By Liesette Brunson and Dyana Valentine
A recent report from the Pew Research Center suggests that online activities are becoming an increasingly popular way for people to keep informed about what is happening in their community (Smith, 2010). While many of us may know about social media such as Facebook, MySpace, Twitter, and LinkedIn, we may be less certain how to integrate these tools into our community work. There are many ways in which interactive “Web 2.0” sites and services create possibilities for relationship building, information-sharing, and collaboration. In this column, we highlight some of the ways in which these tools can be used for community practice and community building.
We hope that this column will spur some creative thinking and exploration about how you can use Web 2.0 in your community work – and that you will tell us about them! Please leave a comment below about your favorite sites and services and how you use them. Welcome!What is Web 2.0?
The terms “social media” “Web 2.0,” “the participatory Web,” and “the read-write Web” are general terms that do not refer to a specific technology, but rather to a growing trend in the use of interactive features within Internet web sites (O’Reilly, 2005; “Web 2.0,” 2010). While early versions of Internet technology provided access to enormous amounts of information through document and media storage, hyperlinks, and search engines, these functions were based on simple information posting by a site administrator and subsequent retrieval by a user. Newer tools allow Internet users to go beyond merely retrieving information to interacting around and easily contributing content of their own. User-generated content is often in text form – such as comments, blogs, and documents—but it can also include images, maps, audio, video, or metadata such as ratings or tags. Participation is now a two-way street that can take many forms.
These newer “Web 2.0” tools add a layer of interactivity that promotes participation and collaboration. People can link to networks of other people who share their interests, receive signals about new information, and then bookmark, tag, evaluate and comment on these resources (Eysenbach, 2008). These functions turn the Internet from a document storage system into a dynamic platforms where “authoring creates content, links and tags knit it together, and search, extensions, tags and signals make emergent structures and patterns in the content visible, and help people stay on top of it all” (McAfee, 2006). In addition, mobile devices increasingly make these resources available when and where it is needed.
Why should community psychologists be interested in these tools?
Before we get into the nitty-gritty of the myriad Web 2.0 tools, here are some general principles to think about when integrating online tools into practice. Use social media to complement face to face community building – not to replace it. While some communities thrive exclusively through virtual contact, others are more successful when they use social media to complement face-to-face interactions. Could some elements of your process (e.g., engaging youth participation, raising public awareness, sharing accomplishments) work well in a public online forum? Are there other levels of work that would be best served by face-to-face meetings and in-real-life (IRL) forums? Talk with your group about which outlets are helpful or appropriate for which purposes.
Meet where you already are. Where do you and your communities hang out online? Do they? Does your project or community-of-choice already have a “presence” online? Take what is already working in your scene and build upon it. Even if your group is filled with experienced Internet users, the proliferation of information sources may make it difficult for them to monitor any additional outlets. People quickly develop preferences for sources they prefer; find out what those are and build on them, if possible. If in-real-life (IRL) meetings are where the action is, great! You can supplement that process by posting summaries of IRL meetings in one, easy-to-read place. If some of your folks are IRL-focused and others aren’t, consider a tech-buddy system that is tied in to a phone tree. For example, online techies and IRL folks can each take on roles that resonate with their proclivities, and set up times or situations for updating each other.
Make participation easy. Using online forums has to be easy, natural, and user-friendly, or not enough members will participate to make it lively and interesting. Choose a platform that matches your users’ technical abilities. Accessing the site and finding relevant information and functions should be possible with a minimum number of clicks. For example, rating widgets should be clearly visible at the top of a page, with a simple icon such as a thumbs up/down icon.
Keep your forum lively and up-to-date – or keep it simple. Many online group initiatives die out because not enough users participate on a regular basis, and the site is rapidly forgotten. Web sites and group forums are more likely to be used when they offer interesting and relevant information on a regular basis. Popular social networking sites may be a good choice to establish an online presence, because they are less likely to constant maintenance. Structure is provided by the features of the site itself, and content is kept up-to-date by the individual contributions of users. However, these forums require at least a few members who contribute often enough to keep the exchanges lively, up-to-date, and interesting. Other outlets, such as web sites, can be relatively easy to set up but are less interactive. Usually one individual acts a webmaster, and this person maintains site quality by keeping information up-to-date and weeding broken links. If you cannot allocate resources for this role, keep it simple! Include contact information, a hyperlink (so a visitor can generate an e-mail with one click), a link to your primary social media site, page or group, and a photo or logo. Some online presence is better than none, if only to provide a way for a community member (or potential funder) to find you.
Be patient and consistent. There is lots of hubbub about social networking, marketing and using the web to catalyze massive movements. As you start to experiment with new tools or expand your existing work—be patient. Trust the process and allow it to grow and change with your needs and those of your community. Keep in mind that marketing researchers have found that if you get a 2% participation response to an email or online call to action, you are doing well. Connecting and collaborating online takes practice, patience and consistency. Choose one tool, use it for a while and be sure folks find what they expect when they engage with you there.Using Web 2.0 tools and social media for community practice
With those general principles in mind, how can Web 2.0 tools actually be used in community practice? Specific services combine different functions and information types to allow different kinds of uses. For example, functions such as searching, authoring, linking, tagging, and signaling (Eysenbach, 2008) can be combined with many different types of information: personal profiles, news, photos, maps, videos, and text. The resulting content can be shared one-to-one, one-to-many, many-to-many, or at large, to anyone who has access to the Internet (Acando Consulting, 2008, Freedman, 2006). The combinations can seem overwhelming! So to get some ideas flowing, here are ten specific examples of the myriad ways that Web 2.0 can be useful in community practice:
Together, these ten uses for Web 2.0 tools suggest a wide range of ways to engage community members, facilitate relationship-building, promote participation, and build community. They also open up fascinating possibilities for collaborative information management and knowledge creation (Murugesan, 2007, Neylon, 2009, O’Reilly, & Battelle, 2009; Patil & Seigel, 2009).Some words to the wise
Despite the tremendous possibilities offered by these new technologies, there are limitations to be considered. Keep accessibility, relevance, budget, privacy, and power/authority roles in mind during your development process. To use social media and Web 2.0, your target audience has to be connected to and comfortable using the web. Don’t take it for granted that community members are online; check. Using the Internet requires a relatively high level of literacy and computer skills, as well as the appropriate computer equipment and Internet connections. It is also worth noting that many of the sites and services mentioned here are only available in English and have a strong North American slant. Exceptions can more often be found for open source applications, which are tend to have diverse user communities willing to work on translating interfaces into multiple languages. In addition, most of these sites are not disability-accommodating. As of now it is up to users to buy or furnish their own accessory software to make the Internet accessible.
Fees may be another factor that makes these tools less accessible. The more storage space, users, integration and functionality, the more likely there are to be fees. Youtube, Flickr and many online information-sharing sites are free or have tiered membership for more storage space or quicker service.
Choosing a forum or platform on which to base your community’s exchanges can be problematic. No platforms have all features, and users might be familiar with or typically use different platforms. For example, the AddThis function used here on the GJCPP web site includes 126 options for services that track and share Internet content. Experienced Internet users are already familiar with services that they prefer, and may be unwilling to follow yet another outlet. Certain services are moving towards cross-platform integration, at least with well-known resources such as YouTube, Facebook, de.li.cious, and Twitter. However, cross-platform transferability of data is not always guaranteed, and managing that integration even when it is available may require a certain level of sophistication among users.
Dilemmas can also arise regarding how to manage access to your group’s information online. On one hand, closed forums can stifle participation and access. On the other hand, once information is available publicly, the group loses control over how that information is used. Issues about confidentiality and fair use can arise quickly. Think about issues such as member privacy, distribution and fair use of information about the group or its members, and intellectual property rights for contributions. Be aware that copying without fair referencing and credit is fairly common practice; you may find content from your group’s web site word for word on another site, without any credit or citation given.
Another element to consider is how to handle inappropriate use. Sites should be monitored for spamming, rude language, and inappropriate posts, which usually can be quickly removed. Users can also contribute to signaling posts that they find offensive. It can be more difficult to know how to handle more ambiguous behavior. People who are often off-topic, who discuss extremely sensitive personal information, or who provoke disagreements can make the forum unpleasant for other users, who will quickly learn to avoid the site. To some degree online communities can be self-correcting, as users monitor and provide feedback to other users (some of which itself may be inappropriate). Guidelines for appropriate behavior can be adopted from other online sources. Monitoring and maintenance can be undertaken by a webmaster.
On a more general note, criticisms are often raised that the Internet may be contributing to the fragmentation and compartmentalization of society, both by replacing face-to-face contacts with virtual interaction, and by creating self-reinforcing, insular communities with members who choose to only be exposed to information and opinions that reflect similar points of view (Tefft, 2010). We hope that the types of efforts described here can contribute to countering these possibilities by facilitating positive community-building efforts and the open and free exchange of ideas.Share your ideas!
How do you use social media and other online tools in your work? What are your thoughts about building community in the virtual world? We want to know! Please leave a comment below about your favorite sites and services and how you use them. Concrete example and links to specific resources are always welcome. Don’t forget to include a website addresses or searchable name, and mention if a resource requires user fees or if it is freely available. And thanks for contributing to the GJCPP online community!References
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Liesette Brunson, Dyana Valentine
Liesette Brunson is an associate professor of community psychology at the Université du Québec à Montréal. Her work focuses on community-level influences on family and child well-being, with a special interest in family-friendly neighborhoods. She has been involved in several community-based projects for children and families in the Greater Montreal area, including 1,2,3 GO!, Québec Enfants and Projet Béluga.
Dyana Valentine is an instigational speaker and consultant who has come up with a process to help self-starters self-finish. More can be found at http://www.dyanavalentine.com/. Ms Valentine is also an Associate Editor for Video with the GJCPP.
Keywords: gjcpp, community psychology, community practice, web 2.0 tools