Social media and social justice

July 8, 2009 — 7 Comments

I’ve been trying to come up with a way to describe how I feel about social media experts lending their services to social justice campaigns. I’ve done a fair share of it myself – having done social media development for student media, community media, green organisations and the like, as well as straight up media activism with Indymedia back in the day. What triggered this thought was a comment by Laurel Papworth about the ActionAid blogger campaign that Stilgherrian took part in. The comment – about feeling a sense of ownership about the project – really rubbed me the wrong way. As I commented on the blog:

I’m quite keen to blog about this, but frankly, I’m more interested in hearing the voices of the Tanzanian bloggers. The last thing the blogosphere needs is more middle-class white westerners drowning out other people’s voices.

Having done my fair share of new media development for underprivileged groups – Indigenous, refugees, homeless and activists – generating visibility for these projects can be hard. But the last thing they need is social media bloggers guilting other social media people into promoting the project. If I had come across this project being promoted on the blog of a PR person I would have been uninterested, suspicious even. Because I *do* know Stil, I was willing to listen.

‘Getting behind’ something can mean being quiet and allowing other to speak up. And insisting that those who ‘want a sense of ownership’ understand the problematic implications of that.

But that doesn’t really get at the central point that I was thinking of. However, this post by Dave Fleet really crystalised it for me.

Think about the most high-profile proponents of social media. The people you think of likely have large followings and significant engagement with their work. Now, ask yourself – does that mean they have built a community around themselves ? Or are they just talented self-promoters who know how to build fans?

Now, I’m not saying that Laurel is that person. But for social media people working in development and social justice, the role of the social media person is that of facilitator, of trainer, of producer. Stilgherrian – despite being a loud, opinionated blogger (for which I love the guy!) – knows that the point of the project is to give (a space for and to facilitate the amplification of) a voice to others.

And ultimately, sometimes the best outcome of a social media project is in the people who take part, not the artifacts of the project. I ran a new media newsroom for a CBF funded project a few years ago. The site no longer exists, and the content that was produced was fairly limited. But of the people who took part, some are now studying journalism at university, some are running the new media operations at their community station and another is an editor at the ABC. Social justice isn’t a flashy, quick results project. Sometimes it’s a small impact, a minor inspiration in a person that has an impact on their life.

Thinking about this has really helped me decide how to describe what I do. I’m not a social media expert – despite having spent quite a few years as a researcher (PhD and industry) and developer. I’m not a guru. I’m certainly not an evangelist. (Now there’s a rant for another day!)

No, I’m a social media producer. My voice – except occasionally in the role of practitioner – is not important. If you walk away from a project that I’ve worked on with my voice in your ears, I’ve failed.

I’d encourage you to pop over to the Action Aid blog and nominate someone for the next ActionAid blogger outreach person. I think NomadiqueMC gets it.

7 responses to Social media and social justice


    Thanks for a well thought-through comment on how social media experts/gurus/producers (whatever you call them) can help support social justice causes.

    It’s important in all this debate about who’s shown what support to who, to remember why ActionAid is doing this project in the first place.

    It’s not about Stilgherrian. It’s not about the next outreach blogger. It’s not about the Australian social media community as such.

    The real reason we’re undertaking Project TOTO, is to give Australians an insight into life in a developing country – specifically what poverty and injustice really means and what can be done about it.

    The real success measure, therefore, is the support we give to our outpost blogs. At the moment, that means our Tanzania bloggers – Albert and Abdul

    I’m happy to say they have had good support so far and I hope that continues. Thanks to everyone that’s commented on their blog and shown support in other ways.


    I thoroughly enjoyed your post. The term social media producer encompasses the message that effective use of data, whether blog/image/twitter is about constructing meaning around message, as opposed to pushing a story.


    Hey thanks Mark! and kudos to ActionAid for undertaking the project.


    I agree Barry. There are times when these high-profile social media proponents” can use their influence to lead a project into a place where people can become more engaged and their voices heard more clearly. Some people probably find it more difficult to step back though.


    @Harriet Yes! that’s exactly what I’m getting at.

    @Tyler yes, definitely.I certainly not saying that high profile people should not get involved, but finding a balance where you can help without overriding the voices of other people can be hard.


    i think we’re also at a nexus where two worlds are still trying to figure each other out.

    ‘old school’ community development and social justice practitioners are still ‘discovering’ social media and such fandangled stuff, and deciding for themselves if it fits their ‘capacity building’ and ‘sustainability’ ethos and methodologies. [social media as a tool]

    on the other hand, new media pioneers are discovering that what they do can have a positive impact on the world, and address issues that they have always cared about, but their ‘field of expertise’ has not previously contributed to in an overt way. and they like the feeling it gives them. [social media as a career]

    both perspectives are equally valid, and both can have positive lasting effects on communities, and on issues of substance.

    i like barry’s analogy of ‘producer’, because I’ve always thought of myself as ‘director’ – seeing the big picture, picking the tools, guiding the direction, analysing the results. but even good producers and directors need good talent – new, fresh and local mixed with the hardened, experienced imports.


    Barry, great post… and I’m sorry to derail the conversation here slightly, but hopefully Mark is still monitoring the comments here; if he is, Mark, could I just ask, are you aware that the Project Toto blog is currently blocking search engines from indexing still? Was that an oversight when setting up WordPress for it (privacy settings) or a conscious decision? Just thought I should bring it up in case :)

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