Network Stories: Hacking Complex, Ongoing News

[Summary: a join post with Ivan Sigal reflection on our learning from a recent Berkman Centre Network Stories hack-day]

There are hundreds of different digital tools for building online stories, and myriad ways to use them. Building stories online often requires creating alternative production and distribution paths for stories, in the context of networked, online communities.

The choice of tools affects the way a story is told and experienced. When starting a new project it can be challenging to work out which tools to use, how to use them and whether they work together.

Over the last few months the Network Stories group at the Berkman Center has been exploring different approaches to storytelling in digital media. This Saturday around 20 of us got together at the MIT Media Lab’s Center for Civic Media for a full day, hands-on exploration of different digital storytelling approaches. We were a diverse group: coders, journalists, data scientists, theorists, filmmakers, scholars and artists.

Our starting point was Global Voices special coverage of the #Shahbag protests in Bangladesh. This story has unfolded over the past year around the contentious issue of justice for war crimes from Bangladesh’s 1971 war of indendependence, in cycles of protest and counterprotest. It is a complex, multi-layered narrative that has received little coverage in the mainstream media in relation to its importance for the future of Bangladesh. We had built an archive of Global Voices and related content, including explainers, mass media coverage of the event, and a selection of tools, so that all participants were starting with the same material. This blog post reflects on our engagement with that content.

Reworking special coverage

The Global Voices special coverage pages are based around a list of content posts on the site, with a brief introduction. The #Shahbag page lists 23 posts, from December 2012 to December 2013, centred around the main period of protests in February 2013, as well as a collection of Global Voices Advocacy posts related to #Shahbag, links to archives of photos, videos, music, social media sites, and platforms and communities dedicated to supporting and documenting the protests.

We set out to address the challenge of how to design an interface for a complex, ongoing story with many sources, incorporating ongoing chronicle of stories analysis of the data inside those stories (hyperlinks, worldclouds, categories, tags, people) * databases of participant-generated and witness content (images, sound, video, social media, blogs, maps etc)

Much of the day was spent shifting between the whiteboard and laptop screens, experimenting with different ways to organise the post content already on the Global Voices site, whilst also thinking more broadly about the issues involved in communicating multifaceted stories.

Narrative and technical challenges

Developing a digital interface into a story involves addressing both narrative and technical challenges. On the narrative level, we need to consider:

  • How to delimit the story. With complex, ongoing stories it can be hard to identify the start or end of a story. The web is littered with platforms and projects that simply fade away or cease to be updated, without a clear point of closing.
  • Different layers of engagment for different levels of interest. Allowing a reader to enter the story at different points, whether for a quick overview or to explore a story in depth.
  • Navigation and discovery features. Storytelling platforms and projects use many search and discovery protocols, drawing on images, tags, maps and different archive structures. These influence how readers will find a way into the story.

There are also technical issues to overcome. With hosted tools available for collating and organising content their stabilty is in question over the long term. If such platforms shut down or make backward incompatible upgrades, a well curated story can quickly fall apart. It’s important to consider the reliability of platform and plugins,so the story doesn’t break and/or need endless maintenance. We also wanted to consider how a story interface could be kept lightweight in terms of bandwidth and load time, and could function well for a range of different kinds of stories.

Digging in: tactics

We took a number of approaches to look at how interfaces and routes into the story might be created – quickly iterating through a variety of different tools.

Experiment 1: WordPress, Auto-tagging and Impress.js

First up, we grabbed a collection of the Global Voices blog posts related to Shahbag as an RSS feed.

Because Special Features in the site are not currently collected together in any particular tag or category (the curation takes place by adding links to the Special Coverage post) we used RSS feed output from the search for this. (Tip: To fetch the second page of search results on the feed add /page/2/ to the wordpress URL such as in

Using the RSS Import module in a install (Note: own server needed) we set up a copy of all the Shahbag posts in an environment where we could experiment with them.

We first tried using the Impress.js WordPress Plugin to see if we could display posts in a more dynamic and interactive way. It quickly became clear that we’d need to spend a lot more time learning to use the plugin and potentially adapting it for our needs. Knowing another group were experimenting with impress.js we moved on.

We next tested whether automatically applied tags might provide a way into the story – adding to the manual categories that Global Voices already gives to stories. For this we used wordpress plugins which runs post text through Open Calais – a natural language processing tool from Thomson Reuters that identifies people, places and themes within text. The result was an ability to drill down into posts by many more tags and categories, but the set of tags were shaped by the entities already in Thomson Reuters knowledge base. We wanted to compare these tags with the Global Voices curated categories, but found these had not imported properly through the RSS feed.

At this point, we took a step back from Experiment #1 to head back to the whiteboard and think about how we wanted to display posts, and whether the autotagging was really supporting that.

Experiment 2: Filtered post list

We began to explore a simple idea to allow users to reorder posts based on their own interests. Global Voices special coverage pages currently show newest posts first. For a new reader, reading oldest the newest might be more natural. In the current listing, different themes within the story are not brought to the surface. So – looking at interfaces like shuffle we started to think about the different themes and threads within the #Shahbag narrative.

Ideally these might be captured within WordPress, but by this point we’d switched to a handcoded approach to get a prototype ready for the end of the day. We made an abortive attempt to scrape data from the Global Voices site using (to get at the author names and key images for each post which are included in the RSS feeds). We then fired up a Google Spreadsheet to manually add extra annotations to each of the posts, including thematic classification, key images and author details. Then, on a mirrored copy of a Global Voices page (grabbed using wget) we used this information to update the web page mark-up to show featured images and headlines rather than just straight post listings. With jQuery it was possible to then add interactivity, so that a reader could pick a theme, and just see the posts related to that them, either in reverse or forward chronological order.

Building on this, we also started to explore how showing all the posts from a given author might provide a route into the stories – displaying the authors profile picture against each story.


We made progress in thinking about how to build an architecture that allow users to order a series of stories for themselves, based on their interest and prior familiarity. The core idea is to encourage localized search paths within a landing page for the story, controlled by the reader. The goal for the design is to ease entry into complex stories, but be lightweight and functional within a WordPress or other popular CMS platform. The procedure we designed will reorder the content on the page based on different functions, such as timelines, themes, characters, and media types, employing a simple tagging structure. More advanced implementations might allow multiple category sorting, a dynamic visualization of categories along a timeline, a sorting of images from relevant databases based on categories, or tagging images and stories by geolocation, using maps as interfaces. Another alternative might be to allow internal search based on natural language processing tools such as Calais.

This event will hopefully be the first of several in which we will explore different paths and processes in the building of online stories. Other participants have posted their reflections as well, including some thoughts from Matthew Battles on the Metalab site and Heather Craig on the Center for Civic Media blog.

The Digital Edge – Nominet Trust announce new funding challenge

[Summary: New funding opportunity from Nominet Trust, shaped by messages from the Digital Technology and Youth Engagement exploration]

The Nominet Trust have just announced a new £2m funding challenge focussed on support for young people. Here is how they describe it:

Nominet Trust is launching a programme of social investment to address the challenges faced by young people in participating socially and economically with their communities. This call for applications aims to seek out new approaches to using digital technology that re-design ways of supporting young people. We’re looking to invest in partners and ideas that address the challenges we have identified, and look forward to working with you to do so

A number of the areas of interest in the challenge have been shaped through the Digital Technology and Youth Engagement exploration which David Wilcox, Alex Farrow and I have been working on for Nominet Trust over April and May: seeking out key messages on opportunities and approaches for digital technology to be used supporting young people’s economic and social engagement in communities. The four areas the challenge looks to address (headings are from Nominet, reflections are my own) are:

  • Digging deeper into the problems and addressing the root causes going beyond surface solutions to find new spaces for effective innovation. Our exploration highlighted the plural ‘causes’ is important: there is often not one root cause to be addressed, but a diversity of issues needing a diversity of approaches. Roots spread out underground, so as we dig we need to explore multiple pathways and many spaces for innovation.

  • Exploring the changing landscape and the nature of engagementMany of the models for youth engagement, or offering support to young adults, were developed in a pre-Internet era and haven’t really been updated, save from digitizing a few processes here and there. Looking at how digital technology has changed the context of young people’s lives (whilst many of the concerns of youth and young adulthood remain pretty consistent) can highlight opportunities for new forms of support and social and economic engagement for young people – not driven primarily by a desire to save money or streamline, but by an interest in making engagement more effective in an Internet age.

  • Renegotiating professional practiceI’m really happy to see this element in the challenge, as it provides a great opportunity for practitioners in Youth Work, Community Development and other youth-supporting professions to put forward projects that start from their professional values, but consider how these can be applied in new contexts. In a recent digital youth work workshop in Helsinki with Verke, CFDP and YouthPart, we started to sketch out a shared understanding of Digital Youth Work that started to consider what a renegotiation of youth work practice could involve, drafting the description below:

The Internet is playing a powerful role in shaping the lives of young people today: as a source of information, as a social space, and as a key part of everyday life. Youth work is a process of engagement with young people, supporting young people to make positive choices and shape their own futures, and to actively participate in communities and societies. Digital youth work is values-led practice working with young people that takes account of the digital dimensions of young people’s lives. It might be delivered through digital tools, using online environments or mobile communication; it might blend together physical and digital communication and collaboration; or it might take place face-to-face, but aware of and addressing issues raised by the digital world. 

The ethical values of digital youth work are rooted in voluntary engagement, empowering young people, and working from the interests, needs and concerns of young people. Digital youth work is necessarily a multi-professional field, involving a range of existing practitioners, and requiring us to develop new forms of practice and new roles. Digital youth work include specific online services (for example youth counseling delivered by professional adults), as well as facilitated peer-to-peer learning and engagement.

Digital youth work is a key part of supporting young people’s digital citizenship and securing the rights of everyone to participate fully in contemporary everyday life and its environments. 

The renegotiating professional practice element of the Nominet Trust challenge invites proposals that “support different professions… [to] test out and learn new approaches for engaging with young people?”, and there is real potential here for some action learning in different professional fields to feed back into scaleable change in the way support and engagement opportunities for young people work.

  • New forms of employment and rewardI like to think of this last element of the challenge as creating the space for some more radical rethinking of solutions to the current economic crisis. Although the challenge is a little narrower than the ‘Consider the livelihoods of the future’ message in the Provocation Paper (PDF), in getting beyond the idea that ‘economic engagement’ means getting into a full time job, and thinking about “ how we [prepare] young people to secure a decent living, and to be able to make positive choices about how they use their time, talents and resources”, there is hopefully space here for innovations that challenge a work-consumption treadmill, and explore with young people the social, as well as economic value, of work.

I’m looking forward to seeing the ideas and innovations that result from the challenge. The first deadline for Phase 1 proposals is 1st August, and support is available ranging from £2,500 up to over £250,000 for larger projects. So – head over to the Nominet Trust site to find out more and think about putting forward your project ideas…


Exploring how digital technology can support young people to engage socially and economically in their communities

[Summary: launching an open research project to find key messages for youth-focussed digital innovation]

Over the coming months I’ll be sharing a series of blog posts linked to a project I’m working on with David Wilcox and Alex Farrow for Nominet Trust, developing a number of key messages on how digital technologies can be used to support young people to engage socially and economically in their communities. It’s a project we would love to get your input into…

Here’s where we are starting from:

“The race is on to re-engage young people in building an inclusive, healthier, more equal and economically viable society.

But changing times need fresh thinking and new solutions.  It is essential that we find new, more effective approaches to addressing these persistent social and economic challenges.   

Digital technology offers all of us the opportunity to engage young people in new, more meaningful and relevant ways and enable their participation in building a more resilient society.

We recognise that there is no single solution; many different strategies are needed to support young people. What is going to work?  ”

Between now and mid-May we’re going to be working up a series of key messages for innovators exploring the digital dimension of work with young people (you can input into this draft messages in this document before 12th April), and then taking a ‘social reporting’ approach to curate key social media and online content that helps unpack what those messages might mean in practice.

Digital dimensions of innovation

So many digital innovation projects essentially work by either taking a social challenge, and bolting a digital tool onto it; or taking a digital tool, and bolting on a social issue it might deal with. But digital innovation can be about more than tools and platforms: it can be about seeing how digital communication impacts upon the methods of organizing and the sorts of activities that make sense in contemporary communities. We’re looking for the messages that work from a recognition of the shared space between digital innovation and social change.

For example, back in the Youth Work and Social Networking report (PDF) we explored how, now that digital technologies means young people are in almost constant contact with peer-groups through SMS, social networking and instant messaging, ideas of informal education based solely on an isolated two or three hours a week of face-to-face contact seem outdated. But the solution isn’t just for youth workers to pick up and use social network sites as a venue for existing forms of practice (as a number of ‘virtual youth centre’ projects quickly discovered). Instead, by going back to youth work values, practitioners can identify the new forms of practice and interaction that are possible in the digital world.

And digital innovations to support youth engagement in employment, enterprise and community action might not just involve changing the way services are delivered to young people. A post from Jonathan Ward this morning on the Guardian’s Service Delivery Hub highlights how many of the institutions of localism such as local strategic partnerships, neighborhood planning groups, and localism forums are inaccessible to young people who “are often too busy with family and work commitments to take part in the business of localism”. We could take an approach of bolting-on digital technologies for young people to input into local fora: setting up Facebook groups or online spaces to discuss planning, with someone feeding this into regular face-to-face meetings. But on it’s own this isn’t terribly empowering. Instead, we might explore what tools what would make the processes of neighborhood in general planning more open to youth input, and look at how digital technology can not only allow consultation with young people, but can shift the structures of decision making so that online input is as valued and important as the input of those with the time to turn up to a face-to-face meeting.

Get involved

Between now and April 12th we’re inviting input into the key messages that we should develop further. You can drop ideas into the comments below, or direct into the open document where we’re drafting ideas here. After April 12th, we’ll start working up a selection of the messages and searching out the social media and other online content that can illuminate what these messages might mean in practice.

As we work through our exploration, we’ll be blogging and tweeting reflections, and all the replies and responses we get will be fed into the process.

At the start of June the results of the process will hopefully be published as a paper and online resource to support Nominet Trust’s latest call for proposals.

Reflections: Blended facilitation at Commonwealth Young Professionals Forum

[Summary: Reflective learning from an experience of blended facilitation at Commonwealth Local Government Young Professionals Forum]

I spent two fascinating days yesterday and Sunday with the Commonwealth Local Government Young Professionals Forum. It’s the first time that an event focussed on engaging under 35s (youth in Commonwealth contexts has a slightly broader definition than most contexts I’m used to working in…) has been organized alongside the main Commwealth Local Government Forum, which brings together 100s of delegates from local politics and government administrations. The main focus of the smaller (about 60 of us) Young Professionals Forum (#cypf11 on Twitter) was to draw out from discussions a series of recommendations to make to the main forum, sharing a young adult voice on issues of local economic development and on youth participation.

Below are some brief reflections on two parts of the process I was involved in working on…

1) Social media orientation & encouraging social reporting

On the Sunday afternoon at the start of the forum we ran a short session introducing the Ning network set up for the event, and offering people quick opportunities to think about different social media tools that could be used for social reporting the event. I ran through posting blog posts and photos to the online network; gave an overview of how twitter could be used at events; and talked about vox-pop style video interviews. Everyone was encouraged to use their own equipment for social reporting; although as not everyone had devices available in the session we had a few practice/interactive activities that didn’t need technology there.

The first, asking people to think about the headline of a blog post they might write during or after the forum, generated some really good ideas – and the suggested headlines that delegates shared revealed a lot about their interests and aims for the event (e.g. ‘Best practices in youth entrepreneurship’, or imagining the post they would like to write after the forum ‘Local Government Forum accepts youth recommendations’).

The second activity, inviting people to practice vox-pop style interviewing of a partner sitting with them, also got people talking and sharing ideas for the event (and felt very similar to a standard ice-breaker, albeit with the addition of getting people’s permission to record them, and trying to manage a camera whilst talking).

On reflection:

  • A number of delegates commented on the usefulness of a social media introduction. Whilst almost all the young professionals taking part were familiar with blogging, and many had twitter accounts etc., many had not considered how to use these effectively in a conference context (for example, the use of tagging or hash-tags on Twitter was new to a number of people). Given digital communication and sharing messages online can be a key advocacy tool for the messages coming from the forum, a half-hour spent pointing to how digital tools could be used seemed to be useful investment of time.
  • Even with a good introduction, social reporting still needs facilitating. I switched my attention to the real-time collaboration, and running an afternoon workshop on open data in the commonwealth, and hadn’t formed a dedicated social reporting team. As delegates also got more involved in recommendations drafting, social media activity started to drop off and potentially a lot of stories and case studies that would have been useful to digitally share may have been missed.
  • My main take-away is to explore how the social media introduction could be integrated with ice-breakers and introductions. The blog post activity could be combined effectively with an expectation or aim-setting activity; and the vox-pop practice with an ice-breaker. Sometime to try next time…

2) Real-time collaboration for statement drafting

The process of drafting a text (statements or recommendations) from an international youth fora is an interesting one. Delegates vary in their experience of political processes, in the backgrounds they come from, and in the degree to which they are present representing a specific group or constituency – either by virtue of a formal mandate (e.g. elected youth representatives; leaders of organizations or networks), or informally adopting a representative role – or to which they solely represent and feed their own views into the process. Bringing together diverse views and voices into a text which can potentially influence policy making, and be used as an advocacy tool, is practically challenging.

There are all sorts of general process issues to be addressed in statement drafting (for example, the way in which processes generally start with a blank sheet of paper, rather than seeking to build on past statements), but one practical one we tried to address at CLGF was the process of typing up the statement itself. I’ve sat in a youth hostel late into the night before along with about 20 other people crowded round a laptop quibbling over phrases and wordings, all whilst one person: the person at the keyboard, acts as facilitator and gatekeeper of the document. At CLGF, instead of typing into documents on individual laptops, we took advantage of Cardiff City Hall’s free Wifi to get everyone typing into Google Documents – made public for anyone to edit – but with a rapporteur in each working group taking main responsibility for typing up their notes. As we moved from individual thematic working groups generating ideas, to the process of drafting a final statement, we moved into one single shared document to edit.

It might be a bit premature to assess how the process has worked, as I’m writing this as the second day of CYPF is starting (alas I’ve had to leave early) and there is still work to be done on the statement – but the process raised a number of interesting learning points.

Some reflections:

  • From one laptop the facilitation team were able to get an overview of the points emerging from different groups by looking at all the different docs, and to point out overlaps – either adding notes into the Google documents – or going to talk to specific groups (spread out in different parts of the room / different rooms) to suggest making connections with another group on a particular point.
  • We could use that access to the developing drafts to visualise emerging themes. For example, at lunchtime I put together Wordles of the drafts which a number of delegates noted were useful in getting a sense of the discussions and record being generated.
  • Whilst allowing multiple editors changes the power dynamic associated with one person at a keyboard – by allowing anyone with an Internet access device in a group to directly clarify and update notes – one delegate pointed out that it can lead to (a) some people being left out, as screens become personal again rather than shared; (b) people making edits direct without discussing them – missing on opportunities for dialogue across the table (this matches my experience of sitting in silence at IGF10 drafting a statement in etherpad with a number of other delegates – all the interaction taking place in chat and on the text directly).One practice way to address some of this may be to try and project each document up on a shared screen as well – and to think about having different ‘editing policies’ (possibly enforced with the document sharing settings) for different stages of the process (e.g. during initial idea creation anyone can add anything; during refining thematic papers edits should be discussed; during final changes to a statement, all changes should be approved by the group before being made to the text).
  • The documents we were using were set so that anyone in theory could access, read and edit them – even if not at the forum. This was mainly for ease (no need to get people’s e-mail addresses to share the document with them), but also seems to me to be a good thing – potentially enabling more enhanced participation and allowing expertise and ideas to be brought in from across the world – regardless of people’s ability to travel to the conference. We didn’t exploit this possibility – and how it could fit into the general processes of statement drafting would need more thought – but it’s an exciting one.
  • The cost (or lack of) Internet access in hotels is still a big barrier to this process. I was able to set up a MiFi to allow a couple of people back at the hotel to carry on working on the draft, but a lack of affordable WiFi suddenly limited the breadth of possible collaboration.

Seeing how quickly and easily delegates adopted real-time collaborative documents for drafting in a general conference (I was wondering if the YCIG experience was unique to a technology conference), I’m keen to spend more time looking at effective and empowering facilitation techniques in this space – and to see how the process could be developed more.

Diplomacy labs

We’ve only scratched the surface of how digital tools can transform youth fora, and other international gatherings. However, the ingredients of a transformed way of doing business are coming together: remote (or enhanced) participation; understanding the digital record as a fundamental vehicle for driving outcomes of an event and real-time collaboration tools. I certainly hope institutions like CLGF, CYPG and the upcoming Commonwealth Youth Forum in Australia in October take up the challenge of innovating and living out the common conference platform claim that “we need to change the way politics is done”.


Update: Photo Credit to Dan from A-Leap (fab participation, youth and learning people in Wales) for the picture in this post.

Digital Futures – Trends in Technology, Youth and Policy

[Summary: What technologies will affect services for young people in 2011? Presentation, worksheet and reflections on a workshop]

I’ve read a lot of blog posts and watched a lot of presentations about technology trends, and future technologies that everyone needs to be aware of – but they can often feel pretty distant from the reality of frontline public services trying to make sense of how new technologies affect their work. So when I was offered the opportunity to run a workshop on ‘digital futures’ at the children’s services conference of a national children’s charity, right at the start of 2011, I thought it would provide an interesting opportunity to explore different ways of talking about and making sense of technology trends.

Continue reading “Digital Futures – Trends in Technology, Youth and Policy”

Youth Social Networking – myths and realities…

[Summary: Extract from an article exploring how online social networks have become part of the landscape of many young people’s lives]

I was recently asked to write an article for the United Nations Interregional Crime and Justice Research Institute (UNICRI)’s Freedom From Fear magazine on young people’s engagement with social network sites. You can find the full article over here, which outlines some of the history and wider context of social networks, but, following a kind tweet from Noel Hatch, I thought it might be worth reproducing on particular section below: a section inspired by my experience at the 2010 Internet Governance Forum when I heard strong versions of each of the statements in bold below used as core premises in arguments about aspects of Internet policy, rarely countered by more balanced assessments of whether these statements really held up as valid generalisations.

Opportunities and risks: Myths and realities

(Taken from F3 Magazine, Connected Generation: Young People and Social Networks)

The challenge in thinking about the impacts of social networks is to cut through reactions based on unfamiliarity or fear, to identify the risks and opportunities they create and, equally as important, the changes that new technologies make to the background conditions of what constitutes a viable policy response to any concerns that they do give rise to.

So what of the different concerns. Are these myths or reality?

– Young people are wasting time on social networks. Many young people can certainly end up spending a lot of time on social networks, though often this is multi-tasking time, doing other things as well as being online or linked to a network by phone. Some young people do identify that they want to spend less time in front of Facebook, or on a particular network. Howard Rheingold has written of the importance of helping young people develop ‘attention literacy’ to know when to tune out from the flow of conversation in online networks and to focus on other tasks. The Digital Youth report noted that time spent with digital media can be effective informal learning time, and many young people will explain that they were using SNS to get help from friends with projects or homework or even using networks to help them find employment.

– Young people don’t believe in privacy and are over-sharing. The 10 billion photos and thousands of status updates every minute on sites like Facebook show that SNS users share a lot of content about themselves online. Some have argued that this leads to the end of privacy. Whilst most social network sites offer some privacy features, users may leave their content open to anyone to view, and it can appear as if they do not care about privacy at all. danah boyd describes how much of this arises from individuals having an ‘imagined audience’ who they think are reading/engaging with their content – when the real audience may be quite different. However, danah also describes how many young people adopt sophisticated strategies to manage their privacy. There are both risks and benefits to new forms of SNS-enabled online transparency: risks of identity theft or of state surveillance of individuals are, for many, set against benefits of sharing in online communities, or being visible in ways that can bring better job prospects or other opportunities. Privacy isn’t dead; but it is constantly evolving.

– Social networks expose young people to dangerous ideas or groups. Undoubtedly the ability for anyone to publish content through social media spaces means there is a lot of negative and potentially harmful content available – and some young people do come across and engage with this content online. Gangs may use social networks to organise, and the way in which most networks only moderate or check content when it is reported to them as problematic means that a lot of harmful content can exist openly relatively undetected by authorities. But just because content is on YouTube or posted somewhere on Facebook, does not mean it is right in front of everyone – most young people never voyage far on a social network from the spaces where their friends are – but some undoubtedly may end up in more harmful ‘dark alleyways’ of the networks.

– Young people are at risk from sexual predators and abusive adults through SNS. There have been high-profile stories in a number of countries about cases of sexual abuse of young people facilitated by contact on social network sites. In sidelining adult gatekeepers, social networks can facilitate contact between young people and abusive adults – although the absolute number of cases of Internet-mediated harm is small in comparison to the number of young people abused by adults known to them from their family or local community. Research from the Crimes Against Children Research Centre in the United States(11) suggests that those vulnerable to online abuse are often the young people with existing vulnerabilities offline too.

One simple way of understanding SNS is as ‘amplifiers’. They can amplify the opportunities available to young people with existing positive connections and opportunities; but they can also amplify the vulnerabilities of the vulnerable. Offering vulnerable and disadvantaged young people support to develop the skills to get the most out of online social networking may turn out to be an important role for those who work with them.

Returning to the earlier metaphor of SNS as new public squares (or, to extend the metaphor, whole towns with public and private spaces), they do present some particular policy challenges. Most social networks services are privately owned by companies with commercial goals for the networks – they are ‘privatized public space’. They are also global spaces, making it difficult for national norms of regulations to be applied to them. That is why innovations in governance remain a pressing issue, and a topic that has been discussed at The Internet Governance Forum over recent years, including by the Youth Coalition on Internet Governance.

What do you think about these suggested myths and realities? Do they match with your experience or insights? What other common perceptions about social networks need to be explored in more depth?

Young people, activism & the web: Speaking Out in a Connected World

[Summary: Sharing slides and notes from a children’s sector conference presentation]

I was speaking earlier today at the Children England & NCVYS ‘Speaking Out’ conference on the topic of ‘young people, activism and the web’. The conference was predominantly attended by staff from third-sector organisations providing frontline services for children, young people and families, so I tried (not entirely successfully in a short slot…) to cover a mix of examples of youth-led use of the web in campaigning at the national level, and some practical steps that organisations, who may not be campaigning organisations, can take to make the most of the web to engage with young people and get their voices heard.

A slightly adapted version of the slides can be seen via slideshare below, and I’ve tried to write up some notes with links to relevant resources as well.

Notes and Links

I started planning the presentation by posing the question “How can young people use the web in activism?”, which pretty quickly, as I turned to watch a Twitter stream full of tweeting from the University College London students occupying their University, making extensive use of different digital media challenges to get their message out, and with members of UK Youth Climate Coalition celebrating their success keeping Chris Hune at the climate negotiations in Cancun by mobilising hundreds of people by e-mail, Facebook and Twitter to flood the Number 10 switchboard with calls, that the question was really “How can they not?”. The web is right at the heart of much modern youth action – and yet so many organisations still struggle to engage with online spaces.

As I put together the next slides, however, I was quickly reminded that the web alone doth not change create. Earlier this year I came across a Facebook group set up by young people campaigning against the use of Mosquito sonic weapons against young people in Barnsley, and I fired up Facebook to grab a screenshot of this today’s presentation – hoping I would see stacks of campaign updates. Yet the Facebook group, which when launched had quickly accelerated to over 700 members, was standing stagnant, the top updates as spam, and apparently no real action having been taken further engage and mobilise the young members of the group. So whilst young people may turn to social media tools when they’ve causes to campaign on, and they may have the know-how to set up Facebook groups and YouTube channels, the skills, support and connections needed to campaign effectively remain as vital as ever. As the Young Foundation put it, many young people are plugged in, but with their digital skills untapped.

Resources like Act by Right (and the great Act by Right on Climate Change remix by Alex Farrow), the Battlefront campaign toolkit, and a wealth of web pages about campaigning with the web, can provide some of those skills through the web itself – but there is also a need for youth organisations to work directly with young people to support the development of critical campaigning skills. Just before I spoke today, John Not, General Secretary of the Woodcraft folk, gave a last-minute presentation and shared the inspiring work they are doing to offer support to young people who are passionately campaigning right now on the issue of University Fees, demonstrating some great leadership on how organisations can provide responsible backing to youth-led action.

Helping young people to make connections with decision makers, through sites like and, with the press, through the leverage that organisations might have, and with other campaigners, through spaces like TakingItGlobal and Battlefront is also a key role that adults can play in supporting young people to use the web for positive activism. There is also a need for organisations to think about how they support young people to make safe and effective use of the web in campaigning.

Many organisations, however, might not see their role as supporting general youth-led activism, but there are still many ways digital tools can support the delivery of participative practice. Online spaces can help organisations to engage young people, to communicate and co-ordinate, and to amplify their practice; and to ensure that young people’s views and insights on key aspects of a service, or key local issues, are heard and valued in decision making.

In thinking about how to engage with young people online it’s important to understand the different ways young people use the web and to think about whether a project is trying to engage young people who are already into an issue, or whether it’s trying to attract attention of those who are predominantly ‘hanging out’ online – spending time with friends and paying little attention to organisations and issues in the digital space. Good engagement also starts by listening (I mentioned Google Alerts as one handy digital listening tool, but there are many more), and starts from where young people are, whilst seeking to support young people to move beyond their starting point (a theme I initially developed in talking about youth work values and social media in the Youth Work & Social Networking report (PDF)).

Using online spaces to communicate involves finding the right tools for each job, and, finding out the right ways to use them. For example, Facebook profiles, groups and pages look very similar – but offer nuanced different ways of communicating with young people and creating online community. Quite a few of the practicalities of using different social media tools for youth engagement, including issues around organisational policy and safety concerns are covered in the ‘Social Media Youth Participation in Local Democracy’ report and in posts on Youth Work Online.

I ended today’s presentation by taking a look at three big policy agendas which have a digital edge to them, and trying to relate each to a critical question for organisations working with young people – but the full articulation of each of those I think will have to wait for a future blog post…

Further links
For those who were at the conference, and have made it reading this far without being overwhelmed by lots of links (and for anyone interested), a few more bits that might be of interest:

Social Media Youth Participation in Local Democracy for download

A few people have asked be recently for copies of the Social Media Youth Participation in Local Democracy resource I worked on with LGIU out of a practitioners action learning set last year. You can get hold of a print copy from the LGIU direct, or a PDF is available for download below or for viewing on Scribd.

The guide contains four sections:

  • What’s it all about? – giving an overview of key concepts
    • Youth participation
    • Social network sites
    • Participation and social network sites
    • How are young people using social network sites?
    • Why use social networks to involve young people?
    • Making the case for using social network sites in youth participation
  • Practice – drawing on learning from practitioners across 20 different organisations
    • Principles and values
    • Strategy
    • Safety
    • Measuring impact
  • Resources – highlighting practical tools and technologies that can be used
    • Three key concepts
    • Listening dashboards
    • Facebook
    • Bebo
    • Ning
    • Blogging
    • Video sharing and YouTube
  • Find out more – signposting to further support
    • Online communities
    • Practical guides
    • Toolkits

It’s a sign of the pace of change in social technology that this report, written back in mid 2009, includes detailed sections on engagement on Bebo, which has virtually disappeared as a platform used by young people. However, much of the rest of the content remains as relevant as ever – with case study sections such as the ‘Social Networking for Young People in Care’ section of increasing interest as Children in Care Councils and other groups look towards advocacy and empowerment when resources are reducing.

Download: Social media and youth participation in local democracy (PDF)

Social Media and Youth Participation in Local Democracy

Social reporting & sense-making a summit: IGF2010

Tomorrow the 5th Internet Governance Forum begins in full and if last year is anything to go by there will be a lot of social media buzz around. Last year I was supporting a group of young people and Diplo Foundation fellows to be social reporters at the event – using blogs, twitter and video cameras to capture and share discussions. This year, the focus in on trying to make sense of the event amidst a sometimes chaotic event and overwhelming amount of content.

We’re planning on doing that in three ways:

  • Training social reporters  – the training for social reporters this year is focussed far more on creating summary reports than on adding to the noise of IGF. You can find the 2010 Social Reporters Handbook here.

  • Engage Remotely, Connect Locally – The Internet Governance Forum has an amazing distributed participation infrastructure which means people are joining in session from right across the world (over 30 remote hubs are registered!), logging into WebCasts and chats, and able to send questions into the physical sessions.

    As Ginger explains participants connecting via the WebCast can bring a new set of perspectives to reporting of what has gone on – able to monitor multiple workshops and to more easily track-back over transcripts and notes. However, it can be tricky for remote participants to ask follow up questions to speakers outside sessions, or to catch the mood of the event from the conversations in the corridors.

    So: we’re going to experiment with creating small teams following particular themes – made up partly of people following the WebCast form their own countries, and partly of social reporters physically at the IGF. These groups will be able to work together on creating reports of sessions, and summaries of key issues relating to the IGF themes.

    The process will raise some interesting questions about how to integrate online and offline participation in an event – and already a number of ideas around specific language reporting are emerging.

  • Social Reporting Aggregator – I spend a lot of last week messing around in the innards of a Drupal install to build a ‘Social Reporting Aggregator’ which is capturing all the Twitter messages around IGF (at least those tagged #igf10) and as many blog posts and video clips as I can track down.

    All this social media is aggregated in near real-time, and using various APIs and tag-extraction is categorised and has meta-data attached to it. I’ve scraped a copy of the IGF Timetable and used that to build a hierarchical taxonomy of sessions onto which particular tags and categories can be attached. All of which means it should be possible to present back most of the social media discussions around a specific session, or around a theme.

    You can see an example from the Association for Progressive Communications (APC) pre-meeting on Human Rights in Internet Governance on this page.

    The aggregator has been surprisingly good so far at extracting relevant tags from blog posts (E.g. Just by moving a few theme tags (net neutrality; net-neutrality; neutrality) to sit in the taxonomy structure under their related workshop I can bring together blog posts on a workshop topic that I would never have found otherwise). However, when it comes to Tweets the experiments I’ve tried show automatic extraction of key tags doesn’t get very far. Instead, for the aggregator to work well, groups will need to make use of hash-tags.

    In this handout which will be on the Diplo stand at IGF I’ve suggested a pattern for tagging workshop content (and the aggregator is configured to work with this), but as @apisanty has already said “hasthtags are not dictated from above, they rise from crowdsourcing”.

    If sessions settle by crowdsourcing on a different tag from that in the handout, this is not a problem (as long as I spot it!) as the platform can have multiple ‘tags’ against any session. However, I observed with the APC today that adding an extra ‘session tag’ to the ‘event tag’ was only common practice amongst some twitter users. How far to encourage such a practice, or how much just to sit back and watch whether it emerges (and cope if it doesn’t) is going to be an interesting question for the aggregation strand of social reporting.

    I’ve experimented with adding light-structures to social reporting platforms before, but never with an event so big and diverse (and where it’s impossible to get anywhere near to reading all the content being generated), so how the aggregator works and develops I will be interested to see.

How any of this plays out and what issues come up is yet to see. However, seeing how distributed participation in the IGF has developed over recent years to become embedded in the event – transforming in the process how a UN conference works and blazing a trail for new models of working – I’m pretty excited (though also very nervous) about what we might achieve!

#igf10 #socialreporting

Resources for exploring social media participation

[Summary: a quick linking list of social media & youth engagement resources, cross-posted from Youth Work Online]

I’ve just been running a short session at a meeting of the South East Participation Project around how different social media and social network sites can be used in youth participation. The session gave me an opportunity to put together some new slides and a list of resources capturing learning from recent projects about the need to look at more than just Social Network Sites – but to think about how a wide repertoire of tools and online facilitation approaches are brought together to support engagement and inclusion. You can view the slides below (may not make massive sense without the speaking with them – but hopefully give some insights) or scroll on for a list of links and resources.

We discussed a wide range of resources in the session, some of which I’ve tried to capture links to below.

Online tools

Video-making tools: powerful for ‘context-setting’ (explaining a participation opportunity); promoting projects; and as a way of capturing young people’s views and getting voices heard.

Useful links: Shared Practice Through Video guide; Example of video to promote projects; Discussion on using video; Suggested kit-list with cameras;

Survey tools: you can link people to online surveys – or some surveys can be embedded within Facebook and blogs to get structured input from young people. Think carefully about the design of online surveys.

Useful links: SurveyMonkey for online polls; Look for Poll and Voting applications to add to a Facebook page; SMSPoll for text-message surveys; Practical Participation can offer support designing and hosting online surveys; Google Forms also offers a free and effective way to create quick survey forms.

Online mapping tools: to communicate information, or for campaigning.

Useful links: the MyMaps feature on Google Maps (see the one page guide here) can be used for collaborative map making; Google Sketch Up can be used to make 3D models for Google earth; OpenStreetMap can generate free maps of your area for printing & working with; TacticalTech on Maptivism

Collaboration tools: for group work across distance.

Useful links: iEtherPad offers a quick-to-set-up places to collaborative write a document in real-time. Google Documents allows a group to all share and collaborate on spreadsheet(e.g. Budgets) or other documents. Zoho collaborative docs and Huddle collaboration space both have Facebook applications that let you create a ‘virtual office’ within Facebook for a project.

Social Network Sites can be the hub for many engagement projects. They provide a space to connect with young people; to share media from other tools; to promote opportunities to engage; to campaign for change and more.

Some local areas will have private ‘social networking spaces’ within the local authority or schools – such as SuperClubsPlus or RadioWaves which practitioners may wish to explore as environments to work with. If exploring engagement in the wider environment of existing social network sites then more links are below.

Working with social network sites:
There are many resources to help practitioners explore the use of social network sites such as Facebook. The following were mentioned in the workshop:

On e-safety issues take a look at The Byron Review for the wider context, and resources from ChildNet such as Digizen.
For those exploring the development of applications Safe and Effective Social Network Site Applications might also be of interest.
If you have young people interested in Internet governance issues – check out the HuWY project.

Taking it further
The Youth Work Online network and the Network Participation networks are places to explore these issues more.