Use Twitter if you plan a revolution, Facebook to improve farming

Photo: Steffen Voss (CC BY 2.0) on Flickr.

Photo: Steffen Voß (CC BY 2.0) on Flickr.

As part of the World Development Report, the World Bank published a number of background papers, including one on the “Development Impact of Social Media.”

You will be disappointed if you are hoping that this paper from the Australian National University will provide you with empirical proof that social media is (or isn’t) effective to support economic growth and/or behaviour change in developing countries. The findings of the paper can largely be summarized as “it depends”.

The authors emphasize that social media use differs significantly between countries as well as between social groups within those countries, which once again proves that you need to define and research your target audience before launching a communications initiative.

Weak ties, strong ties

Personally, I found their thoughts on “weak ties” and “strong ties” interesting. I don’t know much about academic network theory and the paper explains well how these concepts apply to social media. The authors assert that weak ties – such as people with whom you are only loosely connected, for example your followers on Twitter – are more likely to introduce you to new ideas, including ideas that are contrary to your beliefs. According to the authors, this gives Twitter a bigger role in situations where people aspire to political change.

On the other hand, your close ties – such as your Facebook friends – are more likely to be similar to you and are less able to introduce significantly new information to your network. However, you are more likely to look to these close ties when making economic decisions, for example whether it makes sense for you to use fertilizer on your farm or not.

The authors emphasize that in some countries Facebook is used more for weak ties than in others.

Bespoke Communities of Practice?

While I agree with their analysis, I disagree with one of the conclusions they draw from this:

“It may be that social media “in the wild” such as Facebook is less likely to have a role in fostering economic development amongst the poorest communities (…) compared with a more controlled social media intervention. For example, it might be that purpose-built social network sites can be set up by government agencies or multilateral agencies as part of program delivery. Such social media sites could be used as a way of introducing innovations (e.g. new farming techniques or products) and connecting program participants with team leaders as a means of opening the ‘aspirational window’.”

The underlying thought is that by establishing a custom network you can encourage the creation of strong links between the members.

This reminds me too much of the conversations that took place inside many organizations five years ago, where everyone wanted to create their own online communities of practice. While this sounds good in theory, I have seen it fail too many times.

Starting an online community and keeping it alive takes a lot of effort, even without the added headache of maintaining the technical infrastructure and providing technical support to users. Of course, you can buy a social media network in a box, but that costs money since you have to pay for the software as a service. Besides, getting the word out, getting people to register and to come back to your network is no trivial task. Considering the sparse resources of most non-profit and humanitarian organizations I would advise to invest more in relevant content and community management and not in building a new community from the ground.

I can see the use of white-labelled support communities akin to Zendesk or Uservoice for large scale projects where user support is important, but I would always do that in addition to a presence on an established social media site and not as a replacement.

You can download “Development Impact of Social Media” here.

Do you have thoughts on this paper or this post? Please leave them in the comments.