Making the Connection: The use of social technologies in civil society

Last year I wrote a report for the Carnegie UK Trust’s Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland. That report, Making the Connection: The use of social technologies in civil society, has finally been published and you can get it from the Inquiry website (direct link to the PDF). The contents are:

Executive summary
What is social technology?
What are the main types of social technology?
What is civil society?
Key characteristics of social media

Part one: Introduction
Background to the report
Building civil society 2.0
A changed world
Challenges and risks posed by social technologies

Part two: Social media in civil society
The state of play: How are civil society associations using social technologies?
Why are civil society associations using social media and how successful are they?
A failure of leadership?
Myths of age and technology
Case study 1: Joseph Rowntree Foundation (full version)
Case study 2: YouthNet (full version)

Part three: Alternative scenarios for the future
What might the year 2025 hold for social technology and civil society associations?
How might the social web develop over the next 15 years?
Key drivers of change
Future scenarios
Questions raised by the future scenarios

Part four: Recommendations
Recommendations for governments and policy-makers
Recommendations for funding organisations
Recommendations for civil society associations
Looking forwards

Plus there are four lovely appendices – including the full results of the survey and assessment of civil society websites – a glossary and a resources section. Lots to keep you occupied during a long commute! If the report is a touch too long for you then I’d recommend the Futures and the Recommendations sections.

Although the report is about the third sector, it could frankly have been written about the public sector or business: a lot of the problems and recommendations are the same. So please do take a look, even if you’re not in the charitable sector, and let me know what you think in the comments.

Case Study: YouthNet

As part of my work on the report Making the Connection: The use of social technologies in civil society, written for the Carnegie UK Trust’s Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland, I put together a couple of case studies. The final report carries shorter versions, so I though it would be useful for me to post the full versions to provide extra detail and context. Here is the second, focused on YouthNet.

  • YouthNet focuses on understanding which social technologies their target audience use and then adopts those tools.
  • Their use of social media is part of a broader strategy which embraces offline as well as online activities.
  • Understanding and keeping up-to-date with social technology is the responsibility of everyone at YouthNet and everyone has the opportunity to engage with the tools if they wish.

YouthNet is a charity that provides online services and information to young people in the 16-25 demographic. Originally conceived as a book, YouthNet moved its service directory to the net in 1997 two years after it was founded.

YouthNet currently runs two websites:, a community of 30,000 members which provides advice on life issues and receives 500,000 unique users each month; and which helps people find opportunities to volunteer, and receives 80,000 – 100,000 unique users each month.

The organisation uses social media tools to both connect with their community and to communicate and collaborate internally. Externally, they maintain a presence in a variety of third party tools such as Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, Twitter, Flickr, Ning, YouTube and Delicious. They also run a number of blogs — written by both YouthNet staff and volunteers — and provide RSS feeds of content.

Natasha Judd, YouthNet’s Marketing Manager, says that social media allows YouthNet to “have individual conversations with individual users in the spaces which are relevant to them”.

Their social media usage is, however, part of a broader strategy which also embraces traditional communications such as e-newsletters and print materials as well as offline events and outreach. The difference between online and offline is blurring, explains Judd:

“It’s quite difficult to say, ‘This is the online part of my identity,’ now. So it’s about having online and offline services which work together as a coherent whole for the young people who need them, or who may only ever encounter the offline or may only encounter the online.”

Internally, and with its charity partners, YouthNet uses Basecamp (a hosted service that combines wikis, a calendar and messaging), Yammer (a Twitter-like tool that creates a closed network based on email addresses) and Delicious to collaborate. There is a very open culture where employees are encouraged to use whichever tool they feel will work for them. They mix social tools with traditional working methods rather than trying to replace them.

Judd explains how the use of social media is ‘baked in’ to the organisation’s culture: “A lot of us use [social media] in our personal lives and know what tools are out there, what is big, what people are talking about.” Indeed, anyone within the organisation can write on the external blogs, or talk about their work on their Twitter account.

“It’s not an official YouthNet voice,” she says, “it’s our voice. Anybody at YouthNet can blog about anything that is relevant to our work. All of us can use social media. A lot of us are on Twitter. We will talk about who we’re meeting, what we’re working on, when we need case studies for, or when we’ve got new surveys up or want people to sign a pledge. It’s about sharing what we are and what we’re doing, and having the trust that everyone is a fantastic representative for YouthNet.”

YouthNet is a very flat organisation, open to ideas from any employee, so keeping an eye on tech is a part of everyone’s job. The Communities Team especially tracks popular tools and when they spot something that’s creating a bit of a buzz they will test it out and update the rest of the staff if they find it interesting.

Equally, if any member of staff stumbles across a tool they feel might be useful, or has an idea for how to use social tools, then there is a lightweight decision process which allows them to test and roll out small projects. Larger projects receive more attention and are planned accordingly but this agility allows YouthNet to quickly test and adopt or drop tools and services as they come along without a large technical or administrative overhead.

The nature of social tools makes it easy to be nimble — many tools, such as YouTube, Facebook, MySpace, WordPress, and Delicious are free, with the cost of any paid tools very low, in the region of tens of pounds rather than hundreds. When budget is required it comes from individual team or project budgets, whether that’s the communities team, marketing, or another team. Each team or project group invests in what they need, but the main cost remains the time it takes to investigate and experiment.

“When the communities team was starting up the Lifetracks consultation on Ning it required a lot of investment of time to get something working,” says Judd, “but they’d experimented with it previously and they knew it was the tool they needed for a consultation. We could always do more. We could always have more conversations. We could always use the tools better. But it is a trade-off.”

YouthNet do look outside of the third sector for knowledge as many businesses and independent consultants have relevant expertise to share about their use of the social media.

“That’s something that we need to do more of in the future,” says Judd. “Going along to MeasurementCamp, for example, was not just about the third sector, it was about what agencies are doing in terms of measuring social media.”

When it comes to measuring success, YouthNet look beyond the obvious statistics and try to consider their reasons for using a particular tool for a particular project to shape their aims and expectations. For example, they’re not just looking at how many visitors they get to a particular site or page but also at how engaged people become and what the quality of interaction is.

“It’s not just about numbers,” says Judd. “It’s about creating loyalties with youth and about having conversations with young people, or having a certain number of people involved in a focus group.”

Social media also provides valuable information about their user base:

“It has given us a huge insight into who our user base is, how they talk to us, how they talk to each other. On Facebook, for example, I can get demographic [information on] the fans of”

Watching how their community uses social tools provides YouthNet with an insight into they type of tools YouthNet could use and how their audience might react. This insight which can then feed into project planning. Judd believes that it is important to understand which services their audience already use and then to adopt those so that YouthNet can have a conversation with their users where they, the users, feel comfortable. This allows them to raise awareness of their services amongst a variety of different groups.

“For example, our members had created a Facebook group themselves,” she says, “which was fantastic, so we looked at doing Facebook groups for other brands.”

YouthNet are aware that social networks such as Facebook act as ‘walled gardens’ so ensure that all of the information provided in such networks is also available on their website. Judd describes their presence in sites like Facebook as “a way of providing personalised help, for example, on how to browse for volunteer opportunities in a particular area”.

Organisations do need to be aware that their community and, indeed, their staff also have an online life of their own. They can take the conversations off onto other tools where the organisation has no presence. That’s not necessarily a bad thing because it extends reach. It is, however, something to monitor because if the conversation shifts to another tool then that might be an indication that the new platform is worth investigation.

The issue of privacy is an important one to YouthNet’s users. Jim Valentine, Communities Manager, explains that because the discussion on sometimes addresses “taboo, secret and distressing issues, users are more likely to join using pseudonyms and tend to avoiding inviting friends”.
“This creates unique issues around privacy and confidentiality,” Valentine says. “One of the biggest issues we address is concern about friends of users finding out about their activity on After discussions with users this can lead to the deletion of their account in order to protect their privacy and confidence in the service.”

The issue of abusive behaviour is dealt with “holistically”, explains Valentine. “Although individual behaviour may need to be addressed, more effort is spent on creating a supportive environment that reinforces positive behaviour. This isn’t just a role of moderators, but the community as a whole — who are the first to address abusive behaviour and encourage new users to be supportive of other members. Moderators monitor the discussion boards and respond to reported posts, which ensures problematic or abusive behaviour gets a fair and balanced response.”

Spam is unavoidable but when it is reported it is dealt with promptly and a CAPTCHA image and question on the registration page helps reduce the amount of automated spam.

The vast choice of social media tools, platforms and services can be daunting but it’s not necessary to have an active presence on every one (although it is a good idea to register your brand names in the most popular services, just in case you want to use them in the future). When deciding which tools to use, take the lead from your community, Judd advises, and don’t feel that you have to be everywhere.

Judd sums up her attitude to social media: “It’s not about the tools, it’s about communicating with people, engaging them and inspiring them to trust your services and get involved in your organisation.”

Case Study: Joseph Rowntree Foundation

As part of my work on the report Making the Connection: The use of social technologies in civil society, written for the Carnegie UK Trust’s Inquiry into the Future of Civil Society in the UK and Ireland, I put together a couple of case studies. The final report carries shorter versions, so I though it would be useful for me to post the full versions to provide extra detail and context. So here is the first, focused on the Joseph Rowntree Foundation.

  • Joseph Rowntree Foundation uses its website to share information with its audience, hoping to reach senior leaders under significant time pressure. It is felt that these people are unlikely to want to, or have the time to, engage with social tools.
  • Although past social media projects have not been a success, making management reluctant to invest further, small scale experimentation with free tools is still continuing.
  • Social media could bring JRF’s work to a new audience, one that would not hear about JRF through traditional channels and so would not be aware of their work.

The Joseph Rowntree Foundation is an independent research charity which seeks to “understand the root causes of social problems, to identify ways of overcoming them, and to show how social needs can be met in practice”. It focuses primarily on poverty, housing and empowerment, e.g. social care or disabled rights. Its sister organisation, the Joseph Rowntree Housing Trust, is a registered social landlord which provides housing, care/retirement homes and supported housing predominantly in York and the North-East.

The JRF’s website is a rich resource for anyone interested in social change. Nathon Raine, who is responsible for the web team at JRF, says that it aims to engage with the people who can bring about social change and be the first port of call for people interested in JRF’s core strategic themes.

“We try to reach the people who are in positions of influence — policy makers, practitioners, academics, journalists, etc. — and we do that through publications, events, meetings, networking, and conferences, and obviously the website is very important in reaching people.”

The site is managed by a team of two and was until recently built by hand. It was migrated to an open-source content management system called Drupal six months ago. Website design and development is now done by an external company but JRF staff can add and manage content. The decision to use Drupal, Raine explains, was lead by the web design company but their recommendation fit well with JRF’s needs.

“The web team is platform neutral, but have a preference for open source partly because it fits with our ethics and ethos.”

Drupal’s flexibility, usability and extensibility also played a part in the decision as did the fact that it is free software.

Drupal supports a number of social media activities, such as blogging, yet the only social tool used on the JRF website is RSS with feeds produced for publications, press releases and events. This may imply an organisation that is unaware of social technology, but that’s not the case. Raine understands how the internet is developing and the limitations of a static website:

“Generally speaking the site is well used and well regarded. We do quite a lot of usability activity to validate that what we’re doing is working and general levels of satisfaction with the site remain high. We think we’re doing quite a good job in terms of communicating our research, evidence and ideas across to people. However, it’s beginning to feel a little one dimensional: The web is changing. Ninety nine percent of the site is dedicated to saying, “Right, here’s a new press release”, “Here’s a new publication”, “Here’s an event”, “Here’s a summary of the work that we’re currently doing.” It doesn’t really do much more than that.”

During the redevelopment of the site, JRF did consider starting a blog — the CEO Julia Unwin already keeps an internal blog using Microsoft Sharepoint — but for a number of reasons it “never quite got off the ground”.

“JRF isn’t about campaigning,” explains Raine. “It isn’t about having a particular voice or a set line. It’s about the evidence. We are politically neutral and we just want to get the evidence that we generate out there and blogs may not be quite right for us in that sense.”

This stance appears to be partly driven by a sense that blogs have a distinct demographic skew which is at odds JRF’s target audience. So, whilst they have used blogs for projects that are directly focused on issues faced by young people, it is still felt that blog are “seen as something for a younger crowd. The people we’re trying to reach are influencers and it’s generally felt that they are not going to be using blogs.”

Influencers are seen as senior people and the organisation as a whole bases its communications policies on reaching them and the view of the web team is that social tools will not achieve that. This sits at the very foundation of the organisation’s attitude towards social tools and although there have been discussions and presentations internally they have not translated into concerted action.

Raines feels that the web team has not yet seen compelling evidence that social tools will help JRF achieve their organisational goals but says, “if we were presented with solid evidence that social media tools were of use to our audience we would make the necessary changes. Our evidence, however, currently points us in the opposite direction.”

JRF has carried out market research into social media when they were preparing to redevelop the site.

“We asked people, ‘Do you want to see more social tools on the site,’” explains Raine. “The answer came back a resounding ‘No’. But this was two years ago. Things have changed and we need to ask that question again.”

Both tools and attitudes change rapidly in the social media space and Raines recognises the importance of revisiting the evidence. But because JRF’s web resources are scarce they need to focus on areas, such as user experience, which they feel will provide the best return on investment.

JRF’s current audience is also under considerable time pressure. Market research done in 2004 showed that many people were suffering information overload and they wanted JRF to help them “cut through the clutter”.

“They don’t necessarily want to come to our site and hang around in a social media sense. I don’t think they want to come for engagement. They just want to come in, get the research and get out as quickly as possible.”

Another possible source of reluctance comes from the fact that JRF has been bitten before by social media projects that failed. They set up an extranet for their strategy groups — made up of senior people who advise on a given topic — which was “not very well received”.

They chose a tool which was marketed as social networking for professionals with discussions, profiles and the ability to upload and share items. But, Raine says, there was “virtually no interest whatsoever outside the organisation. We set the tool up, made a bit of a fuss about it and external people just didn’t use it because they just don’t have time.”

Even if social tools don’t suit JRF’s current target audience, there is a world of people who might like to know more about what the organisation does but who just don’t know it exists. Might they be reachable through social media?

“Yes. We do want to increase the pool of people who know about and engage with the JRF, and who we can communicate with in a two-way fashion. For example, we’ve just set up a Twitter account that is bringing our work to a hopefully more diverse audience than normal. We only just started it a couple of weeks ago, so we’re still very much feeling our way. We’ll do it for four months and then evaluate, but I’d say that out of all the attempts we’ve made in the social media space, this has been the one that feels like it might have some traction, some momentum.”

Raine is keen to base his web strategy choices on evidence rather than following the latest fad.

“There’s a lot of snake oil out there,” he warns. “What I’d want is something that proves the usefulness of social media. We have set services up and found that social media isn’t a panacea at all. There is a set of assumptions around social media that don’t bear any relation to our audience reality.”

In terms of cost, allocation of budget is a problem. Raines explains that a lack of “obvious return on investment” in an organisation that isn’t sure about social technology means that it’s very difficult to get funds ring-fenced for such projects. Equally, budgetary pressures make it hard to bring in external consultants to provide help the organisation understand how it might benefit from and implement social tools.

As for internal use of social tools, experiments have been done but interest is low. Some people have tried using the social bookmarking tool Delicious but, again, information overload is seen as a significant problem and social tools are viewed as adding to their cognitive burden rather than lessening it.

Raine’s biggest concern with both JRF’s web presence and intranet is that the users are given what they need.

“If we were trying to reach the general public,” he concludes, “then I think things would be very, very different. But we go after this slightly rarefied audience, and social media doesn’t seem right for us in many ways.”

Outcomes and examples

For my Carnegie UK Trust report on the use of social media in civil society, we want to include a list of “outcomes”, i.e. possible results of using social media (provided that you do it right, of course!). We’d also like to pull together some very short examples – from charities, NGOs, unions, mutuals, co-ops, etc. – that illustrate these outcomes, where we can. Of course, there aren’t necessarily enough examples out there, but it’d be good to try and find some.

Here’s our preliminary list of outcomes:

  1. Social media helps to engage with segments of the population that traditional marketing may find it difficult to reach.
  2. Social media enables conversations to take place, which facilitates the co-creation of knowledge.
  3. Social media improves the relationship between an association and individual supporters, as well as between supporters.
  4. Social media allows information to rapidly ripple through a community, thus enabling quick and effective mobilisation online and offline.
  5. Social media provides platforms for dissent by allowing people to express discontent or highlight abuses of power.
  6. Social media strengthens offline communities, and offline events strengthen online relationships.
  7. Social media improves the transparency, governance and accountability of organisations, which increases trust in those organisations.
  8. Social media brings about financial benefits by helping organise direct and indirect fundraising.
  9. Social media, used internally, helps improve the effectiveness and efficiency of organisations and enables flexible staffing and volunteering.
  10. Social media helps create highly responsive and less hierarchically governed civil society associations.

Do you have any more key outcomes that you think we’re missing? Any of these that you disagree with? And, most importantly, do you have any examples that would illustrate these?

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.

[5] get citation

A failure of leadership?

Another draft section done and ready for comment!

What stops civil society associations using social media? It is easy to point the finger at a lack of technical understanding, or a paucity of time and budget. But whilst these are all genuine concerns, they are all relatively simple to address if organisations decide to do so.

Resistance to new technology by upper management is a pernicious problem. Talking to civil society associations and reading comments left on the survey shows that for many organisations, conservative attitudes amongst management and trustees stifles the use of social technologies. A web developer for one large organisation, when discussing possible uses of social media, responded, “The trustees would never go for that.”

Michael Collins, in his presentation Social Networking — Threat or opportunity for membership organisations? given to Memcom 09 [1] , identified these “internal threats” when examining the reasons why associations aren’t engaging with social media:

* “Complacency, apathy, indecision, fear of change and losing control”
* “Myopia re ROI”
* “Inadequate consultation with community members”

From the comments left on the survey, lack of knowledge and understanding, is a key problem:

“Lack of knowledge in the upper levels of the organisation tends to hold us back sometimes.”
“We have an ‘older’ age range of staff, who are focused on service provision. Many don’t understand, or have time to learn about the net.”
“[There’s] not much understanding that social media is not the same as mass publicity that the ‘comms’ team can just do by themselves.”
“We are just beginning to expand on usage, and I am doing my best to educate my management team.”

And out-dated attitudes seemed to be behind another comment from the survey:

“Current policies seem to have been made years ago.”

A further problem identified by the manager of one medium-sized association’s website was resistance to change:

“The culture of [our organisation] leads its communications efforts in many ways and it’s not based on evidence, or knowledge of the marketplace or the audience. It’s ‘This is the way we’ve always done things’. When push comes to shove we tend to revert back to instinct, revert back to assumptions.”

But although getting managers and trustees to recognise the value of social media might be hard, it doesn’t necessarily mean that using social media is impossible in those environments, just difficult:

“I have struggled to get buy-in from management, but have had success with what I have been able to do.”

The importance of an internal culture which is open to new ways of doing things must not, however, be underestimated. In their report Discover, Argument and Action: How civil society responds to changing needs, Julie Caulier-Rice, Geoff Mulgan and Dan Vale discuss how civil society associations “can sometimes become frozen around past needs rather than current ones.” [2] Although Caulier-Rice et al were not directly discussing civil society association’s attitudes towards technology, their words are just as applicable in this context.

Those who oversee civil society associations must ensure that the culture they create within their organisation is one that is open to new ideas, new technologies and experimentation. Failure to do so will not only hobble staff in their efforts to communicate, collaborate and engage their community, it will also hold the organisation as a whole back. Organisations unable to use the internet to its fullest capability risk being sidelined by others who understand how to use social technologies to spread their message, and unite and organise their supporters.

[1] get citation

Recommendations (version 2)

In my previous post I published the recommendations for government, funders and civil society regarding how to spread the use of social tools and how to engage with them more deeply. I’ve now re-written them, having taken on board some of the excellent advice and comments that people kindly left on the last post.

I’m now going to post the re-written version for further comment. If there’s one thing in the report that has to be right, it’s this bit, so I encourage you to leave comments even about the smallest thing. Am I missing anything important? Am I communicating these points clearly? Am I going into too much detail? Or not enough? Please let me know!

Skills and training
It is widely recognised amongst social media experts that social media is experiential in nature: It is difficult to fully understand social tools until one has participated and experienced them for oneself. Non-users can therefore find it difficult to understand the benefits of a given tool until they have spent time using it and have genuinely engaged with the community.

Unlike basic computing skills, such as word processing or spreadsheet manipulation, the core understanding required to make good use of social technologies is cultural, not procedural. Social tools are generally very simple to use. It is a trivial task to set up a Twitter, Flickr or Facebook account, or to create a blog on a free service such as Typepad or WordPress. Using those tools to engage with the public in a meaningful way requires more than just understanding how to publish an update or upload a picture; rather it requires gaining an insight into the motivations, behavioural norms and expectations that make up each tool’s sub-culture.

Government must, therefore, carefully consider its digital media literacy programmes: To create an effective programme requires expertise in the cultural analysis of social media, not just a technical understanding. By focusing specifically on social media and its culture as part of a wider digital media literacy programme, the Government could both improve digital inclusion, and empower individuals to take part in activities online that would improve their social inclusion.

But if social media is sidelined or treated as equivalent to non-interactive digital behaviours, such as sending and receiving email, there is a significant risk of creating a false sense of action and understanding. The consequences of a scenario in which organisations have been inadequately trained in the use of social media could be very serious.

The PR space is littered with examples of companies who failed to understand the social media culture into which they moving, and who thus made faux pas that damaged their brand and, in some cases, had detrimental effects on their profits. One recent example was when the home furnishings store Habitat started spamming Twitter with inappropriate messages promoting its spring catalogue [1]. Because Habitat had not taken the time to understand what behaviours were acceptable on Twitter, it alienated potential customers by inserting marketing messages into conversations that Twitter users were having about issues such as the Iranian elections.

Any social technology skills programmes needs to be organised in partnership with existing social media communities, such as the Tuttle Club [2] and experienced practitioners, who may exist outside of the Government’s and the third sector’s usual constituencies. This work also needs to be done “out in the open”, in public view, so that anyone with relevant knowledge and interest can help shape the training materials. Tapping into the wider community like this will help ensure that training programmes do not just include essential cultural information, but are also flexible and adaptable in the face of what is a rapidly changing set of technologies.

Recommendations for social technology skills development
For Government

* Experienced social media practitioners should be an integral part of any digital media literacy or digital inclusion programme, and should be included in consultations and in steering groups.
* All governmental and allied groups working on digital media literacy and digital inclusion projects should adopt social media for internal collaboration and external consultation and conversation, so that all those involved have first hand experience of the tools and their culture(s).
* Centres of excellence in social media, whether community-organised, in business or in academia, should be identified, recognised and supported.

For Funding Organisations
* Funds should be set aside for cross-sector social media training, coaching and mentoring, and the creation of free/open source training materials, case studies, and other resources. Such projects should be led from within the social technologies community.
* Funding organisations should also adopt social media internally for collaboration and externally for communication as a matter of course, so that they become better equipped to understand social media projects.
* Additional help should be given to smaller organisations to ensure that they are not excluded from participation.
* Recognition and assistance should be given to informal, ad-hoc civil society groups and the individuals who wish to start one.

For Civil Society Associations
* Associations should earmark funds to pay for ongoing social media awareness training for as many staff as possible, especially trustees/management and those staff ‘at the coal face’.
* Additional training should be focused on those with the right aptitudes, e.g. curiosity, an ability to communicate clearly, and a desire to connect with people. These people can then become social media champions within each organisation.
* Volunteers, supporters and members should also be offered assistance in understanding new social technologies and opportunities to participate in the organisations social media projects.


General recommendations
Recommendations regarding training and the proliferation of skills through the third sector and public are addressed in the above section. There are many additional areas that deserve attention, however, and those are listed here.

Recommendations for government and policy makers
* Research into the use of the internet by the British population is fragmented and sporadic. Whilst both Ofcom and the Office for National Statistics produce research in this area, there needs to be one single body, a ‘British Internet Institute’, that carries out original quantitative and qualitative research and meta-analyses [1] of research produced by other bodies in this field. Such an organisation should be entirely independent of the Government and should focus not just on ‘issues of the moment’ but carry out longitudinal studies that will give us clear indications of trends and variations. This would provide data to support not just the third sector and businesses but could also feed into government policy.
* Social media should be embedded into the education system at all levels, from primary all the way through to university and continuing education. Social tools should not just be focused on students, but on empowering educators to share information and collaborate, and to help strengthen the relationship between educators and students’ families. The ICT curriculum also needs to be updated to include social media and associated topics, which may also help drive more general adoption of ICT by young people.
* Social media should become an integral part of government, from local to national levels. Using social technology in government will not just be beneficial from a practical point of view, but will also help spread the skills required to understand the medium amongst those who make policy.

Recommendations for funding organisations
* Grant giving organisations should consider how the projects they fund could be improved by the use of the web, and should encourage organisations to include social technology in their project plans. They should also be willing to specify additional budget to ensure that social media is worked into the fabric of the project, not bolted on as an afterthought.
* Adherence to web standards, particularly regarding accessibility, should be encouraged for all projects with a web component.
* Grants should be given for focused research into the use of social media and the web by civil society association to create a portfolio of case studies and best practices, including ROI, metrics, and resourcing needs.
* Funders should invest in projects that will help build technical capabilities across civil society, e.g. schemes that bring together developers and organisations to work on open source projects which could then be used or adapted by any other organisation.
* It is essential that funders be supportive of experiments and risk-taking. There is no one clear route to social media success, and some projects will not work out as well as hoped. These must not been seen as damning, but as part of a wider learning experience.
* The sharing of experience should be built into project plans, covering both success stories and lessons learned from projects that didn’t work out so well. Full and frank discussion of how social media fits into the civil society agenda is an important way to develop our understanding and future applications.

For civil society assocations
* Ensure that individuals have the resources, especially time, to engage with social technologies.
* Task a person or team within the organisation to learn about and experiment with social technologies on an ongoing basis, and to share their discoveries throughout the organisation.
* Use social tools internally for collaboration and communications. Blogs, wikis and social bookmarking tools are particularly useful in an internal context.
* Focus on a small number of tools, and choose ones that can be most easily fitted into existing work schedules. Understand the limitations of your resources and don’t try to do too much.
* Work with external consultants and mentors who can advise on strategy and implementation. Whilst the tools might be easy to use, using them well can be harder.
* Share success stories, lessons, problems and knowledge both internally across the organisation but also externally with other organisations. Sharing knowledge with others will encourage reciprocation, create goodwill and help everyone involved.
* Engage with social media communities outside of the third sector, for example, attend events focused on social media. There are many small, free, informal events, so it’s not just about expensive conferences.
* Let individuals’ personalities come through. Social media is not a form of corporate communication, but a one-to-one conversation so it’s essential to let people be themselves.
* Don’t just focus on younger members of staff. Having a talent for social media is all about one’s mindset, not age or technological history. Older members of staff can take to social tools like ducks to water just as much as their younger counterparts.
* Ensure there is space for dissent, and that it is evaluated honestly and fairly, and fed back into the process.

[1] The use of statistical techniques to review and combine the results of several different studies.

How do we spread social technology skills?

So part of my report for Carnegie has to include recommendations for organisations, policymakers, government and anyone else who we think could do things a little differently. Kevin and I had a bit of a brainstorm and came up with a list, which is going to need whittling down. However, one of the points I have become increasingly unhappy with: “Provide basic digital literacy training for staff that need it.”

The more I look at the phrase ‘digital literacy’, and the baggage that comes with it, the less happy I am using it in a recommendation. There is no doubt in my mind that we do need to spread the skills that will allow people to engage online more often and more effectively, but how do we best do that? Asking government to do it just fills me with the screaming heebie jeebies. Asking academia to do it, or the usual set of skills agencies to get involved also fills me with fear. Why? Because with social media, there is a lot to be lost in translation and the people at the centre of pass on social media skills should be the people who actually have them, not people who’ve watched others use the tools and think that they thus know how they work.

Social media is experiential, and what we need, I think, are ways to draw more people into having those experiences and participating in existing social media communities.

I’d be very, very keen to hear other people’s thoughts and opinions on this. What should we do to help people understand and make best use of social tools? Indeed, should we do anything?

Here is my list of recommendations. Feel free to comment on those too. I’m not entirely sure that they are categories correctly yet, nor that I’ve not missed something really important, (or included unimportant things) so feel free to dig in and give me robust feedback.

For organisations

* Provide basic digital literacy training for staff that need it. There are many other sectors, e.g. education, where increasing digital literacy is a stated goal, so there is expertise to be drawn on.
* Provide general social media training for as many staff as possible. Social media talent can spring from anywhere and successful organisations encourage all staff members to be involved.
* Find staff who have the right aptitudes, such as curiosity, an ability to communicate clearly, and a desire to connect with people, and train them further to become the organisation’s social media evangelists. These people may come from anywhere within the organisation and associations should not simply look to the marcomm function.
* Draw talent from supporters/volunteers, many of whom may have the skills that are required.
* Ensure budget is set aside to support social media projects, training and resources.
* Task a person or team within the organisation to learn about and experiment with social technologies.
* Focus on a small number of tools, and choose ones that can be most easily fitted into existing work schedules. Understand the limitations of your resources and don’t try to do too much.
* Work with external consultants and mentors who can advise on strategy and implementation. Whilst the tools might be easy to use, using them well can be harder.
* Use social tools internally for collaboration and communications. Blogs, wikis and social bookmarking tools are particularly useful in an internal context.
* Share success stories, lessons, problems and knowledge both internally across the organisation but also externally with other organisations. Sharing knowledge with others will encourage reciprocation, create goodwill and help everyone involved.
* Engage with social media communities outside of the third sector, for example, attend events focused on social media. There are many small, free, informal events, so it’s not just about expensive conferences.
* Let individuals’ personalities come through. Social media is not a form of corporate communication, but a one-to-one conversation so it’s essential to let people be themselves.
* Don’t just focus on younger members of staff. Having a talent for social media is all about one’s mindset, not age or technological history. Older members of staff can take to social tools like ducks to water just as much as their younger counterparts.
* Ensure there is space for dissent, and that it is evaluated honestly and fairly, and fed back into the process.

For policy makers/government

* Help should be given to smaller organisations — both financial and advice in the form of free mentoring, workshops, information packs etc. — to ensure that they develop the web skills required to see them through the next 15 years.
* Wider help should be given to civil society associations to ensure that web standards, particularly for accessibility, are understood and met.
* A project to develop applications and tools specifically for the third sector should be considered, as many associations will not have the capability to develop applications themselves.
* The technical capacity of civil society associations should be enhanced by schemes that bring together developers and organisations to work on open source projects which could then be used and adapted by any organisation.
* There should also be an evangelist-mentor programme that reaches out to organisations and helps them to understand what social media could do for them.
* Ongoing research focused on the use of technology and social media by the British population, similar to the Pew Internet Institute in the United States.

For funding organisations

* Grant giving organisations should consider how the projects they fund could be improved by the use of the web, and should encourage organisations to include social technology in their project plans. They should also be willing to specify additional budget to ensure that social media is worked into the fabric of the project, not bolted on as an afterthought.
* There should be more research into the use of social media and the web by civil society association to create a portfolio of case studies and best practices. Examine ROI, metrics, resourcing needs (social media can be resource-intensive but just how intensive is poorly understood).
* Invest in projects that will help build technical capabilities within civil society; not necessarily so that they can execute themselves, but so that they can understand the issues and make informed decisions about social technology based on evidence rather than assumption.
* Insist on web standards being adopted and met.
* Fund experiments and be supportive of risk-taking.
* Examine the needs of civil society and fund work on additions to existing open source software projects that could meet those needs. Specialist tools are unlikely to be required and OSS should be supported whenever possible.

Myths of age and digital capability

This is my section on the dual myths of ‘digital natives’ and ‘silver surfers’. It’s a pretty solid first draft, I think, although it’s a little long and will need cutting for length. I’m also short of references as I got some of the info from other people’s presentations and need to dig out the original references for those. Although frankly, I haven’t had to academically reference anything since I was at university, and the whole endeavour fills me with cold fear! Any help on that front, whether comments on this piece or advice in general, would be so gratefully received! I’ve got to use the Harvard format, which I’ve info on, but which I’ve not yet applied to this piece of work.

Anyway, as usual, please do feel free to critique and comment.

Myths of age and digital capability
There are two common assumptions about the relationship between age and technical competency that rear their heads whenever the internet is discussed. The first assumption is that young people have a natural affinity for technology and both understand and use it in ways that older people cannot. The second is that anyone over the age of 60 is not only technically incompetent but also uninterested in the internet, using it only under protest.

Both of these assumptions are flawed, yet have worked their way firmly into the public consciousness. Because they seem like ‘common sense’, these concepts are spread by policy makers, the media and technology companies alike. But if civil society associations take them at face value, they risk forming strategies and policies that are as flawed as the assumptions they are based on.

The ‘Digital Natives’
Marc Prensky, technologist and educationalist, coined the term ‘digital native’ in 2001 to refer to today’s students, born after 1980, whom he sees as radically different from both their predecessors and their teachers/professors. He characterises them as “native speakers of technology, fluent in the digital language of computers, video games, and the Internet” [1] and compares them with their elders, the ‘digital immigrants’ who may use technology, but who “still have one foot in the past.”

Prensky’s is not a lone voice, nor is his the first to characterise young people as being computer naturals — that meme has been spreading throughout society since the 1970, but has become particularly prevalent over the last ten years. It is predicated on the idea that there is a clear divide between generations, and that these new characteristics, ascribed to the young, are so new that not only are their elders incapable of developing those skills, they can’t even comprehend them.

As well as having a natural affinity for technology, ‘digital natives’ — aka the ‘net generation’ or ‘millenials’ — are also supposed to be “optimistic team-oriented achievers” and “active experiential learners, proficient in multi-tasking” [2]. Yet a review of the evidence shows the truth to be much more complex than the words of Prensky and his peers would lead one to believe. In reality, competency with technology varies, along with access and interest.

Neil Selwyn, in his paper The Digital Native — Myth and Reality, says:

“[T]here is mounting evidence that many young people’s actual uses of digital technologies remain rather more limited in scope than the digital native rhetoric would suggest. Surveys of adolescents’ technology use, for example, show a predominance of game playing, text messaging and retrieval of online content (as evidenced in the popularity of viewing content on YouTube, Bebo and MySpace).” [3]

Young people are also more passive than the digital native description would imply and “often display a limited ability to successfully use the internet and other research tools” [4]. Studies of American students found that the most common activities were word processing, emailing and accessing the internet for pleasure. Only a minority of students actively created their own content or used emerging technologies such as blogs, social networking and podcasts. And a significant proportion of them had lower levels of technical competency than would be expected of ‘digital natives’. [5]

Research shows that access to technology is strongly influenced by a number of factors, including socio-economic status, social class, gender and geography [6], as well as their school and home background and their family dynamics. And studies from Europe and North America show that rural youth, females and those whose parents have low levels of education are more likely to suffer from digital exclusion [7].

Furthermore, digital exclusion isn’t always involuntary. danah boyd’s study of teenagers on MySpace discovered “two types of non-participants: disenfranchised teens and conscientious objectors.” The former group have no internet access, have been banned by their parents, or can only access the internet through public terminals where sites like MySpace are banned. Conscientious objectors include “politically minded teens who wish to protest against Murdoch’s News Corp. (the corporate owner of MySpace)” as well as obedient teens who respect their parents’ bans, teens who feel socially alienated from their online peers, or who just think they are too cool for MySpace. [8]

The concept of the digital native is, then, an artificial construction, rather than a description of reality. Selwyn says:

“Whilst often compelling and persuasive, the overall tenor and tone of these discursive constructions of young people and technology tend towards exaggeration and inconsistency. The digital native discourse as articulated currently cannot be said to provide an especially accurate or objective account of young people and technology.”

A conclusion with which Bennett et al. agree:

“[T]hese assertions are put forward with limited empirical evidence … or supported by anecdotes and appeals to common-sense beliefs.” [9]
Harvard’s John Palfrey, co-author of the book Born Digital, explains why the term ‘digital native’ should not be used to describe a particular generation:

“Not all people born during a certain period of history […] are Digital Natives. Not everyone born today lives a life that is digital in every, or indeed any, way.”

Furthermore “Not all of the people who have the character traits of Digital Natives are young. [Some people] over a certain age […] live digital lives in as many ways, if not more, than many Digital Natives. Many of us have been here as the whole digital age has come about, and many of our colleagues have participated in making it happen in lots and lots of crucial ways.” [10]

The ‘Silver Surfer’
Similar mythology has grown up around internet users of retirement age. The common perception of the over-50s, and in particular the over-60s, is that they are technically incapable and uninterested in the internet. Indeed, the phrase ‘silver surfer’ brings to mind the idea of a white-haired old lady prodding at the computer with a single finger as if it might bite. But this image, however evocative it may be, diminishes the role that the internet plays in the lives of older people, and the influence they have on the internet itself.

Nielsen, Hitwise and OfCom all predict an increase in use of the internet by the 55+ age group, with predictions averaging at a 20% increase [11]. The 55+ age group are using the internet more frequently, with the 65+ age group also increasing useage (although their overall usage is lower than that of the younger cohort). [12]

A 2007 OfCom report shows that 16% of over-65s use the web, spending 42 hours per month on the web, compared to 37.9 hours spent by 18-24s, and only 24.9 hours spent by 12-17 year olds [13]. Indeed, the over-65s are spending more time online than any of the other age groups in the survey.

An Axa survey finds that “using the internet is the preferred hobby of pensioners”, over DIY/gardening and travel. Furthermore, 88% of pensioners who use the internet “chat regularly with friends and family” and are “embracing the web to enhance their social lives and keep in touch with family”.
So older people are engaging with the internet, increasingly so, but are they using social tools?

The average ages of social sites is surprising: YouTube (34.4), Facebook (34.6 years) [14], Friends Reunited (43.8) and Saga Zone (62) [15]. Indeed, almost as many in the over 55 age group use Facebook globally as in the 25-34 age group. Not only are these sites not just the preserve of the teens and twenty-somethings, as is often assumed, but pensioners will actively engage with sites such as Saga Zone that are relevant to their interests.
Kathryn Corrick concluded from this and other data that:

“Baby boomers and ‘silver surfers’ are not averse to digital technology. Their motivations for going online are the similar as other generations: socialising, communication , learning, sharing, shopping, bargain hunting, organising. Like all other ages groups usage of all digital media is rapidly increasing. [And it] is no longer a matter of what kind of sites/services this demographic are not using, rather which ones are they using more than others.” [16]

Another part of the mythology surrounding silver surfers is that they lack confidence with technology. Whilst this is undoubtedly true of some, a recent Ofcom study, [17] found that lack of interest was a more important problem than lack of confidence.

When asked how confident they were in finding what they want on the internet, 78% of the 60+ age group were very or fairly confident, and 14% were not very or not at all confident, compared to 91% and 5% of all adults aged 16 or over. When asked about their confidence in using “creative elements that media such as the internet and mobile phones offer”, 44% said they were very or fairly confident, and 44% were not very or not at all confident, compared to 66% and 25% for the 16+ group. So whilst older people are less confident, their overall confidence levels are actually very respectable.

Regarding the creative elements of the internet, such as uploading photos or commenting on blogs, overall interest levels in both 16+ and 60+ groups were very low. Of adults aged 60+, 42% have either uploaded or are interested in uploading photos to the internet, but 56% are not interested, compared to 61% and 39% for all adults aged 16+. And only 18% of the 60+ age group either have or are interested in commenting on someone else’s blog, with 82% not interested, compared to 29% and 69% for all adults over 16.

Ofcoms figures are, however, problematic, because they do not split out different age groups to give a clearer picture of how popular activities are within different age ranges, lumping the entire adult population together as 16+, and comparing that to the 60+ group. Other parts of research, e.g. questions about use of advanced mobile phone functions, show that the 70+ age group is consistently less interested and less confident with technology than those aged 60-69, and their responses will therefore pull down the figures for the 60-69 age group (moreso than they do the 16+ age group). There was no data for the 50-59 age group, which (can) also form a section of the ‘silver surfer’ demographic group.

The question of interest, rather than confidence, being a key reason for the lack of engagement by older people is to be expected given that the main demographic targeted by most websites are the 18-35s, who are perceived to have the greatest engagement with the web and also the greatest disposable income.

Ramifications for civil society associations
These finding show that age is not a reliable predictor of interest, capability, confidence or engagement with technology in general, or social media in particular. Whether civil society associations are looking for technically competent staff or volunteers to work on their web presence and use of social media tools, or whether they are assessing the potential reach within their target audience that such tools may have, they must do so with an open mind.

When considering hiring staff or recruiting volunteers, organisations must firstly remember that not all ‘youngsters’ are automatically competent with technology. Although many teens and young adults use social tools in their personal lives, they may not have the necessary perspective to transfer those skills to a different context, such as a professional or volunteering context. Conversely, the over-30s may have a deeper understanding of technology and a broader capability to apply that knowledge in a novel context.

However, it must be emphasised that with social media, it is mindset not skill set that is important. The right people will be curious about technology, eager to experiment, will understand how interpersonal relationships develop, will be good communicators and will have a solid understanding of their community’s culture. Such skills can be found in people of any age.

Equally, when formulating web strategies, it is important not to assume older people, whether you define that as 50+ or 60+, are absent from the web. Whilst there is room for improvement in the number of over-50s online and their confidence levels, the cart should not be put before the horse. A lack of content relevant to that age-group would naturally result in fewer of them engaging with the internet. An increase in relevant content, whether that’s in the traditional sense of information and media or whether it is social websites aimed specifically at older people and where they can create and share their own content, could be expected to increase engagement in the 50+ age group.

This should be good news for civil society organisations, especially those focusing on older people, as the indicators are that there are many opportunities for them to reach out and engage with the over-50s digitally by providing them with a reason to learn more about technology. Given our ageing population, engagement with the 50+ age group should be a key consideration for all civil society associations.

Finally, it must be emphasised that the terms ‘digital native’ and ‘silver surfer’ should not be used as demographic descriptors. Instead, it is preferable to talk in terms of level and type of digital engagement, and to recognise that these vary within all age groups.

Please note that these references aren’t complete! If you happen to have any of them to hand, let me know.

[2] (Bennett et al)
[3] The digital native — myth and reality, Neil Welwyn, March 2009
[4] (Williams and Rowlands 2007)
[5] (Sue Bennett, Karl Maton and Lisa Kervin, in their paper The Digital Natives Debate: A critical review of the evidence)
[6] (Golding 200)
[7] (Vandewater et al. 2007, Looker and Thiessen 2003)
[8] {boyd, 2007, MacArthur Foundation Series on Digital Learning, Youth, Identity, and Digital Media Volume}
[9] (Bennett et al.)
[10] (Palfrey, get citation)
[11] (find citations)
[12] (National Statistics – Internet Access Report August 2007)
[13] (OfCom 2007 – find citation)
[14] (Nielsen Online, UK NetView, home & work data, including applications, October 200&)
[15] (CIM Presentation 2007)
[16] (
[17] (Ofcom, Digial Lifestyles, Adults aged 60 and over, 14 May 2009)