Last Friday, the movie The Social Network, a semi-fictional account of Facebook’s founding and the drama and backbiting that followed, debuted to strong reviews. Social networking is a big part of a lot of people’s lives, and has become a part of the social sector.

Non-profits try to raise money online through applications like Causes, and philanthropy folks use social networks to connect with one another and share ideas (many of you are likely reading this post because you saw it pop up in one of your social streams).

We have covered on this site some of the pitfalls that social media and emerging technologies present in the social sector when used in ridiculous ways. By and large though, I do believe social networking has been a benefit to those of us in the social sector. But what about the recipients of it and the issues we care about?

Much has been made of the digital divide, the technological schism between the privileged, educated, wired elite and people struggling to get by. If the social sector exists to address human issues that impact those with the least amongst us, and those people are not online, then what the heck are we (me) doing Tweeting and posting on Facebook throughout our days?

Bill Easterly, a self-anointed king of development common sense seems to do nothing but post to his blog and send unanswered shots at Jeffery Sachs. Is this God’s work?

Don’t get me wrong, I am a consumer of Easterly’s venom. But if the point of the social sector is to solve social problems, shouldn’t we focus on connecting to people in need and affecting real issues? Does social networking have any real ability to create social impact?

Malcom Gladwell in a recent piece in The New Yorker magazine argues that it doesn’t. Gladwell writes:

Facebook activism succeeds not by motivating people to make a real sacrifice but by motivating them to do the things that people do when they are not motivated enough to make a real sacrifice.

However, Gladwell’s argument ignores a critical counter example David Kilkpatrick writes about in his book The Facebook Effect. Kilkpatrick recounts the story of how a Colombian activist organized mass protests against the violent brutality of the guerrilla organization known as the FARC, organizing massive protests in cities across the world.

But the FARC example only demonstrates that people connected online can effectively advocate for themselves. We in the social sector focus on empowering others. So while I don’t buy Gladwell’s argument that social networking categorically cannot effect social change, I think there are serious limitations, especially when the people we aim to serve are absent from online social networks.

My friend Mark Horvath, popularized on Twitter as @hardlynormal is trying to push the bounds of social networking’s reach by bringing homeless people online to Twitter and Facebook. Mark won a Pepsi Refresh challenge to create a website called We Are Visible, which teaches unhoused persons how to get online, and aims to connect them with virtual case managers.

We Are Visible is a new project, so its success remains to be seen, but I like the general idea behind it of breaking down the digital divide. Regardless, the reality is that much of our work has to be offline, since the people we serve are by definition more isolated than ourselves.

Social networking has been a great benefit to the social sector, and to me as a professional. It has given me the opportunity to learn from and interact with practitioners that would have been inaccessible to me otherwise. This in turn has made the work I do in the communities I serve better, resulting in a real-world, offline impact.

Social networking is a tool, it is not an end all to social harms. We can turn Twitter (RED) for a day, and chalk it up to raising awareness. But such efforts ring hollow to people in need, unaware of our good intentions, and unaffected by inaction.

Social media for social change does make sense to me. It makes sense as a facilitator of ideas. Whether or not it can facilitate more is yet to be seen. Until then, Twitter will remain an important part of my professional arsenal, and the Facebook movie will hands down remain my favorite film of 2010.

(Photo by Sebastiaan ter Burg, modified by the author)