SOCIAL networks connect communities like never before.

People did not have to stagger longer than necessary beneath the devastation left by typhoon Ondoy due to the national and international outpouring of aid galvanized on the Internet.

Citizens armed with camera-enabled cell phones documented the destruction and deprivation at the crucial time when assistance was urgent but few, including news crews, had access to locations made impassable by the floodwaters.

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These amateur photographs and videos were spread like virus on the Internet: by e-mail, through blogs, by online communities linked through social networks like Facebook and Twitter.

Old-fashioned volunteerism was mobilized more efficiently through the New Media. People who wanted a more secure and efficient conduit for their aid than the usual bureaucratic and credibility-hounded government channels were connected to foundations and nongovernment organizations run by the church and other members of civil society, which posted on the Web running updates of their humanitarian campaigns and, as importantly, accounted for funds and goods.

Ondoy brought out a sterling demonstration of participatory governance in a wired society: virtual was viral and good.

Disconnect and trash

However, not everything happening online is aboveboard.

Greed and deceit also went on overdrive, when unscrupulous individuals and groups used the same New Media tools—websites, e-mailing, online financial transactions—to dupe donors into entrusting assistance that never reached the intended beneficiaries.

While these cyber criminals were also exposed by and traced due to the online trail they left behind, these cases underscored the need for people to be educated on the double-edged nature of the Internet’s instantaneous, limitless reach.

Financial security and risk are not the only potential pits entrapping Netizens.

The Maguindanao Massacre surfaced the mutation of curiosity and fixation on the morbid and sensational.

While the news media generally reported the unfolding of the abductions and massacre with responsibility and restraint, the viral traffic online in uncensored images and comments violated the rights of victims and their families, as well as unwary Netizens “tagged” into opening a shared photograph of a victim in an advanced stage of putrefaction.

Voyeurism became viral.

The absence of censorship was intended to promote the free and open exchange of information on the Internet. Unfortunately, this liberal atmosphere has also been abused by those who see nothing immoral about forwarding images and other content that do not contextualize violence or promote the call for justice for victims and their families.

No need for Big Brother

A little knowledge can be more dangerous than absolute ignorance.

This adage applies in the virtual world as well as the real one.

Although it has been said that the youth require no mentor in exploring a realm that they have taken to as naturally as a fish moves in the sea, personal ethics and social responsibility are necessary accoutrements for navigating this brave new world.

Traditional journalists argue with basis that citizen journalists temper their practice of user-generated, interactive information dissemination with the standards that govern ethical reporting and opinion-making: fact-checking, fairness, accountability, public service and genuine desire to minimize harm.

Restraint and perspective must be weighed before carrying out a decision to upload an image, Tweet an update, or send a group e-mail to propagate a cause or campaign.

The Internet can be a bottomless pit of garbage—or a cornucopia of solutions.

Aside from natural and man-made disasters that may test the world this year, these continuing challenges should raise Netizens’ aspirations to tap the possibilities of Web 2.0: the growing chasm between the information haves and have-nots, the slide to apathy in modern dislocation, the submerging of the communal in the “Me Generation.”