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 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.)

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

Social Reporting the Internet Governance Forum: Multiple Knowledges

Social Reporting in the Youth Corner
Social Reporting in the Youth Corner

I’ve just come back from a fascinating five days working with a team of young Egyptians and fellows of the Diplo Internet Governance Capacity Building Programme at the 2009 Internet Governance Forum (IGF). Amongst other things, one of the key things I was up to, working with Pete Cranston and Dejan Dincic, was training and supporting the youth team and Diplo fellows to use various digital online tools to ‘social report’ the IGF. The work was funded IKM Emergent – a project focussed on new perspectives on Knowledge Management (KM), particularly looking at ‘multiple knowledges‘.

In the process of working with a diverse international group at an incredibly diverse and complex event, we gained many insights into social reporting for multiple knowledges – and I’ve tried to unpack some of my reflections and learning below:

Social Reporting for multiple knowledges
One of the great transformations brought about by online digital media is that just about anyone can now create and share rich media to offer their own view of events or issues – and this media can be published where many of the worlds population with an Internet connection will be able to see it. As Deirdre from St Lucia pointed out, it’s not long ago that getting more than one news channel’s coverage of even major events was near impossible.

The main sessions of IGF09 were well recorded, with UN Webcasting in video or audio from every session or workshop, and live transcripts of many sessions available. Formal write-ups of each session will be available in due course. However, with social reporting our goal was not to duplicate these formal records of the event, but was to offer each participant, and particularly the youth team and Diplo fellows (henceforth referred to as ‘the social reporting team’), the chance to report on elements of the event of interest to them. And to do that, we were using simple, near-instant, online social media tools.

The idea of multiple knowledges is of course a complex one, and has many layers – but at IGF09 our core focus was on just one element – supporting the capture and sharing of different perspectives on the event from different actors in the event.

Reflection 1: Train in techniques, as well as tools

Few of the social reporting team we were working with had used twitter, online video or blogging before as a reporting tool. Before the IGF got started, Pete & Dejan ran a short afternoon’s training with some of the social reporting team, explaining how tools like Twitter worked, encouraging team members to sign up for accounts, and getting particpants to practice using Flip camera digital video recorders. They also introduced the team to the Social Reporting at the IGF handbook we had prepared.

However, whilst the handbook does offer a short introduction to the concept of social reporting itself, and mentions a few practical techniques for video interviews, it was only later in the week that we started to do more to demonstrate different techniques and to talk about ‘conceptual tools’ for creating social reporting content.

For example, the five interesting things about approach can be a very good technique to help new bloggers move away from replicating a ‘list of things that happened’ in a session, to capture a ‘list of interesting elements’ or a ‘list of controversies’ for social reporting.

It would be worth exploring in more depth the range of different techniques (and templates) that can help new (and experienced) social reporters to capture multiple knowledges in their reporting – and to explore how best to train and equip social reporters to choose and use these approaches.

Reflection Two: Let reporters choose their tools – and then build up multi-tool use

Picture 41A social reporter who is comfortable with many different digital tools, and who is covering a particular conference theme, may start by sharing some insight or quotes from a session by Twitter. They may follow up by catching the panelist who the quote came from, and asking them to share more of their views in a short video interview. They may then upload that video interview, keeping a copy on their computer to edit into a later remix, and when the video is available to view online, they would use Twitter again to alert others to the fact it has been published, actively alerting (by using the @username convention) anyone who expressed an interest in the earlier twitter messages on this topic. Later in the day, when things are quieter, they may embed a screen-shot of the original tweet, and a copy of the video, into a blog post in which they draw out a key message from the video, and link to other blog posts and websites which relate to the topic under discussion.

But – getting from no use of social media tools and no experience of social reporting – to that sort of platform-hopping mixed-media reporting in just a few days is a tall order. In fact, rather than trying to get new social reporters to be platform-hopping from the start, a quick show-and-tell, or hands-on demo of the different tools available, followed by an invitation to each member of the social reporting team to choose which tools they want to explore first, or which they feel most comfortable with, seemed to generate far better results.

Reflection Three: It helps to know your audience

It’s tricky to write when you don’t know who you are writing for. It’s a lot easier to carry out a video interview when you have a sense of who might watch it. And it’s often easier to allow yourself to be present in your own reporting when you know your main audience will be a community you are part of. We all present ourselves differently to different audiences, and so to capture multiple knowleges, it can be useful for a social reporting team to think about multiple audiences.

We didn’t get much time to explore with our social reporting teams who they saw as the audience for the content they were creating, nor to think about the different spaces the content could be published or aggregated to in order to reach out to different audiences – but I have a sense this could be a valuable additional part of training and preparation for social reporting. At first we found all the reporting was talking place in English, but we encouraged our social reporters to create content in whatever language they felt most comfortable with, or that they felt was most appropriate for the content in question.

There were a number of ‘remote hubs’ following the IGF via the web cast, and participating in discussions through Skype and Webex, and in our debrief we’ve reflected on how it may be possible to pair social reporters up with geographical or thematic remote hubs – giving each reporting a strong connection with a specific audience.

Reflection Four: Quick clips cannot capture all knowledges

Quick Clips
Quick Clips

The Internet Governance Forum is a complex event. Not only does it deal with some complex issues (socially, technically and culturally), but it also is comprised of a vast array of actors, from governments and industry, to individuals and civil society. As a non-decision making body the spirit is neither of consensus, nor of conflict – and black and white statements of positions are rare. The presence of all different shades of opinion, and of the experience of actors from many different countries and contexts, appears to make IGF the idea place to explore multiple knowledges. Yet at the same time, the complexity of context and content makes capturing the multiple perspectives on IGF in ‘social media snippets’ a challenge.

In video reporting, the social reporters needs to have a reasonable domain-knowledge in order to be able to ask questions that illicit insights from interviewees. In quick twitter based reporting, capturing the most relevant points without reducing them to soundbites can be tricky – or can lead to only the most ‘tweetable’ and no neccessarily the most interesting or important ideas being shared. In blogging, the lack of definitive positions to ‘side with’ in writing up a session or theme can mean the social reporter needs to pick a path through many different subtlely different perspectives and to express them in text.

Reflection Five: When the event ends, then things are just getting started…

Screen Capture of NetVibes Aggregator
Screen Capture of NetVibes Aggregator

On the last day of the IGF I hastily put together this ‘Social Reporting after IGF’ handout for our teams – as we realised it was important to make sure that, for the social reporters, the end of IGF09 was not neccesarily the end of their use of social media tools to capture and share ideas. (I’ve also created a ‘Social Reporting’ group over on the Diplo Internet Governance network). Having invited many of the youth team, and the fellows from Diplo, to sign up with various online spaces, including Twitter, for the first time, we also had a reponsibility to make sure they were aware of the implications of continued use of these tools.

But ensuring new social reporters know how they can continue to use social media tools to capture content and create networks is only part of the legacy of social reporting at an event. With the creation of a significant amount of content, there is some obligation upon us to do something with it.

During the IGF we were using a public NetVibes page as an aggregator of all the content being published, but this does not act as a longer-term archive of the content, nor does it allow us much flexibility to curate and contextualise the content gathered.

So, over the coming weeks we’ll be thinking about ways to aggregate, archive and curate the content we gathered – and thinking about whether any content can continue to be used in useful ways over the coming year.

There is little point in equipping people with the skills to capture multiple knowledges, and going some of that capture, if the skills are left un-used in future, and the content captured and the knowledges it expresses disappear entirely into Internet obscurity.

I am sure there are many more reflections and learning points from other membes of the team – which they will undoubtedly share in due course.

To find out more about Diplo and the Internet Governance Forum visit: and

To find out more about Practical Participation – my work focussing on Youth Participation and Social Technologies visit

And to explore social reporting more in the context of IGF – please join the Diplo Internet Governance communitie’s Social Reporting group here:

Delete – The Virtue of Forgetting in a Digital Age

Delete - Virtue of Forgetting in a Digital Age[Summary: New book provides great discussion starters for youth groups on online content sharing and digital footprints]

Last week at the OII we were treated to an enchanting presentation by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger on his new book ‘Delete – The Virtue of Forgetting in a Digital Age‘. You can listen to an interview with Viktor talking about the book here.

The key thesis of the book is that, whilst in the past, forgetting was the default. Humans forget things. In a digital age, remembering is default. Computers, with cheap storage, can keep a copy of just about everything.

It is that new default, the default of remembering, that lies at the heart of many of the social challenges the Internet might present. The Facebook photos from teenage years that surface during job applications. The news report of a misdemeanour that appears top of Google searches for an individuals name, even though the midemenour took place years ago. The digital footprint that only grows and never shrinks. The comments on message boards that come back to haunt you.

This default of remembering is technical, legal and social: the technical choice of service providers to keep content indefinitely; the legal defaults that mean an individual can’t easily request information about them to be removed from what is now a very accessible public record (compare the news report indexed online and available with one click of a search button, to the news report which, though stil theoretically accessible years after being published only available on microfiche); and the social defaults of sharing content about other people without their consent, and of, as an individual, not going back to audit, and potentially remove some of, the content one has put online about oneself.

In ‘Delete’ Viktor explores a range of different responses that could move us back to a better equilibrium between ‘remembering’ and ‘forgetting’ – and at least one involves us each changing the way we think about keeping and deleting the digital content we are responsible for.

Youth work potential
‘Delete’ offers a great entry point into thinking about the Internet in youth work contexts. Not least

  • Using examples from ‘Delete’ to discuss online content with a youth group
    • Ask group members when they last deleted content online;
    • Ask if anyone has ever asked a friend to delete photos, videos or comments online;
    • Talk about whether the default should be remembering or forgetting, and what the pros and cons on each side are
  • Exploring your ‘Delete’ policy
    • If you use digital media with your youth groups, how long do you leave it online for?
    • How do you agree this with the group? Is it a discussion point?
    • Memories are not usually there one moment, gone the next – but they fade and become trickier to access over time. How can your archives fade, rather than be deleted? (For example, you might remove individual photos from a project website, but keep group photos after a set time; or you might replace full project details with a project summary on the web – but keep a digital copy of content in the project’s archives).

If you use ‘Delete’ as the basis for work with young people, make sure you share the story of what you did with others over on Youth Work Online.

Don’t Just Buy. Do. Reflections on Fair Trade Futures

[Summary: Reconnecting Fairtrade with activism, thinking about Fairtrade and data, and how social reporting can transform events]

The Fair Trade Futures conference that took place in Oxford on Saturday has been well reported and captured, but, before I head over to start tidying up and re-posting the fantastic content created by Amplified on the main Oxford Fairtrade website, I thought I would add just a few quick reflections on the day.

Don’t just buy. Do.
As inscribed upon a banana by @oxfordsing, this ‘slogan’ captures the tension at the heart of the Fairtrade movement right now, and a thread running throughout the day. As Fairtrade reaches the mainstream, the connection between Fairtrade and activism, and the importance of linking Fairtrade with Trade Justice can become dilluted. Fairtrade is about building ethics into purchasing decisions, but, it’s also about building ethics and justice into trading relationships. That was a point made well by People Tree founder Safia Minney who spoke of how we need to push companies to respect principles of Fairtrade throughout the production process, not just in the inputs they buy.

The challenge, for the Fairtrade movement, is being in the mainstream, being a set of standards, but also being the first step for people on a pathway to engagement with wider global issues.

Data, data everywhere
I spent a lot of the day in conversations about the digital dimensions of Fairtrade. After a morning including presentations from Dorothea and Ian of the Fair Tracing project, and inputs from Steve Bridger and Pete Cranson on social media and Fair Trade, we spent one of the afternoon open space sessions talking about ‘Fair Trade 2.0’.

Asides from discussions about how social media could lead to greater disinter-mediation of supply chains, we also discussed the transformation of trade as being ‘trade in stuff’, to being ‘trade in stuff + data’. That is, the move, led by retail giants like Wall Mart, to enable every individual product in a supply chain to be tracked from origin to consumption, with vast collections of data on products and customers collected and created. How does Fairtrade, which is in one sense, a very simple bit of data for consumers about the conditions in which a product was made, engage with this environment?

As firms may be compelled to collect more data on each product, to come into line with safety regulation, how can we ensure ethical information is embedded alongside the other data that may follow a product on it’s journey? And how can that information be made meaningful and useful to time-pressured shoppers? Are ethical criteria needed to account for fair trading in the data that might travel with a product – so it does not become a source of commercial exploitation? And can the rise of a data-rich supply chain be subverted in the cause of ethics?

Amanda Gore, who was blogging with the Amplified team, has further notes on the discussions here. This was a session full of questions – but one raising issues I’m sure will be cropping up more in discussions of Fair Trade in future.

Amplified Events
There were quite a few experiments going on with the Fair Trade Futures conference. It was the first time many of the organising team had experienced any Open Space sessions, and for most delegates, the first time they had been at an event being actively digital reported.

I was a little nervous about the digital reporting – as I’ve seen it work well at technology events, and in youth events, but I’ve not experienced digital / social reporting in action with a community for whom social media is not part of the everyday. Yet it worked fantastically. And by the end of the day, many delegates were won over to the potential of social media to help capture, curate and continue conversations started at an in person event.

There is still much to learn about how best to use social reporting to catalyse online community (for example, I would love to work out how best to equip delegates new to social media to try their own blogging and twittering from sessions, without spending too much time training them up, or distracting them from participation in face-to-face discussions), but the team from Amplified certainly demonstrated that we need to be adding digital dimensions to many more events outside the social media mainstream.

(Co-incidentally, Amplified are currently setting up as a non-profit, able to marshal teams of digital reporters to all manor of events, so if you’ve got projects and events coming up that could do with an online edge, I would certainly recommend getting in touch with the Amplified team.)

Where next…
Fair Trade Futures was the follow on event from a Fair Trade conference held in Oxford five years ago. I have a feeling it may not be quite so long before the next events are held here – and I would love to see an event taking place soon dedicated to the digital dimensions of Fair Trade. No plans yet… but if you might be interested, do get in touch…

Youth Work in a Digital Age

Youth Work Now

I was recently asked to write an article for Children and Young People Now on ‘Youth Work in a Digital Age’. The resulting article was published in last weeks issue (15th – 21st October 09) and you can find it on the Children and Young People Now  website here.

I’m grateful to C&YPN Editor Andy Hillier for his patience with my tendency to overshoot all word limits in a first draft, and for helping to turn my original drafts into a practical piece for a print magazine.

But, with the luxury of a blog, where running to 1967 words, rather than the allotted 1500 for a spread in C&YPN, I though I would take the liberty of posting here an earlier draft, which takes a bit more a theoretical look at the question of Youth Work in a Digital Age. All comments and feedback welcome…

Youth Work in a Digital Age (v 0.1)

Where can you always find a group of young people hanging out together; chatting about everyday life and about issues that matter; planning an upcoming adventure; reflecting upon all the activities they have recently been involved in; sharing jokes; flirting with one another; having heart-to-heart discussions with their peers; and generally being young people? Ten years ago ‘the youth club’, or ‘the street corner’ might have been the answer. Today it’s far more likely to be online – on or MSN Messenger.

Some people have seen this as a threat to youth work as we know it – but if you had been listening in at the ‘Young people and youth work in a digital age’ conference that took place at Glyndwr University last month, you would have been far more likely to hear youth workers talking about the golden opportunities that digital technologies have created for practitioners to promote activities; to engage with young people; and to generally deliver high quality youth work.

With over 80% of young people using one or more social network sites (5 in 6 young people aged 11 – 25 were users of at least one social network site in a April 2009 representative sample study of 1000 young people by nfpSynergy) and young people increasingly turning to the internet for communication, entertainment and information youth work cannot afford to miss the digital boat.

Made for youth work?

Over recent years young people’s use of digital media has shifted from consuming entertainment and information, to creating and sharing content, being in constant communication with peers, and participating in online communities. With the right support from informal educators, digital media offers the tools and platforms for young people to move from ‘consumer’ to ‘creator’.

Working with young people online, where many of the power dynamics between young people and adults are turned on their head, can, as many workers have discovered, create an environment far closer to the youth work ideal of voluntary engagement. Youth worker Katie Bacon, who has been using the web to engage diverse groups from across Devon in decision making explains: “Online young people are often far more honest and up-front with their opinions, and the presence of the ‘block’ button that young people can use to end a conversation puts them far more in control. It can be challenging and disconcerting for workers, but once you get used to it you can see that it’s voluntary engagement in practice.”

And with social network sites very much based around peer-group interaction and relationship building, it is easy to see the potential fit between digital media and core youth work values and practices.

Even so, digital media tools have rarely been created with a ‘youth workers instruction manual’ to accompany them – so the challenge for youth workers is to work out how to understand, adopt and adapt digital media tools for their practice. It can help to think about three forms of ‘youth work in a digital age’: (1) supporting young people to navigate growing up in a digital world; (2) using digital media tools to promote and add value to existing youth work; (3) weaving the digital media tools into youth work activities – and making the most of the technology for youth work goals.

Growing up digital

Just ten years ago, young people may have only been able to be in social contact with their peers for a small part of the day: snatched conversations between lessons at school, on the way home, or meeting up for a few hours in the evening. A couple of hours spent in a youth project may have been a significant part of young people’s social time. Now, many young people live in near constant contact with peers, sharing text messages, photos and videos from phones, computers and consoles. In this world where communication moves faster, both positive and negative experiences can be ‘amplified’ by digital media; and the divide between those with access and skills to be connected, and those without can widen.

Whilst government backed education programmes such as are doing important work educating professionals and young people about potential dangers of digital media, youth workers have an additional role in equipping young people not only with awareness of the risk, but also with the resolve, resources and resiliency to navigate dangers, whilst still taking advantage of online opportunities.

That might involve giving a peer group the opportunity to reflect upon the sorts of images, photos and videos of themselves and their friends they are sharing online – and to come to an agreement about what to share or what not to. Or it might involve workers being attuned to instances when bullying might be moving onto the web, and being ready to address the underlying bullying. Starting from young people’s experience of digital media, youth workers need to be supporting young people to become digital media literate, and for many workers that will start with developing their own digital media literacy.

Promote what you do

You can support young people to develop skills and literacy for growing up digital without touching any technology yourself, but if you want to reach out and promote youth work activities to young people for whom the internet is the primary information source then it’s time to log-on. Setting up a blog, for example, gives you an instant (and free) publishing platform where you can share news about your project and details of upcoming events – and within weeks details of what you do should be appearing in search engine results, helping young people discover and remind themselves of what you do.

Facebook Pages, or Bebo and MySpace profiles, can provide a powerful free platform for promoting projects and activities to young people – taking the message to the social network spaces where young people are hanging out. When Denise Drake updates the Tower Hamlets Summer University Facebook Page, the update is featured in the news feeds of over 250 people, all of whom have signed up as ‘Fans’ of Summer Uni. If any of those people comment on one of these updates, then their comment (and the original message) could also be shown in the news feeds of their friend networks on Facebook. News of new activities can spread quickly through the network.

Of course, one of the greatest potentials of digital media is the ability to show young people what’s on offer, rather than just telling them in text. With cheap video hosting and online editing tools – sharing videos, photos or recordings to give young people an insight into what happens at your project is easier than ever.

However, if you try promotion without participation you’re likely to be disappointed. As local authority communications expert Simon Wakeman recently explained in an interview on the Plings project blog ( “It’s two-way communication – having a one-way dialogue just doesn’t work! Social media blends communications and consultation. You can’t start using social media without being prepared to have conversations online.

Weaving digital media in

Digital media can be a big draw to attract young people to take part in a project. But more importantly, ensuring young people have digital skills is key to support both their participation in social life and education now, and in social life, education and work in the future.

For just about any youth work activity there will be digital media tool that can add a new dimension to it: from using online video clips as discussion starters at a youth club, to using blogging to help young people reflect upon and document an international youth exchange. And as Hilary Mason, Senior Manager at West Sussex youth service recently discovered, when using blogging as a way for young people on exchanges to China and India to reflect on their experiences and share news with friends and family back home – there are often unexpected positive impacts of using digital media: “There was a knock-on effect in the local community – with parents and grandparents who would normally not be using a computer reading and commenting on the blogs. The messages of affirmation to young people coming from family back home with written comments saying ‘I love you’ or ‘I miss you’ were very powerful.”

In weaving digital media tools into youth work practice there are often decisions to be made about what is published on the web, and how you manage conversations and communication. In the case of young people blogging from China, West Sussex youth service made sure that there were staff back in the UK to check over blog posts before they went on the web, and to address and issues that came up. “One of the main things that came up was comments from parents – we had to remind them that the blog was public communication.”

Getting started

If you’re not already using digital media in your work, then knowing where to start can be tricky. But, as the Youth Work and Social Neworking report (NYA, 2008) sets out – there are four simple steps to going digital.

1) Survey: find out what’s already going on in your organisation & find out about the digital opportunities young people are interested in. Create a ‘community profile’ of the social media spaces young people are active in (there’s no point being on Facebook if everyone you work with in on Bebo). Check what policies your organisation has on digital media, and check what technology you have available.

2) Strategy: choose how you will engage with digital media. Will you discuss digital media issues with young people but without using the technology directly? Will you use digital media as a promotion tool? In face-to-face settings? Or as a tool for online outreach?

3) Safety: check out the safety issues linked with your choice of digital media. Think about possible safety issues and how to overcome them. Most issues can be overcome with careful thought. You can find an overview of key safety issues to consider in the online Youth Engagement & Social Media guide that I’ve been developing here:

4) Skills: give yourself an hour or two to explore the digital media tools you are planning on using. Try them out – or find a colleague who can teach you how to use them. You don’t need to be an expert – just confident enough to learn as you go along, and to identify the issues that may make for discussion points with young people.

Going further

Finding your own route to engage with digital media in youth work can seem daunting, particularly when there is no set pattern to copy. However, digital media isn’t just about youth work delivery. It can also play a part in youth worker’s professional development and learning – and you will find a growing range of supportive online communities, reflective blogs, and online resources to help you explore youth work in a digital age.

Often, starting to use the tools for your own professional development, whether reading and commenting on blog posts from other youth workers, or participating in a focussed network of youth work practitioners such as, you can pick up the skills and experiences you need to apply digital tools in your own practice. Hilary Mason was one of the first youth work bloggers from the statutory sector, and for Hilary being able to explore both digital tools and youth work ideas through maintaining a blog at is key: “As a reflective tool it’s huge, both in spending time writing and thinking about what you are going to say.”

The digital world is here. And it’s moving forward at a phenomenal pace. Youth work has some catching up to do – but it also has a key opportunity and offer to make – and hopefully soon we’ll be seeing all youth work as work engaged with the digital age.

Social Network Sites & Social Change Communication

Picture 32[Summary: the ‘Future Connect’ paper on Social Networking and AIDS Communication has just been published by Communications for Social Change Consortium]

Back in February I mentioned a project I was working on with Pete Cranston for AIDS2031, through Communications for Social Change Consortium (CFSC). We were tasked with taking a global look at how young people were engaging with social networking, and what opportunities and challenges that created for HIV/AIDs communicators in communicating with young people.

We finished the paper back in April, but it’s taken a while for it to make it’s way to being available online. But it now is – and you can find the full report to browse, or download as a PDF here.

Whilst we put the report together in the context of work for AIDS2031, and many of the case studies and examples have a HIV/AIDS element to them, my hope is that the full report also provides useful input for anyone exploring how young people in the UK and beyond are engaged with social networking.

In particular, you can take a look at:

The report also includes a full section looking comparatively at social networking by young people in South Africa, UK, Brazil, India and Thailand as well as our attempt to look forward to unfolding trends and future possibilities.

This hope is that this report is only the first step for further work by CFSC and Pete Cranston looking at tracking emerging trends in the use of social networks for social change communication – so all feedback and comments, and ideas for future developments, are most welcome.

Commissioning Connexions – Consultation in Bradford

Buying Bradford Connexions[Summary: Just launched Buying Bradford Connexions consultation for young people. Please help get the word out…]

Commissioning is big news right now. Many services for young people are now provided through commissioning arrangements, and competitive tendering. That can lead to a shift in the ways in which young people’s voices influence service provision – and it can open up new decision making spaces where young people’s participation is a must.

When the Commissioning & Contracts Manager in Bradford got in touch to ask if Practical Participation could help them to develop ways of getting young people’s input into the Commissioning process – I was interested to explore the possibilities for blending online and offline engagement – reaching out to a wide range of young people, but also getting in-depth engagement to take place structured around the commissioning process. At first I thought, with my impending return to MSc study, that the job was too big to take on – but, with Bill Badham joining the Practical Participation team in September (more on that soon…) and working in partnership with our friends at YouthBank UK – we’ve been able to put together a plan for young people’s engagement in Commissioning the new Connexions Bradford service & to identify a few opportunities to experiment with new methods along the way too.

So – yesterday, and after a week of development, I pushed the button to launch as a participation space to gather the views of young people from Bradford and surrounding areas into the Connexions service.

(If you happen to work in, or around Bradford – or know anyone who does, your help in getting the message out about this new participation opportunity would be much appreciated)

And in the interests of shared learning – a few more notes on the project below… Continue reading “Commissioning Connexions – Consultation in Bradford”

Saying YES to social media

Youth Engagement and Social MediaAs my return to study with a year long full-time MSc comes closer, I’ve been trying to write up and share a lot of my learning from the last 18 months of researching and working with organisations using social media in youth engagement.

What started as a small wiki with a new notes on has quickly evolved into the outline of an online guide to youth engagement through social media – and so, before any perfectionist tendencies take over, and the diminishing returns of time spent knocking off the rough edges kick in any further, here’s a link to the in-progress-but-by-now-hopefully-at-least-a-bit-useful YES – Youth Engagement and Social media Guide.

It’s got sections on the What, Why and How of planning youth engagement and participation using social media – covering issues of strategy, safety and touching upon evaluation. The toolkit of HowTo’s and Case Studies in using different social media tools has a long way to go – but if you want to know about Listening Dashboards and Search Alerts then hopefully it already provides a good overview.

Also contained in the guide you will find a copy of a document I wrote a while back, but have failed to properly share – called ‘Safe and Effective Egagement with Social Network Sites for Youth Professionals (PDF)’ and which I hope provides a useful (and relatively brief) overview of the things to think about if you’re planning to use social networking as part of your youth engagement work.


(The observant will notice that the Youth Engagement and Social Media Guide is yet another Dokuwiki install, a tool I’m becoming a big fan of since using it for a personal notepad wiki, and then the Interactive Charter/Social Strategy site. It may not have the WYSIWYG editing power of Wikispaces, but for flexibility and ease of deploying on one’s own server it’s fantastic. It’s also behind another site I recently set live for the DFID Civil Society Organisations Youth Working Group)