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Making the most of social media: Liz Carlile

Liz Carlile, Director of Communications for the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), has published a briefing on making the most of social media for international development purposes.

She addresses some of the opportunities that the world of the web has to offer. I have discussed some of these in this blog in previous posts.

In it she also addresses some key challenges: I particularly like her discussion on the  challenge that organisations face in relation to letting (or not) their employees and associates use the web and their brand. This is a key issue not often formally addressed by think tanks but dealt with in practice. You only have to read the Twitter accounts descriptions of many think tank staffers -most have to say that their views are their own. Even organisations like ODI and other think tanks tend to add disclaimers to their official publications: the opinions of the authors (even if full time employees) are not those of the employer.

And the same goes for the increasing number of personal blogs that researchers keep, the online communities they join and engage in as individuals, etc.

But the briefing, I think, is flawed in its excessive optimism for the importance of social media -and the internet. The same unfounded optimism that is present in discussions about mobile phones in Africa.

The facts provided to argue for the importance of the web are not specific to a) the development industry or b) the developing world. A third of the world may be online, but only 5.7% of those online come from Africa (which is only 11% of the African population). And although the rate of growth in access has been dramatic (2000%) this does not imply that poor (or “most”) Africans are benefiting. Furthermore, we know that access often just means that someone has a computer near by. Being online cannot be equated to participating online.

So the billions of emails and the millions of twits do not come from the development industry nor from the developing world (certainly not from the poorest parts of the developing world). In fact, in 2009:

[N]early two-thirds of unique users (62.1%) were located in the U.S., while the U.K. and Canada were a distant second and third.

In the list of top 20 countries for Twitter use there are no African countries. The last country on the list is New Zealand with 0.47% of the world share. So even if an African country came up as 21st this would be negligible. Irrelevant.

What I mean to say is that there is a great potential, but we are not there yet. Investing on the web may be a relevant strategy for a northern based and northern focused organisation like IIED, but for a think tank in Africa (and many other parts of the developing world) the web is not yet the promised land it is made up to be.

My advice is to start planning and developing incremental strategies to use the web -and all it offers. But social (and non-social) tools need to be adopted slowly, carefully, and not at the expense of other more direct approaches to research and communication.

As a final note, I must say that it is commendable that Liz (as well as other directors of communications -but not all) does not just focus on running IIED’s communications but is also interested in promoting an open debate about these issues.

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3 Comments Post a comment
  1. I have always had my misgivings about the over-hyped benefits of the social media in development discourse, especially in the developing countries. I have shared these views in various fora and the reception or the expressions on the faces of the development practitioners is like, this person wants to take us back to the ‘skin-wearing days’ (Africans used to wear skin before the emergence of western-type of dressing). Admitted the social media is doing much, has helped even in revolutionising the erstwhile traditional and conservative Arab Africa. But speaking of social media as having any tangible effect in development research communication, especially in the African context, is taking it abit too far.

    I’m therefore in agreement with Enrique that in as much as there is access to the information superhighway in Africa, utilisation is still very low. One should just come up with statistics of site visits to African think tanks websites to prove this. I think this is an area that needs urgent study. Beyond this, what kind of research communication is posted in these sites? Are the policy makers accessing this information, and if not, what are the challenges? Once these challenges are addressed, that is when we can talk of effective communication intake from the internet and possible impact in policy.

    Ask yourself, how many think tanks are on Facebook or Twitter? What is the following? Can we disaggregate the ‘following’ in terms of profession,like say, how many politicians or policy analysts are following the think tank on Twitter or Facebook? What recent policy issues have been discussed exhaustively in the social sites? Have any of the issues been followed up by the policy makers? How many have ended up being implemented? Until we have this statistics, it would be futile for us to assume that the internet is having any tangible impact with regard to research communication in the developing world. I stand to be corrected.

    August 1, 2011
    • I would tend to agree with the above comment, and in particular the request for more research on how the internet is actually being used in the think tank world. However, I would say that there are some intangibles to the use of the internet in research communication, which make it still important to engage with even if there is no direct ‘impact’.

      The main one, I would argue, is credibility. Having a website, and a good one, is essential in many cases for credibility of the organisation, and therefore empowers messages that may be delivered through other means where more tangible impact is more easily achieved and seen.

      It may also be getting to the point in some countries where a Twitter or Facebook account might be essential for credibility, but that is a lot less clear cut.

      Nick Scott
      Online Communications Manager, ODI

      August 2, 2011

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