There is often an assumption that social media are good for businesses as well as for charities. Social media can help organisations to engage their stakeholders and reach out to new audiences, enabling them to share, cooperate and mobilise supporters, or so the mantra goes. But is it always the case? And how can small organisations and voluntary groups make the most of online social networks?
A few days ago, I presented at an event organised by Barrow Cadbury, TSRC (Third Sector Research Centre) and Arvac (Association of Research in the Voluntary and Community Sector). This was an opportunity to launch TSRC’s new on social media and community action. I was invited to talk about a study on how Big Local community groups use social media, which I carried out in 2016 for Local Trust. For those who don’t know about Big Local, this is a resident-led place-based programme funded by the Big Lottery Fund and delivered by Local Trust, which is an independent charity. It involves 150 communities across England facing high levels of unemployment and general economic decline. Each area receives at least £1m and a range of light-touch support over more than 10 years, but decisions on how to spend this money are made by residents. Each area has its small group of volunteers, who drive the Big Local activities. We call them Big Local partnerships, and my research looked at how they are using social media to engage with the wider community.
So what did we find? Social media raise a number of challenges for small community groups with limited resources and it is pretty difficult to demonstrate impact that can be attributed to online advocacy activities. For example, online engagement is quite tricky to measure. Generally, we rely on number of likes, shares or replies, which are not necessarily a good indicator of a strong relationship between the user and the organisation. On the one hand, the reach of a given post is likely to be underestimated. There are a lot of “lurkers” online, who might not interact but might still use the information they access online. On the other hand, people might click on a post but not get involved otherwise, with limited returns for a community group – the so-called clicktivism phenomenon. The old-fashioned knocking on doors might still be more effective at encouraging engagement at the community level.
The study on Big Local unveiled some clear patterns on social media activity:
- although most Big Local partnerships are online, they are not very active and generally use social media as a noticeboard to posts information about their activities and events, while interactions with followers are less likely;
- on platforms such as Facebook and Twitter people like to talk about everyday stuff in their community, but they’re hard to mobilise;
- the role of networked individuals emerged as very significant – they seem to have greater reach than organisational accounts.
The role of these connected individuals raises some important questions: should we rethink community action in terms of connectiveness instead of collectiveness, and what are the implications for community organisations and groups? Would this raise new problems in terms of equity of access, as the more capacity you have the more technology will deliver for you? It might also lead to a “cacophony” that makes it harder to recognise a unified organisational voice, with a centrifugal pull toward decentralised advocacy work.
One important issue we talked about was the association of social media with the neoliberal discourse. This inevitably raises questions on the values embedded in the commercial platforms we rely on to foster participation and collective action.
So where do we go from here? One member of the audience gave us some hope by telling us about Peckham Vision, a consortium of residents, artists and businesses that, by using a number of different strategies online and offline, is mobilising residents effectively. Social media for them is one among many engagement tools and part of an overall advocacy strategy. Perhaps, the lesson is that rather than embracing social media just because everyone says so, it’s more a case of community groups understanding what it can do for them and stick to what works best based on what they want to achieve and who they want to engage with. After all, counting clicks isn’t what counts.
Last month ARVAC co-hosted a seminar on the topic of social media and community action, at Barrow Cadbury Trust in London.
Social media seems not to have been adopted as widely by community organisations as might have been expected. Using mixed methods, our study explored the gap between claims for the transformative power of social media, and its use by grassroots community groups and organisations in England (report; summary).
Following a detailed literature review, questionnaire survey, interviews with experienced ‘champions’ of digital media, focus groups, and case studies of users, lapsed-users and non-users, we concluded that social media makes too many demands – in terms of skills, time, and the demonstration of impact – to make its adoption sufficiently straightforward for community organisations.
It cannot be said that these media contradict the processes of community action. Indeed by encouraging horizontal connections and the sharing of information, they appear to fit comfortably and even promise to enhance it. There are however strong views in the literature relating to the perceived association of Facebook (in particular) with neo-liberalism. This association raises questions about the values embedded in the systems from which enhanced levels of participation and engagement are expected to flow. It also raises questions about who benefits most from the affordances of these technologies. And yet, strikingly, we found no evidence that these issues were the subject of discussion or debate within the community sector.
From the research point of view, this point was one of several that serve to emphasise the value of mixed methodologies: some findings emerged in the literature but not in the primary material, and vice versa.
There are deceptions in the literature however. A substantial amount of research relates to the use of social media in relation to large-scale global movements, such as Arab Spring, with only a tiny amount of material describing the experiences of local community groups. It seems likely that many groups use Facebook, and often other platforms, to share information and raise awareness; but this experience seems not yet to have been studied.
The CASM study draws attention to imminent changes in the nature of community action. The literature points to a trend in which social action is increasingly stimulated and coordinated by networked individuals, exploiting the technologies - not by organisations or groups. Several representatives of organisations among our case studies expressed mild bewilderment at the nature of change associated with or reflected by social media. Our study asks, what are the implications for community organisations? This question was the subject of absorbed discussion at our seminar, but the debate has barely begun.
Kevin Harris, Third Sector Resource Centre
Arts Methodologies are the creative expression of complexity; of recognising the multiplicity of interpretations of social cohesion and reinventing them using creative means. We think this involves embracing complexity and diversity using creative methods,
The Taking Yourselves Seriously team are engaging in interpretative work, linking people working in communities with reflective understandings of what is going on within those spaces and how the arts are working for them.
Arts Methodologies are ways of disrupting the everyday power structures that pervade society. Using arts methodologies allows us to reframe knowledge, re-situate our thinking and disrupt preconceptions in order to uncover new knowledge. Arts based research has the capacity to create new ideas as collectively we explore ways of knowing together.
Using artistic approaches allows us to consider our identities. Notions of belonging – trust – reciprocity can be understood by people through their lived experience. By locating our experience in the arts we can see it differently. Arts based research is embodied and in practice. Arts practice allows us to consider ways of expressing our ideas that are not in talk or writing.
The arts are an embodied form. They involve drawing, objects, music, poems and different kinds of experiences. Artistic approaches unsettle what we already know and produce different kinds of knowledge. The production of knowledge through arts becomes philosophy in action. This helps us think more deeply about ourselves.
As I began the first project blog - taking yourself seriously is a rather strong request … it means recognising that the way you work is quite special and there is something to be valued in it. Arts methodologies destabilise power structures and empower participants to re-consider their perceptions of a situation. As we begin our project work we are using arts methodologies reflexively, building knowledge and reflecting on practice as practitioners and academics.
Taking yourself seriously is a rather strong request … it means recognising that the way you work is quite special and there is something to be valued in it. The Taking Yourselves Seriously project group met in February, we are a truly multi-disciplinary band of specialists. I noted early on that there was something good going on with the group. Not only were we of an approach to work – life boundaries, that had seen almost all of us hold a variety of professional and non-professional roles across our life paths, but we met as equals. I spend a lot of my working, volunteering and home life considering issues of power, trust and conflict negotiation. I work in academia, a profoundly hierarchical world, yet we met on this project not as Professor, Student, Artist, youth worker, Doctor or Poet but as Katy, Mubarak, Vicki, Zahir or Panni. From the outset knowledge in all its forms was valued and recognised.
That is not to say that we brought the same perspectives on the world, straight away conflict was recognised, owned and discussed, but what was important that we recognised our individual expertise and saw the potential in sharing, developing and creating collective knowledge. At the intersections of our experience, a collective approach began to emerge. We spent time using creative approaches, art and poetry to explore our motivations, understandings and expectations of the project. In doing this we built a sense of shared approach.
Since our meeting in February the three projects; School, Poetry, Community Project have began to develop. Supported by a critical thinking group which is engaging in shared reflective learning alongside the project creation. As the researcher on the project I have taken my cue from the multi-specialist group and began my reading around Arts Methodologies, Integrated Working and Social Cohesion. In taking a multi disciplinary approach to the research, I seek to reflect the multi-disciplinary expertise of the project team.
This blog will be updated roughly every month and will share with you emerging learning about our approach and projects as we begin to develop our creative methodologies within the project spaces.
For more details on this project please visit the Projects page of the website.