The hottest Web innovations – social network sites – are swiftly shaping the way the world works, perhaps for the better. Their ability to create trust among strangers, mainly young people, is being used to mobilize political action, unexpectedly so in the American presidential campaign.
Facebook, as well as other Internet connectors such as Twitter and "widgets," are being used beyond their original intent of simply finding and connecting friends. They are also a barrier-lowering technology that can bring a viral virility to organizing the masses.
They produce shared enthusiasm among the wired millions, creating a new consensus about the future. They can trigger an open subversion of powerful institutions and political elites, helping to level society.
And they've proved far more effective than e-mail (which helped launch Howard Dean's brief candidacy in the 2004 Democratic contest) or recorded phone calls from candidates. And along with YouTube, this networking may overturn television's half-century of dominance in shaping opinion.
The big difference: They generate "trust communities" that can grow quickly.
In the Feb. 5 Super Tuesday primaries, for instance, the use of Facebook by students helped create a stunning turnout of young people, not only at the ballot box but in that old-fashioned tactic of knocking on doors for candidates.
Compared with the 2000 contests, the number of voters under 30 was double in Massachusetts, triple in Georgia, Missouri, and Oklahoma, and quadruple in Tennessee. An estimated 14 percent of voters in the Democratic primaries have been 18-29 years old, up from 9 percent in 2004 and 8 percent back in 2000.
Much of this iPodic youthquake among the Millennials was driven by the candidacy of Barack Obama. His oratory and relative youth drive many young people to the polls. In a new measure of political clout, the number of Mr. Obama's "friends" on Facebook and MySpace is far larger than for other candidates. The networks only accelerate his appeal (www.techpresident.com tracks such numbers).
This 21st-century digital democracy makes the Democrats' reliance on unelected "superdelegates" for picking a candidate seem like a throwback to smoke-filled back rooms.
Another stunning use of Facebook occurred Feb. 4 in Colombia, a nation with little history of mass demonstrations. A group of young people used the website to organize hundreds of thousands for a one-day, worldwide protest against the kidnappings of Colombians and foreigners by that country's leftist rebels. The effect was a public cry against an imposition of fear. (The rebels' supporters will try to hold a similar protest March 6.)
The Internet's tools were also effectively used by about 120,000 Venezuelan students to mobilize the poor to vote against President Hugo Chávez in a Dec. 2 referendum aimed at enhancing his powers. The students were spurred into action last May after Mr. Chávez closed an independent television station. They also helped prevent Chávez's attempt at ballot fraud.
Facebook represents freedom for people who use it for a cause. Like any technology, though, the way it is used will determine if it is a force for good.