Legacies of social reporting: an IGF09 example

[Summary: aggregating content from the Internet Governance Forum & exploring ways to develop the legacy of social reporting at events…]

Introducing social reporting to an event can bring many immediate benefits. From new skills for those participating in the social reporting, to increasing opportunities for conversation at the event, and building bridges between those present at an event, and those interested in the topic but unable to physically take part.

However, the wealth of content gathered through social reporting can also act as a resource ‘after the event’ – offering insights and narratives covering event themes, and offering contrasting and complementary perspectives to any ‘official’ event records that may exist.

Many of the tools I use when social reporting at an event have a certain ‘presentism’ about them. Newer content is prioritised over older content, and, in the case of dashboard aggregators like NetVibes, or services such as Twitter, good content can quickly disappear from the front page, or even altogether.

So, as we got towards the end of a frantic four days social reporting out at the Internet Governance Forum in Egypt earlier this year, I started thinking about how to make the most of the potential legacy impacts of the social reporting that was going on – both in the event-wide Twitterstream, and in the work of the young social reporters I was specifically working with.

Part of that legacy was about the skills and contacts gathered by the social reporters – so we quickly put together this handout for participants – but another part of that legacy was in the content. And gathering that together turned out to be trickier than I expected.

However, I now have a micro-site set up at http://igf2009.practicalparticipation.co.uk/ where you can find all the blog posts and blips created by our social reporters, as well as all the tagged tweets we could collect together. Over the coming weeks colleagues at Diplo will be tagging core content to make it easy to navigate and potentially use as part of online learning around Internet Governance. I’ve run the 3500+ twitter messages I managed to (eventually) aggregate through the Open Calais auto-tagging service as an experiment to see if this provide ways to identify insights within them – and I’ve been exploring different ways to present the information found in the site.

Learning: Next time set up the aggregator in advance
I didn’t start putting together the site (a quick bit of Drupal + FeedAPI, with the later addition of Views, Panels, Autotagging, Timeline and other handy modules) till the final day of IGF09, by which time over 50 blog posts had been added to our Ning website, and over 3000 twitter messages tagged #igf09.

Frustratingly, Ning only provides the last 20 items in any RSS feed, and, as far as I can tell, no way to page through past items; and the Twitter search API is limited to fetching just 1500 tweets.

Fortunately when it came to Twitter I had captured all the Tweets in Google Reader – but still had to scrape Twitter message IDs back out of there – and set up a slow script to spend a couple of days fetching original tweets (given the rate limiting again on the Twitter API).

For Ning, I ended up having to go through and find all the authors who had written on IGF09, and to fetch the feeds of their posts, run through a Yahoo Pipe to create an aggregate feed of only those items posted during the time of the IGF.

It would have been a lot easier if I set up the Drupal + FeedAPI aggregator beforehand, and added new feeds to it whenever I found them.

Discoveries: Language and noise
I’ve spent most of my time just getting the content into this aggregator, and setting up a basic interface for exploring it. I’ve not yet hand chance to dive in and really explore the content itself. However, two things I noticed:

1) There is mention of a francaphone hash-tag for IGF2009 in some of the tweets. Searching on that hash-tag now, over a month later, doesn’t turn up any results – but it’s quite possible that there were active conversations this aggregator fails to capture because we weren’t looking at the right tags.

Social Network Map of Tweets
Mapping Twitter @s with R and Iplot

2) A lot of the Twitter messages aggregated appear to be about the ‘censorship incident‘ that dominated external coverage of IGF09, but which was only a small part of all the goings on at IGF. Repeated tweeting and re-tweeting on one theme can drown out conversations on other themes unless there are effective ways to navigate and filter the content archives.

I’ve started to explore how @ messages, and RTs within Tweets could be used to visualise the structure, as well as content, of conversations – but have run up against the limitations of my meagre current skill set with R and iplot.

I’m now on the look out for good ways of potentially building some more intelligent analysis of tweets into future attempts to aggregate with Drupal – possibly by extracting information on @s and RTs at the time of import using the promising FeedAPI Scraper module from the great folk at Youth Agora.

Questions: Developing social reporting legacies
There is still a lot more to reflect upon when it comes to making the most of content from a socially reported event, not least:

1) How long should information be kept?

I’ve just been reading Delete, which very sensibly suggests that not all content should be online for ever – and particularly with conversational twitter messages or video clips, there may be a case for ensuring a social reporting archive only keeps content public for as long as there is a clear value in doing so.

2) Licensing issues

Aggregation on the model I’ve explored assumes licence to collect and share tweets and other content. Is this a fair assumption?

3) Repository or advocacy?

How actively should the legacy content from social reporting be used? Should managing the legacy of an event also involve setting up search and blog alerts, and pro-actively spreading content to other online spaces? If so – who should be responsible for that and how?

If you are interested in more exploration of Social Reporting, you may find the Social by Social network, and Social Reporters group there useful.

Defining social media

[Summary: I’ve been looking for a definition of social media to use in research, but without much luck. So, tentatively, here is an attempt to provide one: Social media is the creation, publishing and/or sharing of content from an author to a crowd, providing a locus for horizontal interaction across the crowd. This blog post unpacks, and seeks to justify, this choice of definition]


Definitions are useful things in research and critical thinking around a subject. When studying the youth work uses of social network sites, I found boyd and Ellison’s clear definition of what constitutes a social network site to be extremely useful in giving focus to the work. Right now I’m working with Kevin Harris on an essay around the potential uses of social media in frontline public services, and one of the first challenges I’ve hit is finding an operational definition of social media.

Search the web and you will find plenty of claims about ‘what social media is’ – but they tend either towards explaining what social media is by examples (e.g. ‘social media is sites like Facebook and YouTube’) or to conflate social media with a whole host of other concepts, often in a normative way (e.g. ‘social media is the open and free sharing of content and conversation between people operating as equals.’). A good definition needs to be general enough to pick out all those things which are, by consensus, examples of social media, and to identify new examples of social media, but to also be tight enough to allow us to ask questions about the empirical and normative properties of social media (rather than assuming them). So far, I’ve not found a definition to fit that bill – so, here is a very tentative attempt to provide one.

What do we want from a definition:

A choice has to be made in advancing a definition of social media.

  • Should the definition only pick out those ‘new’ forms of media that we’ve commonly labeled social media, excluding older media by definition? Or should it allow the use of the term (social media) to refer to older things and historical experiences?
  • Should the definition be tied to the digital? Or can there be non-digital social media?
  • How will the definition set out the relationship and order of sub-terms and related terms. For example, is a social media platform something which hosts social media; or is the platform prior, such that social media is anything hosted on a social media platform?
  • Should a definition try to take in all those things that people commonly call ‘social media’, or should it advance the claim that some of the things commonly called social media are, in fact, not.

My own choices are to: allow the terminology of social media to pick out historical phenomena as well as current ones; to talk first about people’s practice, and not to tie the definition to the digital; and to advance a definition which may exclude some things commonly called social media – but generally only as a result of a rejection of the primacy of platforms in defining what is, or isn’t social media.

Offering a definition

Based on those choices, the definition below is my tentative first attempt at capturing the concept of social media.

Social media is the creation, publishing and/or sharing of content from an author to a crowd, providing a locus for horizontal interaction across the crowd.

Or, for those on Twitter, the 140 character version:

Social media=creation, publishing &/or sharing content from author 2 crowd, providing locus 4 horizontal interaction across the crowd (@timdavies, 2009)

Of course, this is still a little dense – but hopefully with some unpacking I can show why I think this captures the essential concept of social media.

Unpacking the definition

Creating, publishing, sharing content

An interaction can only be a social media interaction when there is some media. Be that a video, a photo or a 140 character tweet. I’ve used the term ‘content’ to avoid importing any connotations from the idea of media that might lead people to exclude content such as simple interpersonal messages from their understanding of social media.

[I’m not entirely sure that these three terms are the best for this part of the definition, but retain them for the time being – open to alternative suggestions. They should be read as ‘Creating [and/or] publishing [and/or] sharing’.]

From an author to a crowd

One key difference between an e-mail and a blog post is that the author of the e-mail chooses, in a deliberate and technically defined way (by e-mail addresses), who to address the e-mail to, whereas, with the blog post, they publish to an unspecified or unknown audience.

It is not necessary that the potential audience of an item of content be ‘everyone’ for it to be social media. Social media can be published or shared within a relatively closed community, but it is always published/shared with the possibility of people within the community / domain where into which it is injected ‘overhearing’ or engaging with it – even if they were not the audience the author had in mind.

If you need an analogy – think of relating an anecdote at a crowded party. You have an idea of who is in the room. An idea of who you want to address the anecdote to. But you do not limit who may listen, and you accept injections from those in the room who overhear and engage.

This author->crowd aspect of social media operates at the level of both technology (e.g. the ease of publishing to a community) and at a level of social norms (knowing that people are not obligated to engage with the content produced, but allowing that they can).

A locus for interaction

Social media involves the possibility of interaction. But that interaction need not be described in terms only of some technical functions (e.g. comment boxes and rating boxes). Rather, in social media, content has the potential of becoming a social object around which interaction can be organized – and this can happen in at least two ways (which are not mutually exclusive):

  • The platform through which the content is published allows for or enables comments and interaction;
  • The content is licensed in ways that allow people to share / remix and engage with and around it in active, creative ways;

The interaction need not take place in a single location, or on only on platforms that call themselves ‘social media platforms’.

Horizontal interaction across the crowd

If the only interaction possible around content is between the author and individual members of the ‘audience’ (vertical interaction), then the potential social interaction around the content is highly constrained. In social media, there must be the possibility of audiences of content interacting with each other around or through the content, with or without reference to the originator of the content.

The requirement that the potential must be for horizontal interaction ‘across the crowd’ distinguishes cases where content is broadcast into multiple small ‘crowds’ where it becomes a social object (e.g. a TV programme watched & discussed in living rooms across the country) within sub-units of the whole crowd, from circumstances which can tie together interaction from right across the crowd who constitute the potential audience of the content (e.g. the use of a hash-tag on Twitter to discuss a broadcast media programme or a weather event).

This does not mean that social media necessarily equalizes people – or that all interaction around social media content is horizontal and peer-to-peer in character. But it does suggest that without the potential for horizontal interaction around content, that content is not social media.

Extensions of the definition

The definition unpacked above is essentially the definition of a process (creating, publishing, sharing content) under certain conditions. But from these we can derive a number of further definitions:

  • Social Media Content – content is social media content iff it is created, published and/or shared from author to crowd in a way that can provide a locus for horizontal interaction across the crow
  • A social media platform/tool – is a platform or tool which, to a significant and noticeable extent, intentionally, or unintentionally, facilitates the creation, publishing or sharing of social media

  • Etc.

Testing the definition

I’ve tried in composing this tentative definition to apply a number of tests to check it’s utility. Example tests check if it rightly rules in, and rules out, certain examples of things that may or may not be generally considered to be social media. Question tests check whether the definition can be used to guide substantive enquiries into social media without including the answers to interesting questions in the definition itself.

For example tests, I believe that:

  • This definition adequately rules in as generally social media: YouTube, Facebook & Twitter. I welcome other suggestions of examples to test.
  • This definition rules out TV, E-mail, Telephone Conversations and Podium Speeches as not being examples of social media. It also rules out use of tools such as YouTube solely as media publishing platforms when all interactive features are turned off. An online video with no interactive features is only made into a social object when shared by someone who adds opportunities for interactivity to it – in which case the ‘social media’ consists of the original non-interactive video, plus the sharing of it in ways permitting horizontal interactivity across a crowd.
  • This definition would rule in content-mediated discussions at an unConference of BarCamp; and the intentional facilitation of a participative workshop using media content – be that multi-media or paper-based media.(I expect this set of examples to be more controversial – and ones that go beyond most people’s commonsense ideas of social media

For question tests, I believe this definition should facilitate the answering of questions such as:

  • Is social media a democratizing force?
  • How can social media be used in front line public services?
  • How do specific examples of social media structurally differ?
  • What properties of social media contribute to collaboration?
  • How can social media contribute to greater community building, rather than to greater individualism?

For questions about the properties of social media – the definition does not only pick out examples of social media, but also gives a framework for assessing different properties of social media – but I feel this is a justifiable bit of additional work done by the definition in this question context.

Use and development

This blog post (at http://www.timdavies.org.uk) is the first attempt at forming and sharing this definition. I will be giving it a practical test in at least one upcoming project – but wish to subject it to a wider critical test.

Perhaps, for purposes other than my own, it is a non-starter – and a definition that cannot achieve some wider than individual acceptance is little use at all. But I hope it can prove useful (in current, or a revised form) for others.

(All comments and feedback; pointers to other works etc. are welcome. Thanks to all who have contributed to conversations on this topic with suggestions of links to follow, or pointers to existing definitions also, and apologies that version 1 this blog post, written whilst I’ve been without Internet access, does not offer specific references and credits.)

Your insights needed: Click Clever, Click Safe

Cover of Click Clever, Click Safe
Cover of Click Clever, Click Safe

I blogged on Tuesday about Click Clever, Click Safe, the UK Council on Child Internet Safety’s strategy, and my belief that it misses the opportunity to frame a positive, and rights-based debate around supporting children and young people to navigate online risks.

However, in fairness to the drafters, the UK Council on Child Internet Safety is a large body of over 140 individual and organizational members – and invariably any attempt to put together a progressive strategy in that environment is tricky. Advocates of informal education & children’s rights; and practitioners who have developed positive approaches to online safety are under-represented in the Council’s Membership, and so there is a clear need to make sure that voices and views on the strategy from research, practice and, crucially, children and young people themselves, have a space to be heard.

To that end, I’ve put a copy of the strategy up on Write to Reply, a fantastic service run by @josswinn and@psychemedia to allow paragraph-by-paragraph comments to be added to public documents.

You can read through and add your insights and comments to the strategy here. If you are involved in supporting children or young people who use the Internet, or you are involved in supporting them to navigate online risks, then I really encourage you to take a few moments to look at where your insights and experiences could form a comment on the strategy.

I am committed to making sure comments get fed back to UKCCIS, and will be encouraging members of the Council to take a look at the shared insights also.


In other Child Safety linked news – the Berkman Centre for Internet & Society have a call out for “Descriptions of Projects and Interventions that Address Risky Youth Behaviours and Online Safety” and it would be great to see them receive brief summaries from UK & European Practitioners who have been exploring positive approaches to supporting young people online.

Click Clever, Click Safe: What happened to resilience?

The government has just launched it’s Child Internet Strategy Strategy – created by the UK Council on Child Internet Safety (UKCCIS) – and it’s not good.

Whilst there is talk in the document of resiliency, the text demonstrates no understanding of how resiliency is developed, and the actions in the strategy are based in a deficit risk-focussed model.

I wrote about the UKCCIS when it launched, and the message of that post – informal education is key, not big public information campaigns – still holds.

I’m just working on trying to get a copy of the strategy up on the Write to Reply site I’ve uploaded a copy of the strategy to the Write to Reply website – to allow it to be scrutinized in more depth (I’ll update this post once that is done) – but I would welcome any reflections from anyone who was at the strategy launch – or who has taken a look at the strategy. Is there space in the strategy for actions that develop young people’s digital literacy – or it a profoundly problematic and mistaken document?

Right now the I’m left feeling the right response is to say:

Supporting young people to navigate online risks, and ensuring that young people are not coming to harm through their online experiences, is undoubtledy important. But the current UK Child Internet Safety Strategy has a long way to go before it’s a positive, constructive contribution to that.

Checklist for digital youth projects

[Summary: Draft of a new one page guide putting the critical questions approach to online safety into practice]

I’m heading to Coventry tomorrow to lead a training session in using social media for activism for young people involved in the DFID funded Youth For Fair Trade project. We’ll be exploring a whole range of social media tools that project can use to campaign online.

However, it’s important not only to equip young people with the skills to use social media, but we also need to talk about the skills to use social media safely. I’ll be including some elements from the ‘Critical Questions framework‘ I blogged about earlier this year, but, know that we’ll be tight for time on Sunday, and that leaving people with a aide-memoir is always a good thing – I’ve put together a draft one page ‘Social Media Checklist for safe and effective youth projects‘.

You can view it below, download the PDF here, and if you want to adapt and update it, as a word file here.

Like all the one page guides it is under a creative commons license to encourage you to take, remix and share back your updates. This is very much a draft, and so I would welcome your critical questions about it – and reflections on how it could be improved as a resource to support young people thinking positively and proactively about being sensible and safe as online actors.

Social Media Checklist for Youth Projects