Trouble in Utopia? Community organisations and social media


Kevin Harris and Angus McCabe

Social media is now so newsworthy that celebrities get publicity – in traditional news sources - if they abandon it. People readily take sides in arguments about the benefits and dis-benefits it offers. Are there good reasons why many community organisations don’t use it?

These technologies are portrayed as ‘grassroots, collaborative, independent, empowering and democratic’. They help networks to form without traditional hierarchies or structure. They democratise the news, facilitate rapid sharing of information and help to build global movements. It’s easy to identify like-minded people and collaborate with them, and ordinary people can exploit this to influence agendas.

Thus, social media has been integral to recent revolutions and mass demonstrations, such as the Arab Spring and events in Maidan Square, Kiev. It represents a fundamental challenge to traditional ways of ‘doing politics’ and implies a shift in the relationship between citizens and political elites.

So what can explain the comparatively low levels of social media use in the community sector?

We have found no research evidence confirming the perceived benefits of social media for community organisations. The literature emphasises marketing and fundraising, mainly for charities. Organisations are encouraged to use social media for ‘engagement’ with potential audiences who will support their cause. Many community organisations will say they already do that face-to-face and will struggle to find the time or energy to get to grips with new technologies for an old purpose. And if they use social media simply for broadcasting –announcing events for instance – organisations are criticised for not using social media ‘properly’.

Our research suggests that social media is rarely used as a means of mobilising and organising communities. Even at the level of global movements, it has not created a new world order. It has not fundamentally changed power relationships.

Our case studies suggest that community organisations are typically persuaded by the rhetoric: they feel they ought to be exploiting social media, but under time and funding pressures, they are quickly pushed back by the awkwardness of the technologies. For the ‘digital optimists’, this tends to get deflected as a personal problem: people just don’t ‘get it’, they don’t understand the power of social media and the justification for investing time on it.

But perhaps they do understand the equation, and are making sound cost-benefit judgements.

And perhaps it’s now about individuals, not organisations. Many organisations - whether or not they receive public funding – are not well-placed to contest oppressive or non-inclusive agendas. The technology facilitates the assumption of this role by individuals, who can adopt strategic or radical approaches to sustaining ‘visibility and voice’. Such activism may emerge on the scale of ‘revolution’ or a more modest level of ‘subactivism’. The issue for community organisations is how they align themselves with these forms of activism and protest.

A full report on ‘Trouble in utopia’ will be available from the Third Sector Research Centre over the summer.

Published on 20/04/2016