Why is social media important to civil society?

And another draft section! This is basically the introduction, explaining why this is all important. It is not the executive summary. Again, comments welcome. I’m getting a bit ‘word blind’ on this report now, so there’s bound to be not just typos but also various conceptual repetitions. Hopefully I can smooth out the rough edges once I start editing the report as a single piece, instead of lots of sections.

Building Civil Society 2.0
In their report, Public Media 2.0: Dynamic, Engaged Publics[1], Jessica Clark and Patricia Aufderheide describe how “Multiplatform, participatory, and digital, public media 2.0 will be an essential feature of truly democratic public life from here on in.”

Replace “public media 2.0” with “civil society 2.0” and the sentence holds just as true. Social technology, (see box) are transforming many aspects of modern society, from the media to government, from education to business. The third sector is no different. Change is happening and the challenge is to understand not just the nature of the change, but how civil society can embrace and benefit from it.

Clark and Aufderheide describe the landscape we now inhabit:

“Commercial media still dominate the scene, but the people formerly known as the audience are spending less time with older media formats. Many [people] now inhabit a multimedia-saturated environment that spans highly interactive mobile and gaming devices, social networks, chat—and only sometimes television or newspapers. People are dumping land lines for [mobile] phones and watching movies and TV shows on their computers. While broadcast still reaches more people, the Internet (whether accessed through phones, laptops, or multimedia entertainment devices) has become a mass medium.”’

At the same time, trust in — government, business and the media, and in traditional information sources — is low and often declining, according to the Edelman Trust Barometer Survey 2009 [2]. Trust in the media has suffered the most, but trust in other sources, such as business analysts, press releases and company CEOs is also low/declining, with respondents needing to see information three to five times before it is deemed credible. Whilst NGOs are trusted slightly than other types of organisation, they are not bucking the trend towards mistrust.

In order to combat mistrust, Edelman recommend — and this applies as much to the third sector as to business — that, “Organizations must be forthright and honest in their actions and communications.” And when problems occur “stakeholders need to see senior executives take a visible lead in acknowledging errors, correcting mistakes, and working with employees to avoid similar problems going forward.”

The combination of a fragmented media and a decrease in trust suggest that the future may not be so rosy for civil society. Organisations will find it harder to:

* Move from broadcast model to a conversational model to form and maintain relationships with the audience.
* Become transparent about the way that the organisation works.
* Put participation at the centre of their web strategy.

For some civil society associations, this implies a profound shift in organisational culture. But the price of such a shift is a small one to pay compared to the risks of failing to engage with social technology. In a world where everyone else is talking, keeping quiet is the first step on the way to irrelevance. Publisher Tim O’Reilly once observed that, “Obscurity is a far greater threat to authors and creative artists than piracy” [3]. For civil society associations, obscurity is a far greater threat than letting go of control.

Yet Outsell’s report, CEO Topics — Social Communities & Expert Networks [4] , as quoted in Michael Collins’ Memcom 09 presentation [5], warns that despite associations being “the poster child of communities”, bringing together as they do people with common interests, “their absence form the community phenomenon and their seeming inability to move their offline communities online into vibrant digital communities is stark. Associations… stand to lose… their very reason for being if they cannot move their professionals into digital environments.”

The role of social technology in civil society
People have been congregating in online social spaces, such as Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and Flickr for years. But these tools are not just being used for day-to-day socialising and content sharing, they are also being used as news filters, platforms for collaboration, and places to organise activism. Information and requests for action can ripple quickly through such networks as people forward on interesting or important messages to their peers.

Civil society associations, by using social tools, can extend the reach of their web presence and the strength of their network, and form direct relationships with the individuals in their constituency. Social tools can also provide website visitors with something immediate to do, even if it is a small action. Establishing these one-to-one relationships and facilitating immediate action both increase engagement, which in turn increases the likelihood that the member/supporter will become a more active and valuable participant in the community.

The Association Social Technologies report [6] draws on the report The Decision to Join by ASEA & The Center for Association Leadership [7] which showed that “the extent to which a member is engaged in their membership association is tightly correlated to their likelihood to renew their membership and to talk to friends and colleagues about their association. [And] the number one way members ?rst learn about their membership association is from another member.”

They go on to say that even a “small improvement in member engagement should reliably produce an increase in membership retention rates”, which will in turn improve revenue. Because “research shows that engaged members are more likely to talk to prospective members about their association” it also follows that increased engagement will not just improve income from those members, but increase income from new members too.

Further more, if member engagement alone isn’t enough to encourage organisations to engage with social media, then the more direct effects of increasing merchandise sales, conference registration and other such transactions should help organisations realise the benefits of an investment in social technology.

Increasingly, people want direct involvement in civil society, rather than action by proxy, and social tools can help them experience that direct involvement. That may mean that they want to be a part of an active community, rather than a passive individual isolated from their fellow supporters. Civil society associations can use social tools to provide an environment for conversation, whether that’s on a blog or a social network or on Twitter, which will then allow a vibrant community to grow.

Social media allows individuals to easily come together to discuss and solve shared problems. Associations can either tap into that, facilitating self-organisation that benefits the association, or can ignore it. But if they do ignore the opportunity provided by the internet to engender collective action, they risk sidelining themselves as individuals bypass existing organisations and structures to achieve their goals.

Challenges to using social technologies
It would be foolish not to recognise and address the challenges posed by social technologies. The main challenge is cultural. Social spaces online each have their own culture and unwritten code of conduct. Often, behaviours that are acceptable in a PR or marketing context are not acceptable in a social media context, so care must be taken to understand the culture before engaging with the tools.

Resourcing is also a potential problem. Social media can be time consuming, and has to be worked into employee’s work schedules in a way that guarantees the time and freedom to engage fully.

Social technology changes constantly, so engaging with it has to be an ongoing process of discovery and learning. It’s not a one-off project, but a permanent change to the way the organisation communicates, collaborates and thinks.

These challenges can, however, be overcome and should not pose significant problems for associations that wish to engage with social technologies.

[1] http://futureofpublicmedia.net
[2] http://www.edelman.co.uk/files/trust-barometer-2009.pdf
[3] http://www.openp2p.com/lpt/a/3015
[4] http://www.outsellinc.com/store/products/734
[5] get citation
[6] http://www.principledinnovation.com/bigideas/socialtechsurveysummary/
[7] http://www.asaecenter.org/Marketplace/BookstoreDetail.cfm?ItemNumber=26918

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