Can social media support social change? Geneva Forum for Social Change Conference

University of Geneva, 'UniMail', site of the 2011 GFSC conference

I recently attended a conference organised by the Geneva Forum for Social Change called ‘Social Media for Social Change: Bridging the Gap, Creating Impact’, held over two days at the beginning of April 2011. Geneva, Switzerland hosts several international organisations, including the United Nations, The World Health Organization and the International Federation of the Red Cross / Red Crescent, so it’s fitting that a discussion of social media should focus on issues of social change, global development, and humanitarian response.

It was timely, too: recently we’ve seen immense social changes in parts of North Africa and the Middle East, where a groundswell of public dissatisfaction has challenged the dominant power. The first discussion I attended addressed that issue directly and considered the role social media played in facilitating social change. Entitled ‘Social Media and Political Change: The Middle East Today and Civil Society’ we heard from the speakers how Facebook and Twitter, in particular, fulfilled several functions for those directly immersed in these periods of social revolution. Following this panel discussion, I listened to the next panel discuss ‘Innovative Social Media Trends in International Organizations‘ (you can learn who was on the panel and more about them by following the links above). Some members of the panels embraced the notion that social media has supported social change and continues to do so, whilst others probed more tentatively at its potential to harness activity.

We quickly moved beyond the notion that social media is neither inherently good nor bad but its value depends upon its use. The panels took turns to discuss their version of how social media might support social change. For some users, especially those in a repressed society, using social media meant that their story now had a global audience. The Twitterverse quickly understood that a primary source of news was available from those on the ground, intimately involved in events. Users providing updates through Twitter accounts offered an alternative source of news updates from the mainstream ‘old’ media. Yet, despite their apparent immersion in the event, such accounts, one questioner later urged, should be considered only as part of the entire ‘news picture’ we assemble and should not hold any special relationship with the truth. As with all perspectives, they should be evaluated in an objective, balanced and probing manner. Problems of authenticity remained: in some cases, often through no fault of the individual who reports on an event, information is inaccurate; in other cases, those sympathetic to the government are thought to mask their identity and attempt to undermine the people’s case, even posing as anti-regime protestors.

Libya and Egypt: net shutdown and ‘Speak to Tweet’

Even if we remain skeptical of the power of social media in particular and the internet more generally to facilitate social change, it appears that the ruling power in Libya is taking no chances. A well-reported shutdown of internet services, as shown in the graph of net traffic below, demonstrates how those in power there consider it a threat. As you can see, traffic flatlines at around 8am of March 4th 2011, thought to be a result of the Libyan government ‘pulling the plug’ on its net links.

Such examples also serve to show how flexible the net can be when its freedoms are threatened. In countries where net use was suppressed or unavailable, Google and Twitter combined to offer a ‘Speak to Tweet’ service. This was designed especially for those on the ground in Egypt who had little or no access to the internet. Users of the service would call a number and their voice message would be translated into text and tweeted onto a special Twitter account. No internet connection was required at any time.

Gladwell and Morozov: the revolution will not be evangelised

The arguments of Malcolm Gladwell and Evgeny Morozov, both of whom insist, in different degrees and through different arguments, that social media does not convincingly facilitate social change, were not represented in the conference. The reader can make up their mind for themselves: Gladwell’s most notable discussion can be found here. Morozov’s book, ‘The Net Delusion’ is available now; sample chapters, which give a flavour of the book’s central arguments, can be found here.

In my view, Gladwell’s assertions serve only to remind us that we shouldn’t rush headlong into the view that social media will revolutionise the frequency and the ways in which people will attempt to challenge repressive authority. Only the naive approach social media with an evangelical zeal rather than a energised skepticism. I don’t think anyone takes seriously his suggestion that social change appeared before Twitter, therefore Twitter cannot be central to social change – this misrepresents the view of those who understand social media to play a part, perhaps a growing one, perhaps even a central one, in the apparatus and resources of those who seek to challenge authority.

Development analytics: evaluating impact

Some panel members at the conference demonstrated their social media sites through slides and videos, mostly of Facebook (and equivalents worldwide), Twitter and other, sometimes bespoke, social networks. Many discussed the culture in which these social networks operated and the kinds of issues they raised. Even if not explicitly addressed, a theme was the two-way communication nature of social media. Users would seek and expect responses from organisational sites. Similarly, some social media services required moderation to prevent disinformation or inaccuracies, deliberate or otherwise.

Social Media for Political Change, a session at the GFSC conference

I asked a question about how the panel members measure the impact of their social media strategy. During the initial stages of projects on which I’ve worked, we’ve been faced with the question of whether to harness the popularity but suffer the inflexibility of existing social media networks such as Facebook; or risk creating a new social networks that could fall outside of everyday use but that would be tailor-made to fit our users. In all cases, existing social networks won and were used. But one insurmountable area of inflexibility is created by the ‘walled garden’ approach of much popular social media. Administrators of Facebook accounts will know that, in many other areas of the web, they might use metric services such as Google Analytics to measure web traffic and exposure: but because Facebook is behind a technological wall of its designers’ making, this is simply not possible there.

So, how does one measure the immeasurable? Needless to say it’s difficult. Both qualitative and quantitative analyses are inevitably cursory and relatively subjective. Members of the panel discussed how the quality of the discussions they found on their social network sites was a source of information of their impact assessments. The number of users or ‘fans’ of the account was less meaningful, given many sign up to such services (including for reasons to impress their friends) but do not actively participate. In addition to this, we have some tools at our disposal and used in conjunction, they can provided some indicators.

Another option is to think about how existing social networks ‘offline’ register impact. Outside of the web, there has been a great deal of research into this area; one might say that, in the absence of technological developments that measure web statistics, then ‘new’ media practice can learn from the ‘old’. Both marketing and the social sciences have been interested in assessing the quality of relationships for some time. We may also turn to businesses practice in thinking about our metrics, too: the branding of our international organisation often shares as many similarities with commercial marketing as it does differences.

Steve Bridger, the chairperson of the panel on social media innovation, was right when he retweeted the response of someone who said: ‘The only metric that really matters is ‘impact”, where impact means something like real tangible change to people’s lives. We all hope that these tools are employed to the benefit of those who use them. But if we’re interested in creating and/or facilitating impact, then thinking about the seemingly rather dry, seemingly rather bland areas of data analytics and metrics should be an integral part of any initiative which aims to inspire social change through social media.

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