At a recent social media training in the Caucasus, civil society representatives armed with pencils, writing pads and questions walked in the classroom, followed by the bloggers with backpacks, laptops and answers. The trainer, a self-taught ICT expert from Seattle, spoke as the bloggers, aged between 19 and 28, quietly focused their attention on their laptops, navigating between their various online communities. At the displeasure of the bloggers, their CSO colleagues' frequent questions often halted the training and the rhythm of their keystrokes. The all-day training ended. The bloggers dispersed with little if any fanfare, sharing an unspoken understanding that they will reconnect online. The CSO representatives stayed behind exchanging business cards, email addresses, and asking the trainer for additional information.
In the ever-expanding and fast-paced new media world, issues appear to be more about context and less about content. The posts often appear short sighted, and lack substance but they reach a wide audience nevertheless. According to Internet Usage World Stats there are approximately 2.3 billion Internet users, with the majority between the ages of 12 and 30. Most civil society organizations across the globe, with their middle-aged directors, are embracing the new media. Or better yet, they are trying. Awkwardly they are delighted to share their organizations' website address, personal Facebook details, and their ability to tweet as a badge of "hipness." If they dug deeper they would realize they are only scratching the social media surface.
These analog CSO directors' commitment to accountability, and to the sound policy recommendations that give weight to the process as much as the end result, slow down and impede the organization in delivering its messages and may become the Achilles heel in the world of digital activism. Within this context, new media clearly provide challenges to structured institutions looking to attract the next generation of experts, seek greater public support on a given social issue, or try to sway online community opinion. The most obvious challenge is the restructuring of the flow of information, moving away from the traditional top down approach to a flow of information in many directions. The objective is to become part of a network where individuals outside of the box have just as much access and say on the issues as those on the inside. Beth Kanter and Allison Fine, in their book Networked Nonprofit: Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change, summarize this trend as follows: "In networks, the goal isn't a big staff, but inspiring lots of people to do the good work through making connections and taking action." Meaning the issues and the solutions take precedence over the status of the individual.
New media promote and reward speed and independence, which some traditional organizations perceive as detrimental if it goes unchecked. Who can blame them for thinking this way? All we need to do is look at the outcome of the Arab Spring social-media-driven revolutions. The individuals and organizations that forced the change have been left out of the development of the new state (See my "Faceless Movements" post).
For organizations that rely on the traditional social interaction for ideas and support, social media at first appears to fly in the face of conventional wisdom -- social engagement without human interaction? A new paradox has appeared, whereby the more time a person spends alone online, the more socially engaged they are in their issues of interest.
Social media appears to have become more about "flash" and "140 character" ideas and caters to the terse approach, while the traditional CSO method is the longer, more careful, and more boring approach. Most surveys of web browsers support the short message. According to a survey by Marketshare.Hitslink.com, "75% of users never scroll past the first page of search results." Consequently, new media often is less about the messenger as a credible source, and more about how short, how often and how quickly the message is posted, for now. However, one thing is certain: the cleverest and most interesting messages will get the most attention. Crafting and styling the short messages becomes even more important than brevity and frequency. Herein lies the opportunity for CSOs not only to bring online attention to their idea but, more importantly, to enter the multi-directional conversation space that has replaced the older communication model of simply delivering a message. Can CSOs develop an online presence that is effective at garnering support within these online communities?
New media has leveled the playing field between the individual and the establishment. What ICT experts may lack in knowledge about a given social issue they make up for with superior online skills. As it stands now, the divide is best described by the bloggers as those who are conventional and "offline," and those who are unconventional and "online."
Both the digital activists and CSOs have much to learn from one another, and this could be to their mutual benefit. As a first step, traditional CSOs must become present and identifiable in the digital world. This means not only learning how to present their program ideas in 140 characters and supporting flash initiatives, but more importantly learning to listen to what people are talking about in online communities. Another challenge for CSOs is to instill a culture of institutional and individual accountability into the digital world, whereby the "online" take responsibility as much for the keys they press on the keyboard as for the end result. If they are to win over the digital activists and strengthen their online advocacy efforts, CSOs will need to gain "digital credibility" among their online peers. This means a proactive approach to incorporating both the tools and spirit of social media. If CSOs are reluctant to change with the times, the donor community can prod them by demanding that CSOs demonstrate how they will involve online as well as offline communities. Otherwise they will find themselves with plenty of time to sharpen their pencils.