NEW YORK -- A panel on social innovation and social change started with a joke. A panelist said they should go the full hour without saying the word "Twitter."
The talk started with the Egypt revolution and inevitably turned to Occupy Wall Street, an ongoing event just a few miles away in Lower Manhattan. More than 450,000 Facebook users have joined Occupy Wall Street pages to date (scroll down for graph); Twitter chatter has surged. The big question: Does social innovation equal social change?
"These tools are actually not that complicated," Change.org founder Ben Rattray said, downplaying the "innovation" part of the technology. "Social change is less about the tools and more about the applications of those tools."
Rattray added that social media is used for "supporting, not supplanting, existing strategies," though at the same time it can absolutely "spark something that wouldn't exist," he said.
Jeremy Heimans, co-founder and CEO of Purpose, agreed: "It's not as much about the tools. It's about smart people using the best tools they can to bring people together."
That said, there is a strong irony in technology, according to Rattray.
"The best way to get people away from their computer is through the computer; you can't organize thousands of people in New York City [the way Occupy Wall Street has] without the web," he said.
These simple tools like Facebook and Twitter -- through passionate individuals -- build networks of individuals and take action to the streets. It happened in Egypt and it's happening in New York, the panelists said. Whether it's the beginning of actual change is debatable, but it's absolutely amplifying these efforts for change.
Though as people get all excited about social tools on the web, it's important not to lose sight of something else that's fueling the recent New York protests, Heimans noted.
"Occupy Wall Street shows the power still of mainstream media," he said. "In activist terms, a very small number of people started that. The mainstream media have latched on and really blown it up -- picking up pictures and video that have been really vivid."
He added, "It was initially small but now something that is really growing. It shows the power still of the media to create a platform for change."
Interestingly, it was the content of social media that drew the attention of many in the mainstream media.
Ultimately, content is the killer app, Rattray said. What leads to the most engagement? The game mechanics of social media can help push something viral, but just as important is the messaging, he argued.
Crowdwise co-founder Robert Wolfe agreed, and he added that it's easy to miss what really affects change.
"A lot of times organizations talk about community," he said. "This may sound silly, but it makes people even more anonymous. It's really about individuals who affect change and build movements."
Many individuals, gathering on social networks, getting the attention of mainstream media, with the potential to create social change. It's all connected in this age of the World Wide Web.