social networking and social change

It's hardly a surprise that large NGO's are starting to experiment with social networks, given the sheer numbers of people using them and their high media profile. But, judging by comments on the eCampaigning Forum wiki , there's some uncertainty about how non-profits should approach social networks, and especially how to get an effective return for the time that has to be invested in these relationship-spaces. NGOs are also anxious about the loss of control - in a participative space, what happens to the brand and the carefully crafted messaging?

Of course, some groups have already leveraged a lot from these space, such as the Genocide Information Network (see also my previous post ). Despite the fact that there are now some decent initiatives from larger orgs such as Oxfam's Oxjam and Amnesty's Make Some Noise (both MySpace, and both focussed on youth + music) I still think that the agility deficit of large organisations means that smaller groups or non-profit start-ups like GI-Net will find it easier to get to grip with social networks.

A parallel dynamic comes from what i call the first law of web 2.0, which says that people will do it anyway. Community groups and grassroots activists aren't waiting for large NGos to decide whether social networks are kosher - they're just going ahead and using them (for better or for worse).

Another and newer issue for NGOs is the potential fragmentation of social spaces, as niche communities start to spring up. It's hard enough for a traditional org to decide what to do about MySpace or YouTube, so the multiplication of spaces must seem like a dizzying kaleidescope. The flip side of this is the emergence of social networks focusing directly on activism, which could give non-profits a direct route to interested audiences and cut out a lot of the noise. Right now this seems like a growing trend, with examples like Change.org & Project Agape , but there's also some scepticism about whether this is a good thing. Perhaps they'll be complementary - you go to an activism community for a guaranteed response and to a global pool to filter out new constituents. A recent development is the extension of the LinkedIn business network to support charities .

It's also useful for Western organisations to remember that social networks are a global and growing phenomenon, despite the digital divide. This also complicates the picture for BINGOs because (of course) different cultures use (different) social networks in different ways. The majority of Orkut members are in Brazil, and it is also popular in India. China has QQ , Japan has Mixi and Cyworld originated in South Korea. Youth in Kosova and the Kosovan diaspora use Hi5 rather than MySpace or Bebo. Across the Middle East the picture seems varied; while there are Iranian MySpace pages with thousands of friends, Saudi Arabians seem keener on Orkut, and there are MySpace look-alikes like MuslimSpace.

Despite the attraction of numbers in the dominant global communities like MySpace and YouTube, they are corporate spaces that could pose problems for sustained ecampaigning. Like shopping malls, they are pseudo-public spaces where our presence is tolerated as long as we are not interfering with the creation of (advertising) value for the owners. NGOS should take note of reports that Yahoo shut down many anti-war Yahoo Groups. We may assume the carry over of internet freedoms like free expression, but where does the Universal Declaration of Human Rights stand in relation to YouTube's terms of service? (more on this in a future post).

So should NGOs thrown up their hands at the complex and time-hungry nature of these spaces, with their in-world cultures and hard-to-define returns? I think that would be unwise. Whatever the shake-out that follows the new web boom, these spaces hint at emerging online behaviours that aren't simply going to go away. And if the next generation are flooding in to these spaces, perhaps NGOs have a duty to be there, even if it costs them in the short term. For if, as Danah Boyd says, young people are

using the sites to present themselves to a small group of friends and get their recognition and feedback. The sites are an opportunity to define in public who they are. By providing an audience, and the tools to interact with that audience, the social networks are satisfying that need. Boyd calls this behaviour “identity production” and, employing a favourite phrase of hers, says that young people are trying to “write themselves into being”

then shouldn't NGOs be ensuring that the causes they represent are part of that mix?

From a human rights perspective I think the social networking phenomena may have a deep significance. Events like Rwanda have shown the relative impotence of international legal frameworks to prevent mass human rights abuses. We certainly need the values of the UDHR to be embodied in activists that are part of social networks (locally and internationally) and who, by being in communication with one another, feel more empowered to to take action on the ground.