Back in the 1980s the answer to everything was 42. Douglas Adams’ joke “ultimate answer to the ultimate question of life, the universe, and everything” started off as a cult among schoolboys (and one or two schoolgirls), and spread to computer science geeks before entering the mainstream via the Internet. New research in 2011 has revealed that ‘42’ is no longer accurate – it now appears that the answer to everything is ‘social media’.
Social media (or occasionally just Facebook, Twitter or Blackberry messaging) have been deemed to be the prime drivers behind events and developments as wide-ranging as:
- Social revolutions in the Middle East a.k.a. the Arab Spring
- Riots on British streets – and organising the clean-up
- Encouraging young people’s drug and alcohol use
The penetration of social network use into everyday life in the UK continues to rise rapidly with over 29 million Facebook users (March 2011) and 12 million on Twitter (May 2011). With the advent of smartphones, large and increasing numbers of people are actively engaged with their social networks throughout the day. Social networking has already revolutionised the way in which a number of major spheres operate including: advertising, travel, leisure, campaigning, fund-raising and electioneering – but is currently rarely utilised by Government or Third Sector organisations.
Although a number of Third Sector providers do have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts, a brief Internet survey I conducted reveals that most have low numbers of posts and only become active around fund-raising events and occasional campaigning. Apart from the odd text reminder about an appointment, social care providers appear not to have explored the huge potential of using the (relatively inexpensive) social media in their work with clients.
I am currently involved with a couple of organisations working with drug users and offenders to help them use social media (particularly Facebook and online surveys) for a whole range of objectives. These include: providing follow-up support; information about services; conducting outcomes studies and service user surveys.
One of the mistakes that lots of organisations make in their first forays into social media is a failure to understand fully that because Facebook, Twitter and the rest are interactive they require considerable input of staff time. You can use social media just to pump out information but that’s not their purpose and people will quickly disengage – especially if the messages you send out are primarily about self-promotion.
Of course, many smaller third sector providers have limited staff time to dedicate to social media. In my work, I’m encouraging organisations to actively engage their service users not only to participate in social media but to take ownership of hubs such as secret Facebook groups and Bulletin Board discussion forums. Not only does this reduced demand and staff time, but it gives the social media groups a real life of their own and enables them to develop in much more interesting and innovative ways. The work is at a purely developmental stage at the moment, but we see the real potential of 24/7 mutual support, virtual job clubs (ex-offenders who have found work letting others know about vacancies in their workplace which will never be advertised) and encouraging lapsed drug users back into treatment.
I’m very keen to use this blog as a hub for debate and meeting place for new ideas. Please post a comment or get in touch if you are developing the use of new media in the social care sphere.