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Opinion

Boston bombings: Come together, right now, on social media

After the Boston bombings, we, as Americans, rose together in a time of tragedy. Social media accelerated our camaraderie faster than ever. It can sustain it further still, despite some of the downsides of this technology.

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Recovers.org, created by Caitria and Morgan O’Neill after their hometown of Monson, Mass., was hit by an EF3 tornado, empowers volunteers everywhere to self-organize and help out where they are needed most. And other start-ups continue to connect people offline through travel (Couchsurfing), exchanging of goods (Yerdle), themed potlucks (the first app by inthis, my start-up company), and more.

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When we connect around our shared circumstances – the events, moments, and experiences that bring us together – we retain context and foster deeper bonds with others. We stop collecting friends and “liking” vacation photos and start engaging each other again as a community. We bridge online and offline.

This does not mean that all is warm and fuzzy on social media. In a volatile, closely-watched situation like a manhunt, emotions are enflamed, false information is rampant, and speculation runs high. We can quickly become complicit in the “total noise” of today’s media environment, which lurches toward louder clings, more astonishing clacks, and timely suspect identifications, even if they are wrong.

Yet, the suggestion that during the next big story we are better off disconnecting our devices and cleaning our rain gutters misses the point. We follow hashtags and hit retweet generally because we want to help.

We feel great empathy for the people in those neighborhoods or on those ambulances. We are still “forever forming associations,” as Alexis de Tocqueville observed 180 years ago. And so we contribute by lending a hand, or clicking share, or making a donation to the One Fund Boston, or anything we can do to feel like we are making a difference alongside others doing the same.

In particular, we yearn for this greater belonging today because the richness of our relationships is ironically lost on social networks. We are "friends" or "not friends," and easily forget who's who and how we are connected. We have connectivity, but lack context, continuity, and community. We are “alone together,” as MIT psychologist Sherry Turkle has put it.

But this can change, and it will. Social networking will be reordered around the context or cause by which we have connected and away from defining relationships directly – for instance, by having thousands of Facebook friends. And the therapeutic community that we entered into last week will be better sustained by harnessing the power of mobile social media to restore real-life context to our online ties, foster deeper bonds with others, and share new opportunities to interact and collaborate, based on what we’ve been through together.

The power of social media to help us come together is enormous, and was on display last week. Moving forward, may we continue to use the cyber world to go beyond just these few weeks and grow ever closer to living e-pluribus unum.

Kevin F. Adler is the co-founder and CEO of inthis, a tech startup in San Francisco that connects people around their shared experiences. Their first app, inthis: potlucks, helps people find and organize themed potlucks in their community. His book, "Catalyst: How Disasters Can Bring Us Together or Tear Us Apart,” will be published this fall.  

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Danny Bent poses at the starting line of the Boston Marathon in Hopkinton, Mass.

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