Friends of mine received devastating news earlier this year. Their nine year-old son was diagnosed with an extremely rare brain tumor. As a parent, you cannot fathom the hurt, as much as you try.

One thing I haven’t told you about this family – we weren’t really that close. They’re neighbors of an old college friend, and I’ve seen them only a few times. Ten years ago, there’s a strong chance I never would have known them or what they’re going through.

But digitization changes all of that. I learned of their plight digitally, felt extreme empathy personally, offered help digitally, but delivered that help in the real world. A family in crisis on the periphery of my social network have become dear friends, all because of technology. Now, I learn about life’s challenges – and triumphs – the way many of us share news and receive everyday updates: through digital networks like Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Difficult moments like illness or accidents tend to bring together people from all corners of our lives to rally support. While it’s our love and interest in one another that keep us engaged, it’s technology that binds and creates our communities.

Sure, Facebook and Instagram make it easy to know what’s going on with friends and family without actually having to engage with them. My mom can check on the latest from her grandsons anytime she wants. But in times of need, social networks serve as a springboard to action—how many Water Bucket Challenge posts did you get last year on Facebook? It’s not just about learning about other people’s problems or even empathizing with them– our digital communities make it easier than ever for us to engage and to help.

Platforms like Lotsa Helping Hands, for example, help us coordinate help for those in need. The little things like making dinner, mowing lawns or getting an oil change. These tasks can quickly become overwhelming or nearly impossible when family members’ lives hang in the balance.

Also, websites like MyLifeline and CaringBridge let you share health updates with your family and friends. These are means of transforming your personal connections into an on-the-ground army of support to coordinate everyday help like childcare and transportation.

And community clusters on Twitter can form lightning-fast in response to global news events like natural disasters. The organic and exponential nature of these platforms offers people around the world a venue to channel their support. You may not be able to find Nepal on a map, but you can “reach” those affected by the recent earthquakes in a matter of moments.

The ability to band together through social media is perhaps the most significant impact of technology in the 21st century. My “friends” dealing with a cancer diagnosis is an extremely personal example. But as I look across the digital landscape, I see this narrative of harnessing social media to share, connect and engage in times of need over and over.

As I wrote in Digital Destiny: How the New Age of Data Will Transform the Way We Work, Live, and Communicate, after the devastating 2010 earthquake in Haiti, tens of millions of dollars were donated via mobile phone. A Pew study found that 74 percent of those who gave were first-time mobile donors. And of the 43 percent of donors who said they encouraged their family or friends to donate, 34 percent did so via text message, 21 percent did so via social media and 10 percent did so via email. This is a quantified measure of the impact of digital communications during times of international crisis. Digital decisions allow us to make real differences in the physical world in which we live.

Technology closes gaps caused by information asymmetries and geographic distance that obstruct help from reaching people in need. Social media, in particular, has an uncanny ability to cross large chasms that have historically separated us. Imagine how our response to the 2004 Boxing Day tsunami, which killed 230,000 people across a dozen countries, would have differed if we had Twitter. Who might have come to the rescue or aided in the aftermath of 9/11, Tiananmen Square, or the Kashmir earthquake had today’s digital networks existed? How might digitally offered but physically impactful support changed history?

Digitally-connected networks make a meaningful difference in the physical world – whether we’re reacting to news from our neighborhood or an event halfway around the world. This is the great promise of technology: the ability to connect, inform and facilitate real social change. From political upheaval tens of thousands of miles away, to helping those in need down the street, technology is forever changing how we communicate with one another, and ultimately how we live our lives.

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