Making the most of social media: Liz Carlile

1 August 2011

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.