From corporate-sponsored "Cool Apps" to niche spin-offs like Bakespace, Virb and I'm In Like With You, online communities are still largely about socializing and/or wasting time. Their potential as powerful tools for the greater good—beyond finding out where the party's at—has been largely untapped, but we managed to find a few. The following are some of the latest and best sites where social networking meets social change.
A virtual soapbox for the online masses, the U.K.-based Friction TV is an online forum for public debate launching in the U.S. next month. Like YouTube for social activists, it features largely uncensored content aiming to exercise freedom of speech and catalyze online debate in a social forum.
Nabuur uses an online platform to efficiently connect experts to people seeking advice from all over the world. From construction workers to math teachers and MBAs, online volunteers from different continents help individuals develop business ideas and finish projects. Projects like building schools and health clinics get a boost from direct assistance via the internet.
Helping to solve environmental and humanitarian problems, HumaniNet is a space to share Geographic Information Systems (GIS) to better map rural locations in need of relief. By sharing GIS developments online, experts and users can implement the latest technologies, which makes getting around uncharted territories to reach people in need a whole lot easier.
Recently graduating out of Beta phase as of a couple weeks ago, Get Miro is open-source software for online video. Like Firefox, Miro is developed by a nonprofit organization and driven by the social mission to make it easy for anyone to subscribe and view free internet video on any topic. A well-designed interface and attractive aesthetic make it one of the better HD players out there today.
H.E.L.P. (Humanitarian Emergency Logistics & Preparedness) is a telemedicine-based online community of physicians and financial donors bringing advanced medical assistance to disaster zones and areas of humanitarian need around the world.
Building on Muhammad Yunus' Nobel prize-winning efforts at pioneering a new category of banking known as micro-loans, Kiva is a site that connects the world's poorer populations looking to develop unique business ideas to people with disposable incomes while providing a transparent lending platform. Donate as little as $25 dollars to help start a business or simply buy a goat and get repaid.
Designed to highlight the connection between money and politics as a way to promote reform, MAPLight links campaign contributions and votes. Providing a transparency so that journalists and citizens can hold legislators accountable, customized widgets further enhance functions and research on any issue.
Combining social networking with the environmental movement, the four year-old site Freecycle creates a global gift economy in an nonprofit online community. If you're looking for a bike, someone might be throwing one out on Freecycle. Reducing unnecessary waste, Freecycle is a "cyber curbside" that connects people and decreases our impact on the environment