Online version: Open Data, Democracy and Public Sector Reform

Reposted from my Open Data Impacts research blog, which is where I’ll try and keep most open data related posts in future, with this blog maintaining it’s wider focus…

A public report based on the research for my MSc Dissertation is now available here*.

Thank you to everyone who contributed to the research whether in discussions, interviews or responding to the survey. As promised, I’ve started to share data from the survey, and will add to this as time allows in coming weeks.

Published for digressions

Over the weeks since I handed in my MSc Dissertation I’ve been trying to work out how best to share the final version. Each time I’ve started to edit it for release I’ve found more areas where I want to develop the argument further, or where I recognise that points I thought were conclusions are in fact the start of new questions. After trying out a few options, I settled on the fantastic platform to put a copy of the report online – giving each paragraph it’s own URL and space for comments and trackbacks.

Hopefully this can help turn a static dissertation into something more dynamic as a tool for helping take forward thinking about the impacts of open government data. All comments, feedback, reflections and thinking aloud on the document welcome.

*Note: This is not the copy of the dissertation I submitted. That is still with the University being marked. When I submit a hard and digital library copy later this year I’ll post a link to those as the ‘official’ literature.

Costing the impacts of digital exclusion

[Summary: Oxford Internet Institute (on behalf of the National Audit Office) are consulting on a draft methodology for measuring the impacts of digital exclusion]

Principal Components Analysis - see for details. How much exactly does digital exclusion cost? Both the cost to individual without access to digital technologies. And the cost to government.  A PWC report last year put the cost at £22bn, but it’s not entirely clear how that figure was reached, or, more importantly, how such a study would be replicated to track changes in the costs of digital exclusion.

A team at the OII and LSE were commissioned last year by the National Audit Office to sketch out what a long-term method for reliably measuring the impacts of digital exclusion might be – and they’ve just launched an online consultation on the methodology.

I saw the methodology in a seminar a few weeks back – and there are some interesting elements to it well worth a look. So if you’ve got a digital inclusion/exclusion interest – do take a look and drop in a few comments.

Content analysis, tagging, linked data and digital objectivities

I’ve tried to keep musings on research methodology & epistemology mostly off this blog (they are mostly to be found over on my just-out-of-stealth-mode ‘Open Data Impacts’ research blog), however, for want of somewhere better to park the following brief(ish) reflections:

  • Content Analysis is a social science method that takes ‘texts’ and seeks to analyze them: usually involving ‘coding’ topics, people, places or other elements of interest in the texts, and seeking to identify themes that are emerging from them.
  • One of the challenges of any content analysis is developing a coding structure, and defending that coding structure as reasonable.In most cases, the coding structure will be driven by the research interest, and codes applied on the basis of subjective judgements by the researcher. In research based within more ‘objective’ epistemic frameworks, or at least trying to establish conclusions as valid independently of the particular researcher – multiple people may be asked to code a text, and then tests of ‘inter-coder reliability‘ (how much the coders agreed or disagreed) may be applied.
  • With the rise of social bookmarking sites such as Delicious, and the growth of conventions of tagging and folksonomy, much online content already has at least some set of ‘codes’ attached.For example, here you can see the tags people have applied to this blog on Delicious.
  • Looking up any tags that have been applied to an element of digital content could be useful for researchers as part of their reflective practice to ensure they have understood an element of content from a wide range of angles – beyond that which is primarily driving their research.
  • (With many caveats) It could also support some form of ‘extra-coder reliability’ providing a check of coding against ‘folk’ assessments of content’s meaning.
  • The growth of the semantic web also means that many of the objects which codes refer to (e.g. people, organizations, concepts) have referenceable URIs, and if not, the researcher can easily create them.Services such as Open Calais, and Open Amplify also draw on vast ‘knowledge bases’ to machine-classify and code elements of text – identifying, with re-usable concept labels, people, places, organizations and even emotions. (The implications of machine classification for content analysis are not, however, the primary topic of this point or post).
  • Researchers could chose to code their content using semantic web URIs and conventions – contributing their meta-data annotations of texts to either local, or global, hypertexts.For example, if I’m coding a paragraph of text about the launch of, instead of just adding my own arbitrary tags to it, I could mark-up the paragraph based on some convention (RDFa?), and reference shared concepts.From a brief search of Subj3ct for ‘data’, I quickly find I have to make some fairly specific choices about which concepts of data I might be coding against, although hopefully if they have suitable relationships attached, I may be able to query my coded data in more flexible ways in the future.
  • All of this raises a mass of interesting epistemic issues, none of which I can do justice to in these brief notes, but which include:
    • Changing the relationship of the researcher to concept-creation – and encouraging both the re-use of concepts, and the shaping of shared semantic web concepts in line with the research;
    • The appropriateness, or not, of using concepts from the semantic web in social scientific research, where the relatively objectivist and context free framing of most current semantic web projects runs counter to often subjectivist and interpretivist  leanings within social science;
    • The role of key elements of the current web of concepts on the semantic web (for many social scientific concepts, primarily Wikipedia via the dbpedia project) where the choice of what concepts are easily referenceable or not depends on a complex social context involving both crowd-sourcing and centralised control (ref the policies of Wikipedia or other taxonomy / knowledge base providers).
  • The actual use of existing online tagging, and semantic web URIs as part of the content analysis coding process (or any other social scientific coding process for that matter) may remain, at present, both methodologically challenging, and impractical given the available tools – but is worth further reflection and exploration.

Reflections; points to literatures that are already exploring this; questions etc. all welcome…

Curating a conference: young people in a digital world

This is a quick blog post to link to the videos and social reporting content from last week’s Young People in a Digital World conferences in Wales which are now available through the newly launched Digital Youth Wales network.

You can find over five hours content, including a fantastic panel discussion with young people from Swansea schools and colleges, insights from e-Moderation and Moshi Monster’s Chief Community & Safety Officer, my interview with Tanya Byron, and some great examples of digital youth work from Swansea. You might even find a clip of me trying to unpack how, through the lens of youth work values, the Internet provides an exciting opportunity space for youth work.

Curating social reporting

As well as the webcast recordings (created by the ever friendly and professional Richard Jolly and Diarmaid Lynch) the event was also comprehensively ‘socially reported’ with live-blogging, video interviews and more being co-ordinated by David Wilcox and Chie Elliott.

All of which, thanks to the kind support of Sangeet from WISE KIDS who organised the conference, gave me a chance to try out further exploration of curating content from social reporting. Building on the IGF09 Drupal+FeedAPI framework, I’ve put together a micro-site within the Digital Youth Wales site which links together a record of live-blogging, with the webcast video, and any informal social reporting videos for each session.

Take a look here to explore the individual sessions – and do let me know your ideas for how this sort of social reporting aggregation could be improved or further developed…

ICT Ethics – finding new equilibria profession by profession

Ethical ICT in Youth Work (c) Tim Davies 2010
Ethical ICT in Youth Work (c) Tim Davies 2010

[Summary: Ethics belongs to professions, not problems & an ethical framework for youth and ICTs will require each workforce to seek new equilibria based on a number of inter-related elements]

I spend a very interesting day yesterday at a workshop organised by DC10Plus exploring the possible creation of an ‘ethical framework for ICT and young people’. This post contains a set of reflections and ‘thinking aloud’ following that session…

With technologies and the dynamics of digital environments constantly developing, ethical frameworks, over and above guidance and best-practice, are very much needed to help all those involved in work with young people (and young people themselves) to think critically about the ways technologies are used in, and impact upon, the lives of children and young people. However, when it comes to practical ethics for the public sector, it’s crucial to remember that ethics belong to professions, not problems.

That was a point brought home to me the Connected Practice symposium in September last year, where it was clear that different professional groups approached their work from very different motivations and with very different practical and ethical frameworks. Whilst some would argue the rise of a network society leads to a dissolution of barriers between professionals, and consequently, the dissolution of clear and distinct forms of professional practice, right now we are in an environment of inter-disciplinary practice, rather than post-disciplinary practice  – and there are real advantages to be found in each different professional group working out it’s own ethical responses to ICT. A ‘meta-ethical’ public sector framework of general ethical principles may support a degree of compatibility and interface between different professional ethical approaches to ICT, but should not try to replace the process of each profession working out it’s ICT ethics in it’s own context. For a real practice example of how professional context affects the sorts of ethical and practical implications of using ICT – take a look at this forum thread over on Youth Work Online – where the differences between the nature of practice and relationship with young people and youth workers in statutory and voluntary sector youth work settings is leading to a need to adapt and think critically about guidance on how youth workers should use social networking sites.

The point that ethics belong to professions, not problems also highlights that ICT ethics should start, not from concerns about ICTs per-se, but from a recognition of how ICTs impact upon and cut across the concerns of different professional groups within the public sector. And any approach to ethics for ICTs & Young People should have a clear account of where and why a specific focus on young people is warranted. In Safe and Effective Social Network Site Applications for Young People (p. 7) I’ve argued that the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, the Law, and neuro-scientific understandings of adolescence are critical to any such account.

Finding a new equilibrium

Professional ethics guide how individuals and organisations with a set of specific goals should behave in the pursuit of those goals, given the particular contexts in which they work. It might be thought that professional groups can just look at their existing ethical codes and apply them directly to the Internet. However, in my experience exploring youth work values and ethics that turns out not to be quite so straightforward. Whilst it is possible (as we do on p.g. 17 & 18 of the Youth Work & Social Networking Report) to explore how the values of a profession play out in a digital world – deriving practical and ethical guidance for real world situations is not just a case of looking at values and the realities of the online world, but involves finding an equilibria between at least six different elements, as the diagram above shows. Each element is both a variable that may be open to change, but equally a constraint on working out an ethical position:

  • Young people’s use of social media/ICT/the Internet – ethics cannot be built for the ‘ideal world’, but must be developed for the world we are in. At the same time, ethical approaches may involve challenging current patterns of ICT use and seeking to encourage young people to approach ICTs in different ways.
  • Professional values and skills – professional values in many service start from an analysis of the world and a desire to change something in it – be that a desire to tip the balance of power in favour of young people in core youth work theory, or a desire to reduce crime and increase social control in the basic analysis of law enforcement services. However, ICTs are implicated in ongoing changes to the world – and so professional values need to be re-examined in light of the digital world – without being abandoned.
  • Models of online communication and collaboration – there are many different ways of working online. Only some should be seen as ‘youth work’ ways of working – and the choice over which ways of working are ruled in, and ruled out, of a youth work framework of ethics for ICT use will impact upon the nature of that framework. The choice of ethics will also determine which forms of online communication and collaboration are (a) open to youth workers, and (b) likely to be open to youth workers in ways that allow them to be effectively used.
  • Features of available / popular social media tools – this is a particularly interesting ‘variable’ – as to an extent, for most professionals, the tools available to use are not seen as something over which they have much control. Facebook works the way it does. Changing that is not in the power of the individual practitioner. However, the plug-in and application architectures of many social media spaces mean that it may be possible for them to be adapted to be made ‘safer spaces’ for youth work practice, or more appropriate settings for the forms of practice a worker wants to explore. Right now, reshaping social media spaces is beyond the means of most practitioners – but if made more accessible, could enhance the possibility of ‘ethical and effective’ online practice.
  • Institutional drivers of, and barriers to, online working. See the 50 Barriers wiki on this one.
  • Consideration of opportunities and risks – based on real evidence about the opportunities and risks young people face online.

I recognise that this is still a fairly sketchy model – and my use of language above is neither as clear, nor as precise, as would be ideal. However, I wanted to share this now both for the Ethical ICT & Youth project, and as part of ongoing thinking for another project which I hope to be blogging more about soon…

Skills for public voice & participation alongside skills for social media

Eszter Hargittai was in the Oxford Internet Institute earlier today sharing her research findings on the role of skills and socio-demographic factors in influencing levels of use of the Internet – and particularly web 2.0 spaces.

Implicit in Eszter’s argument was a relationship between the diversity of Web 2.0 use and democratisation. The presentation highlighted how socio-demographic factors, and particularly gender, can have an impact on the extent to which different groups contribute to public online spaces such as YouTube and Wikipedia. It’s not enough to give access to the web, and to web 2.0 for the imbalances in who is speaking and expressing their views through these online platforms to be challenged. Skills matter in addressing the imbalance.

However, as discussion at the presentation explored, if our concerns are of democratisation, social justice and equality, then the the skills that need to be promoted are far wider than technology skills, or skills to work with social media.

Skills to exercise public voice and to participate in community (online and offline) are arguably prior to the skills to use technology for public expression.

Both as we measure engagement online, and as we work to promote online engagement – keeping in mind a focus not only on digital skills, but also on general skills of public expression, interaction and dialogue is key.

For those working with young people and communities then that perhaps adds up to encouragement to address digital skills as part of wider civic skill-building programmes such as ‘Act by Right (now online as a free resource BTW)’ rather than to address digital skills and social media in isolation.

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.)

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.

Social Reporting the Internet Governance Forum

Tomorrow morning I’m heading out to Egypt to join the Diplo/IKM team to help facilitate youth-led social reporting of the Internet Governance Forum (IGF).

We’ll be tweeting on the #igf09 tag, blogging on the Diplo Internet Governance Ning, and hopefully bringing it all together with some live-blogging, video interviews and webcasting on this NetVibes page.

To support our team of Social Reporters I put together this quick handbook, and I’ve tried to make the first few pages more ‘general purpose’ that just for IGF. It’s uploaded under Creative Commons of course, and I’ll put together a revised version based on how it goes down in the next few days.

I’ll try and post with a bit more background and more links to interesting goings on at IGF in the next few days – but for now – back to packing.

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.