By Kevin O'Keefe

The good and bad uses of social media. Where will you be?

I’m an optimist by nature. So when it comes to social media I see all the good things which can from it. This weekend I saw the highs and the lows in the use of social media.

Look no further than the earthquake in Haiti to see the tremendous good which comes from social media. Jake Lule, a professor of journalism at Lehigh University and author of “Daily News, Eternal Stories: The Mythological Role of Journalism” has an inspiring story in this morning’s Philadelphia Inquirer.

Lule, who has been covering the severe poverty and disease in Haiti for 10 years is at first cynical of the role mainstream media in covering human tragedy.

On Jan. 12, there was one U.S. reporter in Haiti. A week later, there were hundreds. Some have already come and gone.

Typical. Foreign countries often merit U.S. coverage only after earthquakes, hurricanes, tsunamis, or coups. Then, reporters milk the site for heartbreaking scenes and inspiring rescues before shutting off camera lights and laptops and moving on to the next disaster.

What Walter Lippmann long ago dubbed the ‘restless spotlight’ of the news remains a sad and cynical truism today.

But social media gives Lule three reasons to be optimistic about ongoing coverage of the plight of Haitians. First, the breaking coverage of the earthquake.

When the earthquake hit Haiti, Associated Press correspondent Jonathan Katz was the lone U.S. reporter in the country. With the AP office destroyed, some of the first reports of the quake came from cell phones, as survivors sent word to others inside and outside the country. Soon, raw news and images flowed out through social media as eyewitnesses shared updates and photos over Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and MySpace. Some used Skype to speak to aid organizations and family. Katz himself borrowed a BlackBerry to send his first report and documented the destruction of his AP home on a widely viewed YouTube video. Other mainstream media also are directing readers to blogs, YouTube, and Twitter.

Second, social media may be the reason for record giving.

The Chronicle of Philanthropy estimated recently that donations to Haiti exceeded $709 million, more than 20 times the amount given to 2004 tsunami relief. Much of this giving has transpired through social-networking sites as well as cell phones, especially during and after star-studded telethons. For example, the American Red Cross has raised $12 million via text messages. Despite what the cynics opine, people showed their interest in international events and, too, may want to know how their money and support are being used to rebuild Haiti. Social media may provide those answers.

Third, social media gives a voice to nongovernmental organizations, relief agencies, and religious groups who have been working in Haiti for years.

These charitable institutions have long recognized and addressed the deep and dire poverty of the Western Hemisphere’s poorest country. Their continued presence and their increasing willingness and ability to communicate through social media may allow the story of Haiti to be told long after the mainstream media depart and the focus of the world begins to dim.

It’s hard to believe on the flip side that social media can be used in such a bad way. And that it comes from our legal profession.

Friday afternoon I was sickened to see in my Facebook feeds a picture of wrecked car with news that a 27 year old woman had been killed. Sickened because the Facebook feed linked to a blog post from a San Diego lawyer who was blogging accident summaries with a call to action to call his office if you’re hurt in an accident.

How bad and low can the use of social media go? Here’s excerpts from the above post.

A 29-year old woman from Laguna Hills was killed in a fatal Orange County car accident on February 17, 2010 when the Corvette she was driving crashed into a tree on Mill Creek Drive just south of Lake Forest Drive in Lake Forest. The accident took place at around 8:15 a.m.

The deceased, [he names her by name], was taking a prospective buyer out for a test-drive when she lost control of the gray 2003 Corvette near 23016 Mill Creek Dr. in Laguna Hills. The car skidded sideways, its driver’s side door slamming into a tree. The car then apparently spun around before banging into another tree 20 feet onward. Afterward, the driver’s side door of the Corvette was dangling from a hinge, the windshield was shattered, the roof bulged upward and the front end showed damage. The passenger of the car was taken to Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo…

Our office wishes to convey our sincere prayers and condolences to the family and friends of (her name)……. [Name of lawyer] is an Orange County car accident lawyer and the managing attorney of the [name of law firm], a California law firm dedicated to representing people seriously injured and the families of people killed by the negligence of others. If you or a loved one has been hurt or killed in an Orange County auto accident, please call Mr. [Lawyer] at 888-233-5020 for a free consultation.

Turns out this lawyer has multiple Facebook pages and blogs shamelessly kicking out accident summaries like this.

Imagine a heart-stricken father going on the Internet to find memories of his daughter who’s been killed at a young age. The father is devastated. Then he stumbles into a lawyer using the death of his daughter to make a buck.

Relief workers from Haiti reporting the tragedy. Lawyers chasing their next case. Both using social media.

Where will you be in your use social media?

Kevin O'Keefe
About the Author

Trial lawyer turned legal tech entrepreneur, I am the founder and CEO of LexBlog, a legal blog community of over 30,000 blog publishers, worldwide. LexBlog’s publishing platform is used on a subscription basis by over 18,000 legal professionals, including the largest law firm in each India, China and the United States.

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