In an age of celebrity tweets and "Jersey Shore" clips that go viral on YouTube, it's easy to forget that social media can actually have - well, some social value.
A social good no less ambitious than global peacemaking stands at the center of one new venture: the Spirit Initiative, a recently launched Web site that sees the end of the Arab-Israeli conflict as one of its primary goals.
Founded by Gal Bar Dea, an Israeli MBA student at Columbia University, the Spirit Initiative went on-line in the fall, and seeks to apply the technical savvy of young thinkers to some of the world's oldest and most destructive conflicts. Developed and produced by a team of students and young professionals in New York City, the Web site represents an unconventional combination of blogging, Wikipedia and old-fashioned international diplomacy.
"We're trying to minimize limitations and boundaries," Bar Dea says of the project's emphasis on Web 2.0 technology. "The whole notion is to allow the crowd to lead the way, to work together to create the building blocks for peace."
Though still several months away from fully realizing Bar Dea's on-line vision, the Spirit Initiative took a vital step forward at the end of December, receiving 30 peace plans from students at universities around the world, including in India, Israel, Ghana and Brazil. Of those proposals, 10 submissions focus on Israel and the Palestinians, while the rest look at two additional hot spots the initiative has adopted: the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and internal warfare in Colombia, where the government has battled the FARC, a guerrilla group, for decades.
"We started by looking at many conflicts around the world," says Bar Dea, a 30-year-old IDF veteran who grew up in a small town between Haifa and Tel Aviv. "When we started looking at the details, we decided it was better to focus in the beginning on three conflicts, so that we can gather knowledge on specific areas and possible resolutions."
Initially inspired by Bar Dea's efforts to meet Columbia classmates from the Arab world, the Spirit Initiative now runs on the efforts of 25 core volunteers, many of them fellow students at the business school, or at SIPA, the School of International and Public Affairs. Other volunteers are young people already in the business world.
With zero overhead costs and no official workspace, the organization resembles a start-up, Bar Dea says, with volunteers collaborating on-line and, when they meet in person, doing so at school facilities and other public spaces. One set of volunteers spent the fall conducting outreach efforts targeting 50 other universities around the world, inviting teams of students to submit outlines of the peace plans that were collected in December.
"The criterion is that the plans should be narrow and focused," says Bar Dea, who worked for three years as a corporate account manager in Tel Aviv before arriving at Columbia. "They need to be 'executionable' - to focus on one aspect [of the conflict] and be something that can be put into action."
DESPITE ITS start-up status, the Spirit Initiative has already won backing from SIPA and Columbia's business school, placing faculty members on its advisory board and winning support from the Department of Public Information at the UN. The organization is currently reviewing the 30 peace proposals it received in December, with plans to bring the creators of the top submissions to New York for a conference at the UN in April.
"The ideas are really all over the place, but fascinating," says Bar Dea, now engaged in efforts to raise $70,000 for the summit.
Regarding ideas focused on the Middle East, "some talk about economic development, education or checkpoints in the West Bank. There's one interesting plan about water resources - how to divide them in case there is a peace negotiation between Israel and Syria."
While the UN conference will represent a major milestone for organizers, the meeting is not itself the final destination. Following the conference, the Spirit Initiative plans to transition into perhaps its most important phase, posting the peace proposals on the organization's Web site (spiritinitiative.org), where individuals from around the world can collaborate on efforts to improve the ideas. The plan is based on the "open source" model of on-line cooperation, in which users can combine efforts on a project with little in common beyond an Internet connection.
"We call it Wikipeace," Bar Dea says.
Applied to conflicts that have frustrated diplomats for decades, social media represent a new and potentially game-changing variable, Bar Dea continues.
"I think the situation is stuck," he says, referring to the stalemate between Israelis and Palestinians. "I think it has to go to a generation that is more global, has more access to new ideas and ways to communicate. Just the fact that I have 600 friends on Facebook, and probably 20 or 30 are Lebanese or Syrian, lets me be more open-minded.
"I'm able to talk with a friend in Egypt on Skype. To my father, a guy who fought against Egyptians, this is a miracle."
Technological innovations aside, it's clear that some pre-Internet barriers remain. Although some Arab students - and one ambassador - have expressed interest in the project, Bar Dea's Middle Eastern counterparts have mostly declined to get involved, beyond sharing contacts back home.
Already sounding like a polished diplomat, the business student writes off their reluctance, attributing it to "underlying currents" that simply "take time to dismantle."
"But," he says, "I go to them for advice, for feedback, and that has been very helpful. Right now they're more on the outer layer, but we're hoping to bring [them] into the project by April." Despite his graduation from Columbia the following month, Bar Dea hopes the Spirit Initiative will continue to grow in the years ahead.
"I hope this thing will turn into a social movement, that it's not just another conference or project," he says. "We're working very hard to make a network of students all over the world working on peace plans.
"On a personal level, I'm hoping to see one amazing idea on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Maybe it's a little selfish, but I'm hoping that one will be picked up and turned into an international peace plan - one that can improve my life."