From cook stoves to cake floss: the unfinished evolution of social media today

Opinion by Uttara Sivaram
Feb. 13, 2013, 10:39 a.m.

When I first heard that Hillary Clinton, the woman who could out-drink and out-pantsuit John Boehner under the table, was initiating a project about cooking stoves, I became immediately disheartened. One hot Google search later, however, I discovered a heartwarming and inspiring campaign to address one of the leading, yet least publicized causes of death for women in developing countries: inhaling toxic amounts of smoke from cooking on an open fire.

These women spend hours crouched over fires, not only exposing themselves to the risk of lung and heart diseases, but also leaving their children vulnerable to serious respiratory disorders. Clinton’s plan – which would provide $50 million in seed money to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves – would supply 100 million fuel-efficient stoves to Africa.

And to think my first thought upon hearing about this initiative was a guest appearance by the former Secretary of State in the Williams-Sonoma catalog next to George Foreman.

Truth be told, not many people – indeed, very few students here at Stanford – are aware of the health and environmental risk that simple cooking fires present. However, I can tell you what Stanford students do know. They now know that if you are having trouble cutting a cake because the frosting and the crumbs stick to the knife and make an unholy mess (and unjustly uneven slices), using unscented floss does the job without the tears.

Allow me to explain. A couple days ago, an article titled “50 Life Hacks to Simplify Your World” was widely circulated among Facebook, Twitter and Tumblr users and the 4.5 people who use Google Plus. It featured tips like taking an old CD spindle and turning it into a bagel tote, pouring pancake batter into empty ketchup bottles, turning muffin pans upside down to make crunchy taco shell salads and using old cassette cases as phone stands.

The Facebook community (myself included) was flabbergasted by how much easier many of these tips would make our lives. Some people calculated that each tip saved you, on average, one whole minute of wasted time you would otherwise be spending trying to find a bagel tote in the Williams-Sonoma catalog. Multiplied by 50, then by seven days of the week…and so on. I forwarded this article to my family, my friends and my Economics professor, who never replied.

However, after I read that article on Hillary Clinton’s new cook stove project, I began to use the critical thinking skills that got me here in the first place. Fifty Life Hacks to Simplify whose World, exactly? The Indian woman hunched over a cooking stove’s world?

The rise of social media has been spectacular. But listening to the great sucking sound of all the intellect rushing to create social media apps is even scarier. Today, creating apps is just about the trendiest thing you can do – just yesterday, I downloaded one that would, after some initial registration, send me text reminders to go to the gym, get groceries, take my medication on time, get my dry cleaning, etc. whenever appropriate. It’s a great app, even though it’s really just a kick to see my phone chastise me for not going to the gym.

But with this great innovation lies the assumption that a consumer has a gym to go to, a grocery store within reach, medicine at hand and an affordable laundry service, not to mention an iPhone (with iOS.6, obviously). Thus, we’re looking at a woefully small target audience – not too much larger than the population of men and women severely concerned about cake-cutting technique. And I think that Stanford students – the young men and women with the capacity to make sweeping changes on a larger scale than a five-mile radius around Palo Alto – might turn to the less trendy opportunities to use technology, even if it means going back to something as rudimentary as an open cooking fire.

So perhaps I shouldn’t be too harsh on that “50 Life Hacks” article. It’s hard to villainize an article that helped me organize my computer cables using bread tabs, not to mention the fact that it probably gave a lonely blogger a few days of Internet fame. However, if our collective erudite and sophisticated interests can be piqued by something as aimless as using a pool noodle to keep from falling out of bed, I think that we can be far more invested in the pressing issues we learn about in class and in the newspaper – even the challenges we face every day on campus.

After all, we talk about living in a bubble all the time. But I think it’s a great bubble, filled with people with not only the motivation to do great things, but the capacity to make them happen as well. We just need to expand it over a greater area – perhaps even outside our beloved 94305.

Phone apps and social media are a great start. But let’s see if we can put those loops and algorithms and heck, maybe even bread tabs, to good use and target a big enough audience to truly make a difference – to really simplify the lives of men and women who aren’t necessarily looking for life hacks but, rather, a different lifestyle.

While unscented dental floss has certainly changed my life, I think that we can do better.

Help Uttara do better, and tell her about your experiments with dental floss, at [email protected].

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