One of the best reasons to start blogging, tweeting, and engaging in social media is the fact that you can now reach out to people across the globe. Before social media, an American might never have the chance to befriend someone from Uganda, or India, or Argentina. Social media breaks down the physical barriers and connects us with those we might never have the chance to meet otherwise. In that way, it should be fostering a better cross-cultural understanding by helping people in different parts of the world realize our commonalities – rather than our differences.

But while I’m sure there are plenty of bloggers and Tweeters from across the globe engaging in the social web, unfortunately I fear that our self-made ‘filters’ are keeping us from experiencing the full benefits of social media sphere. See the brilliant TED talk below, by Eli Pariser.

Pariser argues that every website we interact with – from Google to Facebook to Amazon – is ‘filtering’ information we’re exposed to, thus showing us only what we’re already interested in. Google, for example, is so customized today that there is no ‘standard’ Google. Google’s search algorithm takes into account everything from the country you’re in, the computer you’re logged onto, to your browser and search history – and starts filtering your search results accordingly. This means that we rarely get exposed to new information and different viewpoints. Scary, isn’t it?

The same phenomenon is even more pronounced, I believe, in social media channels. For instance, in Twitter and blogging, we usually choose to follow people with similar interests and passions. Of course, this is natural, and is a good thing when it comes to forming a supportive community.

But does this mean we just interact with people who look like us? I’m sure that the vast majority of people I follow live in the U.S. or the West, are middle to upper class, relatively educated and privileged people. And of course, they lean liberal and care about social issues.

So…there’s a problem here. Not only am I getting exposed only to viewpoints I may already hold, but when it comes to talking about aid, development, and human rights, I’m afraid we’re getting caught in an ‘online echo chamber.’

For instance, I’ve observed that the vast majority of “aid and development” bloggers seem to be white, American/Western, well educated, and with years of experience in the ‘aid’ or ‘human rights’ fields. But since we’re talking about aid and development, which primarily concerns people in the global South, shouldn’t we be listening to & learning from a more diverse group of people? Shouldn’t we be talking to citizens of India, Uganda, Panama, or Afghanistan? Aid work concerns people in these countries – but we aren’t talking to them!  Instead, it increasingly seems like we’re talking amongst ourselves and sticking to the group of Western intellectuals that makes us feel most comfortable. But I don’t just want to hear from professors and established aid workers; I want to listen to and interact with people from all over the world. I want to hear from people whose lives and countries are affected by aid, development, and human rights issues.

Certainly, there are some barriers. Language, for one. I don’t know many languages other than English; my Spanish is maybe passable. Most Americans are in the same boat. This makes it harder for us to join twitter & blog conversations happening worldwide.

Another barrier, I think is simply the digital divide. Most poor people in developing countries don’t have access to the Internet, and even if they did many wouldn’t know about social media/blogging and might lack the language skills to articulate what they want to say. So while we may get to talk to people in India or Uganda, for example, we won’t easily be able to chat with those in India or Uganda living on $2 a day. We’d probably end up talking to the more well-off folks in these societies as well. The digital divide is also exacerbated in countries like China, where many social media channels are simply blocked. But in my mind, we should at least begin conversing with those who do have access – that’s a start and a way to getting more diverse perspectives.

To start changing things, we will need more initiatives to expand access to the Internet; it would be great if non-profits taught people how to blog and use Twitter. A couple of great examples I can think of:

1) Blogger Kate Otto encouraged her friend, Glory Kimonge, also in Tanzania, to write a blog post – which was fascinating and wonderful to read.

2) Non-profit Epic Change got Mama Lucy, who runs Shepherds Junior school in Tanzania, to blog and tweet and also encouraged the students themselves  (“Twitterkids”) to Tweet! This was an awesome initiative, in my mind. I think we need more initiatives like this, and not just as fundraising campaigns, but simply for the sake of encouraging exchange of diverse perspectives & reducing the digital divide. I really think this can be enlightening not only for us, but also for those who are getting introduced to the power of social media for the first time.

The Epic Change "Twitterkids" - Students from Shepherds Junior School in Tanzania, tweeting! Don't tell me this isn't adorable and awesome!

Despite these challenges, I think we have a tremendous chance here to truly make use of the incredible opportunities made available to us by social media. To that end, let me quote @johnrougeux: “How about 3 T’s?: Travel to other places, use Twitter to find new voices, and Talk to people you meet w/different perspectives.”

Let’s do our best, as social media lovers, activists, aid workers, human rights lawyers, non-profit advocates and bloggers – to eradicate the digital divide. Our part lies in opening our eyes and ears to new perspectives online, and encouraging those we know around the world to join the social media spheres.