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Many paper 1 questions in GP or for O level English do ask about the impact of social media on society. There are many ways in which our society is affected by this new media, a common point would be how it empowers local communities. Be it in social activism, a platform to raise issues, to bypass censorship and so forth.
This article adds some nuance to that belief that the use of social automatically leads to empowered and active individuals
Social media has the capacity to alter traditional power dynamics. Consumers can influence the buying decisions of others by sharing their experiences of purchasing products or services online. Major industries find themselves disrupted by file sharing and citizen journalism, while governments have been challenged by citizens mobilised with the help of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. The Young Foundation wanted to test whether social media could empower local, geographical communities. So we set to work with several community groups in Huddersfield, King’s Lynn and north Kensington.
Across these areas we supported residents who wanted to use social media to develop relationships between neighbours, increase awareness of local news and events, and ultimately encourage more people to get involved in community action.
So three years on, what have we learnt?
Our experience suggests that social media is not the shortcut to higher participation that we all hoped it might be. On the websites and social networks we helped residents set up, the numbers of people who are engaging in conversation with each other is quite small. It varies amongst sites, but the highest is around 10% of network members.
Community activity online seems to be driven by a handful of committed individuals, just as it is in the offline world. Why is this?
Well, participation is about people, not technology. Social media may remove some barriers to participation, such as time, but it does not really affect more important determinants of participation; our motivations, values, desire to belong or have influence (read the Pathways through Participation report for more about this). These factors underpin our sense of efficacy and if you believe that you can change things, you are much more likely to act.
For local communities, this sense of efficacy is also influenced by the attitude and capability of agencies like the local authority to listen to local people and act. Most local authorities actively engage with communities, but all too often it is through tiresome meetings where progress is slow, so only a few residents get involved.
We hoped that the spread of social media would change this; just as with major industries, citizens would use social media to force more interesting and responsive channels of decision-making, rather than waiting for local authorities to change on their own accord. But I do not see much sign of this happening anytime soon.
This conclusion is liberating. It means that we can free social media from the constraints of grand aims like reviving local democracy and concentrate on more humble ways it can help communities – of which we have found plenty.
We found that social media really helped activists to network and communicate better with one another. It meant that information flowed much quicker than it did before, with activists no longer dependent on meetings or chance encounters on the street to share news.
It makes community activity much more visible. Simply being able to observe means a wider group of people are informed, even if they choose not to take their involvement further.
We also found that email and SMS messaging should not be ignored in favour of newer social technologies. Email and SMS meet the needs of most residents, who want to regularly receive local information but do not want to use the web to make contact with neighbours. This finding is reinforced by the results of a survey we conducted in two London neighbourhoods, where only 8% of people said they contact neighbours online, but nearly 50% use the web to find local information.
On those occasions where residents do need to make contact with their neighbours, it can often be to request help or support. On one of the community websites we helped create, a girl joined up specifically to ask residents for help finding her missing dog. What followed was a fantastic show of support from several active members of the network; they didn’t find the dog, but they tried. The site had given the girl easy access to a small group of people who were willing to help.
These are the kind of things that social media can do for a community. There will be occasions where social media amplifies the unexpected – a story that mobilises a community or revelation that shocks the establishment. But most of the time it will form part of a communication network that spans email, SMS and face-to-face which helps underpin existing activity, strengthen and broaden it a little. Not a shortcut to empowerment, just a really useful tool.