For all of the negatives we see and hear and read about concerning the internet in general, and online social networking more specifically, there are very real and important instances where the kind of collective intelligence inherent in online communities can not only be good, but would not be otherwise possible were it not for the internet.
This past Sunday, we experienced horror as a nation as we watched two bombs explode near the finish line of the Boston Marathon. Three people were killed, and almost 200 injured, and the city was thrown into chaos. For security reasons, flights were canceled and hotels were evacuated, leaving potentially thousands of people stranded.
There's a concept known as "collective intelligence," where a wide net is cast to a large group to fill some sort of need--sometimes it can be for information or advice, or other times it can be a chance for others to just add their own input or bits of information. This second type of collective intelligence was on display following the Boston tragedy in a couple of ways. First, Boston.com created a Google Document where people who had room in their houses or apartments could leave their personal information. Those who had been stranded could go to this document and find a place to stay if they needed it. Thousands of people put their information in the document, many of which included offers to drive folks around or take care of other needs. Second, Google activated their Person Finder (which has since been deactivated) to help loved ones who may have been separated in the post-explosion chaos find each other. This sort of crowdsourcing is something that even as recently as the 9/11 attack just wasn't possible because even if tools were available, they weren't nearly as widely disseminated as they are now. The wider the possible net, the more effective collective intelligence can be. With social media such as Facebook and Twitter, those tools become exponentially more effective since it's possible for a person not only to respond themselves, but to immediately have all of their "friends" or "followers" see it. The information net can expand incredibly quickly.