and attracts more medical research and provides funding to that research and families, I think that is something that warrants a pat on the back to the development of technology. Courtney Westlake’s Facebook page now turned blog provides a variety of information daily along with updates on her daughter and family.
As for an existing project, I have been following the development of a former classmate, Travis Cox and his Instagram blog, 365 Firsts (I urge you all to go check it out and follow him). When he graduated from college he set out to spend the next 365 days doing something new every single day and this began back in May of this year. What started out as just friends and family following him has turned into a large following and a recent article where he was interviewed by the State Journal Register. He now has close to 900 followers and it grows every day with more and more people from all over the country finding out about it as he sets off on these new adventures. This social media experiment uses the collaborate tools that we learned about from Shirky with the addition to benefits not only for the creator but for all of his audience.
Some of his most moving “firsts” have included: registering to be a bone marrow donor, leaving water toys next to a random family’s vehicle in a parking lot on a hot summer day, leaving a nice note and few dollars on a stranger’s car, and joining freerice.com. Now the best part of this project is that he urges all of his followers to do the same or similar things to help others selflessly. It would be great to see him send random news stations across the country his blog and information on why he is doing it. If more projects such as these that embody both communal and civic value can be implemented and brought to the mainstream social media sites for more young eyes to see, I could see a large shift in how kids spend their free time. And on top of that, if more parents bear witness to these small acts, they too can make it family oriented and provide better more educational ways to spend time with their children instead of in front of the television or their iPhone. Instead of being sucked into the world of online gaming or spending hours sharing and retweeting their favorite movie’s information, kids could be out in the real world helping others while still being able to blog and share with the world their thoughts and feelings.
Technology and social media in general can be such an instrumental tool for changing just the little things in this world all the way to creating huge mediums such as Wikipedia that is used worldwide. While I don’t agree with the amount of time and increased lack of interpersonal skills that has taken place especially in this new generation, I do feel that with enough push in the right direction and more people like Courtney Westlake and my friend Travis using it for the benefit of not only themselves but others, that it can lead to a very promising future.