By Pete Cranston and Pier Andrea Pirani
Online media accessed through digital devices – PCs, tablets and mobile phones – plays a central role in all areas of knowledge and research. It is therefore crucially important to understand the online behaviour of the target audiences for development research as well as the wide range of available platforms and tools which can be exploited by project teams.
Looking at social media from the perspective of user engagement highlights a number of issues worth discussing.
Effective knowledge sharing is based on conversations between people, who share and discuss content and ideas. Sharing and promotion of research findings therefore means becoming part of the ‘web of flows’ and connecting to audiences in the spaces and with the tools they are using. In this context, increasing engagement means understanding how to bring audiences closer to the content, and to provide services that bring those audiences together to discuss and, ideally, pass on or recommend both the content and the discussion.
On the other hand, engagement at the beginning of the research cycle is an efficient and effective way of finding out what are the knowledge gaps, and building demand for research with intended users e.g. policy-actors and development practitioners. While progressing through the research cycle, sharing findings as they emerge with others will help shape both the direction of research projects and any emerging thinking along with others that include research peers and ultimate users. In this sense, communicating early on can help to ‘flush out’ thinking that is usually invisible to researchers (because it’s not captured in peer review publications that are the usual fodder of standard literature reviews).
This is taken one important step further in collective or crowd-sourced research, where scientists and other researchers collaborate with each other and wider audiences on their investigations. Its potential has long been recognised, as a means both to accelerate and enrich the process as well as to connect with different groups of interested or influential people.
However, conventional wisdom holds that this kind of open sharing and joint activity is at odds with the nature of the research process, where the tradition is for solo teams of researchers to prepare their findings privately before putting them out to review and where, especially in an academic and commercial context, advancement and success is seen to depend on secrecy. Nonetheless a growing number of examples demonstrate the power of such collaborative work[i] and, if trends in other areas are any guide, the exponential deepening and widening of networks that social media brings in its train is likely to strengthen this tendency significantly at least in the medium term.
People engage online in many different ways, as is illustrated in the diagram below. Increasing involvement with online platforms often entails individuals using a growing number of different digital tools and platforms. In order to engage with and exploit this deepening relationship, organisations need to develop a presence and activities across a similarly wide range of different environments and add social functionality to their sites. In 2012, alongside traditional websites, a standard organisational or project tool-set is likely to include one or more of blogs; Twitter; Facebook or other online social networks; YouTube or similar; Flickr, or similar for photos and images; Delicious, or other social bookmarking tool; possibly some kind of location tracking or sharing utility; all linked together using feeds.
In the next posts in this series, we will illustrate our experience and good practice of social media engagement through two different case studies.
Stay tuned and share in your views in the comments section of this post.