3 questions about social media in development

There is good reason to be optimistic about social media in development. The use of Facebook and Twitter during the Arab Spring, and in responses to humanitarian crises (such as the Nepal earthquakes) is well documented. Social media offers a platform for those not usually heard in mainstream media, and has become a vital networking tool for NGOs and activist organisations internationally.
But like all tools for development, we need to be cautious. Here are three questions which add a dose of reality to discussions of social media in development, based on my research with a network of volunteers founded in 1998 which used information and communications technology to identify, mobilize and coordinate small NGOs and volunteers in Central America (henceforth “the network”). To do this they have utilised a variety of internet-based networking tools over the past 17 years, including a website, Yahoo groups, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter and blogs. The network was one of the earliest and longest-lived examples of online networking and peer-to-peer collaboration in development, and as such I think it has plenty to tell us about social media and development.

Who are the intermediaries?
One of the goals of the network was to use internet-based networking tools to link volunteers and organisations in Central America directly with each other in order to coordinate and share information. This is what network theorists call disintermediation, the idea that online networks are open and flattened structures which cut out the middle-man and allow individuals to communicate directly. There is certainly significant potential in this, which is evident, for example, in the emergence and success of services such as airbnb and uber. However in many cases, rather than cutting out the middle man, the online context has seen the emergence of new intermediaries such as celebrities and philanthropists (for example in the Kony 2012 campaign), and content curators. In the case of the network, the founder and other key individuals with connections and influence have become new intermediaries, facilitating connections and filtering information. The network remains heavily reliant on a single founder and a small leadership group and rather than direct communication between participants, most information and coordination occurs through this small group.

Who is participating?
With the rapid spread and decreasing prices of mobile technology it stands to reason that larger numbers of people are able to participate in online networking, creating diverse networks where people are able to interact with those they might not normally meet. Indeed, techno-optomists often point to and the the potential for social media and online networking to contribute to a more plural and collaborative development. However claims regarding participation and diversity have also come under scrutiny. We humans have a well-documented tendency to associate with people like ourselves, and this is reflected in the social networks we create and participate in which tend to be homophilous, looking a lot like the their creators and mediators, and reflecting similar values and beliefs.
For example, within the network there is certainly some lively participation and diversity (in terms of age, profession and institutional affiliation), but from early on the network attracted a core of North American, middle class participants and the growth of the network has continued to be amongst organizations and volunteer groups with similar backgrounds and values. Despite efforts to involve more Central Americans , the discussions continue to be dominated by North Americans with a conservative approach to development – and by the viewpoints of that small group of new intermediaries.

Who is missing?
While techno-optomists might celebrate the way in which the online environment can give a voice to the marginalized and enable their participation in debates and projects which affect their lives, as the preceding discussion indicates, this is not assured. Indeed, any participation is dependent on a range of factors including practical constraints such as literacy levels and ability to access the internet, and broader concerns including the structure and culture of the online network, and the social and political environment in which the activity occurs.
The example of the network highlighted some particular concerns in this regard, as Central American voices were effectively (but not intentionally) excluded within the network due to both technological constraints and structural concerns. These included the dominance of the English language, and the focus on the activities of North American volunteers rather than on local organisations. Exacerbating this was the involvement of U.S. government and military representatives in the network from 2008, and the positioning of the network leadership following political tensions in 2009 which lead to the network becoming known more for its political position – one that allied with US interests – than for its work with the poor.

Online networks and social media are clearly limited by the ideologies, values and political understandings of their founders and users, and the new intermediaries that facilitate their growth. They are also products of the political, economic and social environment in which they emerge and operate. They can be the conduit for a more plural and collaborative form of development. They can empower and give voice to the marginalized. However they can also reinforce and extend the hegemony of neo-liberalism and the power of the privileged. The case study of the network illustrates this paradox. Although the network has been the catalyst for many connections and encounters over the years, the dominance of outsiders within the network illustrates the risks of digital exclusion and homophily. It became an example of a conventional and conservative development approach operating within an online space, promoting a political agenda that was at odds with local development and advocacy organisations. As such the history of the network provides a cautionary note to those who look to social media to provide answers to contemporary development dilemmas.

[Based on paper published June 2015 in Information Technology and Development. Full text available here]

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