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GMIC 2012: Using Social Media to Help Society

Late this morning, the GMIC main stage hosted what I’m pretty sure is going to be my favorite discussion of the conference: the one where they focus on doing good, not making money. GMIC’s David Song hosted an all-star panel of people who have been involved in several major internet social campaigns over the past year: angel investor Xue Manzi, filmmaker Fan Lixin (director of Last Train Home), and “Free Lunch” founder and journalist Deng Fei.

Fan Lixin pointed out early on that the internet offers a lot of opportunities for filmmakers. Mobile devices allow basically anyone to be a director and the internet allows people to broadcast their creations to the masses at the touch of a button. At the same time, he said, from the perspective of a professional filmmaker, it provides new distribution channels and promotional opportunities that filmmakers can have more direct control over. It also allows for new forms of expression, like “mini-docs” — short documentary films about social issues designed specifically for an internet audience. Fan said this is a very powerful way of communicating because people tend to understand and empathize with the plight of people in impoverished areas when they can see those people.

Deng Fei spoke about how helpful weibo microblogging technology was in promoting his “Free Lunch” program, allowing information to spread quickly and virally and allowing people to participate in the project easily from their own homes and offices.

The star of the show was Xue Manzi, though, who spoke forcefully about how important projects like “Free Lunch” and his anti-kidnapping weibo campaign are. “This is one of the most meaningful things to happen on weibo,” he said, arguing that campaigns like this, in combination with new media, have created a new civil society in China. “This is the great power of weibo,” he said.

He pointed out that his own weibo account — which has over two million followers — is popular not because of him, but rather because of the people he cares about. “I’m not a singer or an actor,” he said, but he’s able to amass followers because they want to participate in solving the problems his anti-kidnapping campaign addresses, and helping the people Xue writes about (like the parents of kidnapped children).

Xue championed social media and online activism as a way to get real results. In addition to Free Lunch and the anti-kidnapping campaign, he noted that the pressure and campaigning on weibo were largely responsible for the Beijing government giving in and agreeing to publicly release PM2.5 data about the most harmful particles in air pollution, which is a serious problem in Beijing. Getting the government to release data on PM2.5 will allow Beijingers to make better decisions about when they need to wear a mask, and should make a real difference in improving public health in a city where cancer rates are rising at alarmingly rapid rates.

The panel was unfortunately quite brief, or at least it seemed that way — perhaps everyone was in a rush to get to lunch. But I’m very happy to see that in addition to all the talk about user numbers and business models, GMIC has dedicated some time to the issue that really matters: how all this new technology affects people.

This post is part of our coverage of GMIC 2012.


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