The disappointing reality of using social media for public engagement

My notes on Kerry Shephard, Kim Brown, Tess Guiney, Lynley Deaker & Gala Hesson (2018): Exploring the use of social media by community-engaged university people, Innovations in Education and Teaching International.

This paper considers social media in terms of the third mission of the university, contextualising it in terms of the difficulties which universities have tended to have in conceiving of this mission. defining an agenda for it and encouraging its pursuit by staff members. It reports on a year long project which sought to investigate how university teachers become engaged with communities, the communication devices they used and how they evaluated their impact. They position their inquiry at the “intersection between higher education, social media, community engagement and academic development” (pg 3). It operated through an interesting participatory method described on pg 3:

our research developed around the work of a core research group that met approximately fortnightly over a 12- month period to plan activities, share readings and to deliberate on findings. The group invited community-engaged university people (including academic and general, or support, staff) to these meetings to enable our deliberations to include specific and relevant contexts. We were, for example, on occasions joined by specialists in outreach, science communication, learning technologies, social media and educational design, who contributed to our understanding of the context of community engagement at this university. These colleagues also provided opportunities for the research group to discuss incoming research findings with specialists so as to test developing interpretations and understanding as our learning progressed

This workshop process enabled “a process of reciprocal and reflexive learning”. These were combined with 25 interviews with community-engaged staff across the university, inviting these participants to define what ‘community-engaged’ meant to them. Their approach to these interviews did not explicitly inquire about social media, instead exploring it further if it was raised by participants. Their thematic analysis produced a number of interesting themes which the rest of the paper describes:

  • Traditional communication dominates with social media often cast as an alternative to face-to-face that may be useful in some contexts.
  • Rational decision making characterised the choice of communication devices by interviewees, reflecting factors like their existing skills, time/ energy involved in learning new ones and skill levels within the community they engaged with.
  • Where the use of social media is working well was limited amongst the interviewees but pronounced where it was found. This related the type of communication device to the for of communication and the groups communicated with.
  • Disappointment in the use of social media reflected gap between “the actual outcomes associated with the use of a particular social medium and the anticipated or hoped-for outcomes” (pg 6).
  • Skill transfer from private life to work life was a key factor in use of social media, with staff applying skills they’d learned from their private use of these platforms.  How can those who haven’t developed these skills be supported and encouraged?

They take issue with hyper-enthusiasm surrounding social media for engagement, arguing on pg 7 that social media can be used successfully in specific conditions but it’s certainly not a catch-all solution to the problem of how to do community engagement. My concern for a long time has been that inflated conception of social media’s value for community engagement will lead to much disappointment, as well as getting in the way of the targeted and specific strategies which are necessary for those situations where it could be powerful:

Our data suggests that some academics target particular social media effectively for specific groups, and make strategic, rational decisions about how to do this. But for others, social media are not currently used or useful. Some have tried social media to discover that they have not produced the communication outcomes that are necessary for successful community engagement and in some circumstances more traditional forms of communication have proved successful and are preferred. For some community-engaged colleagues, irrespective of how adept at using social media they may or may not be, their particular form of community engagement depends on face-to-face meetings or the telephone.

It’s a matter of specifics, illustrated by them with the distinction between those engagers who seek to report back to communities and those who more broadly seek to discuss with them. What might be right for the former probably won’t be for the latter. The more we can tie the use of social media to specific strategic objectives for community engagement, the more likely we are to find success in our use of it.

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