At yesterday's Despite The Cuts: Engaging People, Engaging Place conference in Manchester, social media was a primary concern for community projects. How can they use this powerful new media? How is the decline of local newspapers affecting community engagement, and what needs to happen for communities to use social media to address the issues that affect their neighbourhoods?
During the conference's Open Space session, I and three other students from Manchester Metropolitan University posed the question of how social media can help address local community issues. We argued that using social media platforms can bring in a new and younger audience, and change the way communities come together and collaborate with one and other. Setting up a hashtag on twitter can be a great way for people to engage with a project, and attract more people to the discussion through viral exposure.
However, Dave Morris, Campaigns Officer for the National Federation of Parks and Green Spaces posed an interesting question: Does social media stop things from happening on the ground by diminishing the actual man power and face to face interaction on community projects? From the experience within our Open Space group we concluded that yes, without first establishing work on the ground, social media does not function as a product or means of promotion.
For good community engagement, both sides need to be used. First establish the ground work by speaking to people face to face, then use social media like Facebook and Twitter to raise awareness simply and quickly.
Paul Blakey MBE, the founder of Street Angels, is a supporter of social media when used in this way. He explained that he has several Twitter and Facebook accounts, and finds it very useful in creating a buzz around his community ventures like #do1nicething and The Christian Nightlife Initiative (@cninet).
We heard that the main barriers to the use of social media are its unfamiliarity to many community projects, and the fast pace of the technologies. Most projects were however positive about the overall impact of social media and realise its increasing importance. With help to address the remaining barriers, and by learning from the experience of groups like Street Angels, community initiatives have a lot to gain from this free and globally accessible media.