Before social networks came into being, chat was mostly a mouth-to-mouth activity about people and happenings of which the chatterers were physically aware. These days chat is at our fingertips and covers a multiplicity of people and a wide range of topics from far flung places.
Social networkers have to contend with stuff happening in places for whose climate, flora and fauna they have no feel, whose religious and political jurisdictions are totally different from those they are familiar with, and whose societal psyches bear no relationship to their own.
We human beings have always tended to dismiss matters that seem foreign to our own way of thinking or behaving. Take, for example, the belief recently expressed in Western newspapers that the grief shown at the loss of the beloved leader in N Korea could not possibly be genuine…Then again, take a moment to consider how bizarre, to any N Korean who witnessed it, the silent paroxysms of grief that accompanied the death of Diana Princess of Wales might have seemed!
Last year, the turbulence that disparate social networks can bring about was very much in evidence. The Arab Spring in the Middle East raised chat to new heights. Resounding with the promise of better days to come, it brought about huge social shifts. Similar upsurges of collective chat lead to protests in China, in the UK, in America and in Russia.
This year we must work to ensure that the connectivity that created that turbulence becomes a stabiliser for cohesive change.
To understand things that are outside our own experience all of us will have to put ourselves in the shoes of members of societies and organizations that are different from our own.
Think of the hugely popular British TV show "Strictly Come Dancing" and its American counterpart, Dancing with the Stars. In the course of that show, contestants who are complete novices undergo rigorous strictures placed on them by the rules of the show as they are initiated into the feel and tempo, shape and flow of ballroom dance. But once they have put on their dancing shoes the activity that at first feels unnatural and gauche turns slowly but surely into something completely natural.
Millions of onlookers, observed those physical transformations but also noticed a change in mind set that accompanied them. Inspired by what they saw, many viewers set out to undergo similarly rigorous transformations for themselves.
Maybe a show called "Strictly Come Speaking" could become the next television craze. By the end of its run people who knew only one language would be able to make the unusual vowel sounds and consonant clusters of a different one trip off their tongues with ease. It would certainly show how important it is that messages designed to offer global solutions to global problems can only resonate clearly if protestors understand each other and speak with one voice.
In 2011 people in chat rooms around the world gave their lives to achieve the goal of social cohesion. My hope for 2012 is that we shall all find the courage to move out of our comfort zones and help to create social changes that will make the sacrifice of those brave chatterers worthwhile.