By Crysta Highfield
Social media, defined by its interactive nature and user-generated content, has largely been a tool and a toy for the wealthy and bored. Blogs, photo sharing sites, and online social networking sites have allowed peers (and increasingly organizations and companies) to share thoughts, messages, information, images, and videos.
Development agencies have been utilizing social media for years, using blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and other platforms to publicize their vision, purpose, and activities; spread news; build support; attract volunteers and donors; and engage with interested segments of the population. Of humanitarian agencies, UNICEF is the most ‘liked’ on Facebook (1.2 million+) and the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, is the most ‘followed’ on Twitter (1.2 million+) with the American Red Cross, Doctors without Borders, and the World Food Program among others also having substantial social media followings.
For development practitioners, social media and development is now entering a new and exciting phase. As internet connectivity spreads, and cell phone usage spreads even further, there are millions of new potential content creators gaining access to social media each year. More social media content aimed at development purposes can, and should, be created by the targets of development themselves. The benefits of this shift towards local media creation are clear. Social media enhances the ability of poorpopulations to voice their own concerns and priorities, and publicize their own vision and purpose. Self-advocacy is a form of empowerment not always delivered through traditional development projects.
The ability to access social media is limited by more than just technological barriers. Websites such as Global Voices foster a growing diversity of bloggers and give a platform to those whose voices would not normally be heard in media. However, the necessity of high levels of literacy means that such websites cannot work for the poorest and most marginalized. Despite the challenges, social media is being used by those in developing countries to serve many purposes. Some examples:
- Political Coordination: In Cambodia, where traditional media sources are largely controlled by the government, the opposition party was able achieving large gains in legislative seats and nearly take the presidency due largely to savvy use of social media.
- History and culture preservation: Traditionally the job of ethnographers, local populations in developing countries have begun telling their own stories and describing their own history and culture through social media. The Mondulkiri Resource and Documentation Centre in Cambodia, run by both ethnic majority and Bunlong staff and volunteers, uses Facebook, Blogger, Flickr, Issuu, SoundCloud, and YouTube to preserve and broadcast stories, songs, and resources that are valued by local indigenous communities.
- Accountability: As poor populations begin to have a greater voice through social media, they can use that voice to expose abuses against them. Especially in isolated communities dealing with extractive industries, the local populations are the best positioned to see and broadcast critical information to the broader populace.Rural populations using cell phones to document and send critical environmental information has been done through the Green Lines project in Nigeria, though not in a way that specifically leverages social media.
- Fun: It is important to remember that “Development” isn’t the primary goal of most people – it’s living and enjoying their lives. Martha Nussbaum rates Leisure as a necessary component of life worthy of human dignity in her book Creating Capabilities, and Manu Joseph of the New York Times reminds us to “Let the Poor Have Fun” when talking about expanding access to the internet. While activism, cultural preservation, and accountability are laudable uses of social media, social media can also be fun and expanded access to leisure activities like online chatting and games should be seen as a valuable development outcome rather than a distraction or waste.
As social media penetrates further into developing markets a greater number of voices will be able to be heard on a global scale. This change is good for its own sake and it should also be embraced and utilized by development practitioners in our efforts to empower and communicate with communities.