Community Action and Social Media

Photo from research seminar, Angus McCabe at the front of a seminar room, participants looking towards him or using laptops etc.

Research Seminar at the Third Sector Research Centre

On Wednesday Alison Sayer from (Halas Homes) and I spent the afternoon in a research seminar at the University of Birmingham. The Barrow Cadbury Trust have funded the Third Sector Research Centre to undertake exploration and research around Community Action and Social Media. The project started a few months ago, when Kevin Harris from Local Level (he blogs here) reviewed literature on the topic and carried out telephone interviews with people who do work with community groups and social media.

Questions being asked through the research are:

  • How/do social media generate, extend, develop or sustain community action in communities of place/interest? (This is the overall research question.)
  • What social media are being used at a community level and how?
  • Why and to do what?
  • What is the impact and outcomes of social media use?

If you have any examples which can help to answer these questions please do get in touch with Kevin Harris ( I’ll be sharing some experiences here which might go some small way to responding to the research questions, and also examples from other places. (They will all go in a category called community action and social media so that you can find them easily.)

Though the research team themselves weren’t using social media during the seminar, that clearly that didn’t stop those of us who enjoy social reporting, involving people outside the room, and picking up on discussion points through a backchannel. We used the hashtag #CASM, and Pauline Roche kindly curated an archive of the twitter discussion on Storify. Slides from the seminar were circulated after the session via email with participants, I’ve shared a copy here.

At this point I confess to a feeling of immense frustration. There are amazing people across the country who have incredible experience-based knowledge in relation to communities and community development, and the analysis of power which comes with that. They even write brilliant books about things like networking approaches to community development. However they haven’t really jumped in when it comes to social media. This leads to barriers in them understanding stories and examples from people like Steph Clarke who use social media in highly skilled and adept ways to facilitate positive connections and action and build cohesion in their own communities. I am convinced that understanding can only be real when you have built up some experience  of using social media. Otherwise it’s like trying to understand what it’s like to swim without ever getting in the water.

Anyway, here’s my first example from Dudley of community action being driven through social media. Karl Denning is a guide dog owner from Dudley who campaigns for equality and raises awareness about behaviours which make day to day life difficult and even dangerous for partially sighted people. Karl came along to a Dudley Social Media Surgery in 2013, when he learned some tips and tricks to use Twitter more effectively (he’s on twitter as @KarlDenning). He returned to the next surgery for help to set up a new blog on WordPress, and then again later in 2014 to find out how to use Instagram. Below is a video made and shared on YouTube by Dudley Police and Karl, raising awareness of inconsiderate parking. It’s had over 3,500 views. I have no idea what the impact and outcomes of this are, but it has made me more thoughtful about where and how I park. The video relates to a wider effort by Karl to raise awareness which taps in to the hashtag #inconsiderateparking. Do take a look at the video, if only to watch how tentatively the police officer passes the car, which helps you empathise with how scary this is.

Photo credit: Photo from research seminar taken by Gooweon Jeong, shared via @thirdsectorrc twitter account


  1. David Wilcox · February 14, 2015

    Hi Lorna – thanks for blogging the event. Great to meet up … but I too felt some frustration. I think the research is potentially important, but only if it looks at what individuals really do day-to-day in different settings, for different purposes, in different cultures, with different roles, using a variety of methods and devices.
    All adoption and use of social tech is personal and contextual … so broad questions about “social media and community” won’t tell us any more than past studies, in my opinion. That’s particularly the case with such a spread of potential methods, and the move to mobile. Diverse, and changing fast.
    The other frustration, which you identify, is the relatively low level of adoption of social media methods and approaches in the field. To offer another another analogy, you can’t learn to fly by watching the pilot! A lot of people wonder about the value of flying (or swimming). Substitute ride a bike, use an ATM, a remote control … digital tech is just the latest, and it isn’t going away.
    I cheekily asked at the end of the event “what is the research for” … and got the response (maybe tongue in cheek, since it was end of the day) “research is to show the need for more research”.
    Well … if you keep on doing research in the same old ways maybe you get the same results.
    I know budgets are tight, and it isn’t fair to just say to the researchers “dig deeper”.
    The research team and TSRC have great expertise in community development and action.
    The people at the event have strong networks bridging community action and use of social media, with the sort of stories you offer.
    These stories could be useful in two ways: firstly to help unpack the “what works, where, for whom” issues. Secondly to show people not using social media why it could be helpful, and worth trying.
    I wonder if we could work with the research team to gather, analyse, and tell some stories?
    And just to illustrate the continuing social media challenge … if a few of us think that’s worth doing, where might we talk about it?
    Anyway, thanks for getting us started, and to Kevin and fellow researchers for braving the tough questions.

    • Lorna Prescott · February 14, 2015

      Thanks David. You raise a really important point about the use of social tech being personal and contextual, I agree.

      In relation to stories, in addition to sharing some from work in Dudley, I’m going to add links in future posts to stories of success shared in the Creative Citizens Variety Pack which I’ve just started reading ( Perhaps if we all put stories out there we’ll build a readily accessible library to draw on and learn from.

      However rather than try to analyse situations in which it could be really hard work to find and collate evidence of impact, at this stage I’m more interested in looking at how we can apply sensible measurement going forward, and help community groups to do the same. I haven’t read it yet, but perhaps Beth Kanter’s Measuring the Networked Nonprofit would be helpful: – she seems to be saying sensible stuff which obviously doesn’t only apply to one kind or organisation or one part of the world (e.g.

  2. David Wilcox · February 14, 2015

    Thanks Lorna – I hadn’t spotted the Variety Pack. Great stuff. On evaluation, I guess we would need something that expl,ored not just benefit for groups, but networks/communities. I know from personal contacts that’s an issue for Asset Based Community Development, for example, with or without added tech.
    I see Big Lottery Fund have tentatively opened their online community platform. Maybe an interesting topic there!

  3. Lorna Prescott · February 14, 2015

    Thanks for the link to the Big Lottery online community David. It brings to mind others like Big Lunch Extras and Incredible Edible Network, where groups can connect and share and access resources. I think Streetlife was mentioned at the research seminar, I didn’t know much about it, but yesterday I had a letter inviting me to join. Which I did, and immediately saw evidence of an online social platform leading to creative citizenship (by which I mean creative activity which is has a social, political or civic element – from the Creative Citizens Variety Pack). I tweeted a couple of screengrabs

    I would hope that anything we explore would apply to any efforts to have positive social impact, regardless of structure/governance or otherwise relating to the people involved.

    • David Wilcox · February 14, 2015

      I think the issue for BIG online, and similar, is how to connect with Twitter and Facebook activity in the field, and/or offer something really useful. Maybe they’ll get traction because of the link to funding. Interesting and encouraging that Streetlife is pressing on, when similar attempts have failed. I hope they can make it work.

  4. Kevin Harris · February 16, 2015

    Hi Lorna, thanks for all your input at the seminar and since. We’re flattered by all this interest and it deserves a considered response – apologies for the delay. I think I understand your frustration and of course it’s something that we talked about beforehand. These kinds of tension are pretty ancient. As a researcher and practitioner I’ve been on both sides often enough. Researchers try to involve practitioners in what they’re doing, practitioners expect researchers to know a bit about practice. (Meanwhile, recently I was mildly berated for being involved in interventions while also evaluating their impact, despite this being what the client asked for. So it goes). Often, as perhaps in this case, there may not be a settled understanding of mutual benefit, which has to be negotiated.
    Your analogy with swimming is well made, and you are critical of people across the sector who ‘haven’t really jumped in when it comes to social media.’ So why is that? Let’s try and find out. This is about my fourth or fifth piece of work on social media, I haven’t counted, and I’m struck each time by the unquestioning conviction of the converted and the stark distance between them and those who make limited or no use of social media. Why is that?
    Perhaps that is where the research effort should be focused: not on use, but on non-use. What you experience with frustration, I treat as a research question.
    It’s just possible that regarding use of social media as a no-brainer isn’t going to be good enough. At our seminar last week the word ‘barriers’ was used a lot (and you use it in your post). I don’t think anyone spoke of ‘reasons’. But of course there are people in the sector and beyond who may have very good reasons for not using social media, decisions taken from an informed position. It would not be surprising if they found the relentless exhortation a little patronising. That is not by any means to deny the well-rehearsed benefits; but there could be (there obviously are) disbenefits that people are weighing up. Reflecting on this helps to give the research a clearer purpose.
    We have been upfront about seeking help with the methodology; and we have been upfront about the impression that the literature is hindered by an apparent oversupply of unreflective exhortations and evangelism. We want to try to avoid adding to that: it’s a research study. I suspect that what’s needed is not ‘more stories’; what’s needed is evidence of impact, that is as robust as we can make it in what is after all quite a small study. What we’re struggling with is how to get that evidence in a short space of time with limited resources, indeed much of it (as will be familiar to you and everyone in the sector) in time stolen out of other affairs (to quote a well-known west Midlander). Your help and that of others – especially west Midlanders – is invaluable and appreciated.

    • David Wilcox · February 16, 2015

      What an interesting conversation!
      Kevin wrote: ” I suspect that what’s needed is not ‘more stories’; what’s needed is evidence of impact, that is as robust as we can make it in what is after all quite a small study. ”
      I suspect that impact comes not from add-on social media tools, but blending appropriate additional tech/media into working practices … and assessing impact involves taking account of context, culture, purpose etc.
      Stories usually have something of the the who, why, what, when, where and how – or prompt us to ask those questions.
      The answer to “does social media make a difference to community action” is “it depends” …

  5. Lorna Prescott · February 16, 2015

    Thanks both. I have so many thoughts, responses and ideas around what you’ve said. I’m going to give myself time to ruminate a little and then see what feels most pertinent.

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