The Pandora’s Box of Social Media and Community Media Practice


This is a blog post of two parts and two projects. This will be my way of working things out (at least for a while) as I embark on a career of being self-employed as a researcher and a practitioner (whatever that means, somebody who does stuff?). I hope that through describing and reflecting on my week I will be able to draw out the themes of community participation/empowerment/engagement through the use of social media and the internet, in a way that steps away slightly from the academic obligation and use of such terms (for impact, for instance – or to justify decisions and directions in the future) & is informed by the events and circumstances of the last two weeks (which are essentially unpredictable due to the nature of the approaches); the rewards and challenges of working within an (employment?) space that requires you to firstly react and adapt to your surroundings and challenges – and then use those experiences to build towards something that resembles an infrastructure (be it a community, funding opportunities (read: next rent payment & beer tokens), valued/recognised/transformative learning experiences out-width accredited approaches) and lastly, how these experiences, encounters, circumstances can be fed into ongoing development around wider projects such as morphing #citizenrelay into a project proposal, ready for the mega-event catalyst of the Glasgow 2014 commonwealth games and the mind-fuck that will be the independence referendum and the established media battle surrounding it. Two massive media-intensive events for a tiny nation such as Scotland and it’s going to Derren Broon a lot of people. So aye, understanding the media and its power is important, but so is recognising the power and impact of the devices and networks and access to information we have through the internet and mobile devices can be too. The #citizenrelay update will come later, ahead of the BeGoodBeSocial talk on the 20th of December at the Scottish Parliament (you can read a guest post by David McGillivray and myself on the #BeGoodBeSocial blog here.)

Our Digital Planet

Over the last two weeks I’ve been working with John Popham on the #ourdigitalplanet internet station which has been situated slap-bang in the middle of Sauchiehall Street (main shopping street) in Glasgow. The project is part of a wider roadshow that has been funded by Nominet Trust – and has visited Brighton, Bristol, Cardiff, Plymouth, Liverpool and before concluding in Glasgow this week. I’ve been commissioned by PodNosh to support John as an impartial consultant-y type person who can offer advice, support, fixies or just chat around the internet and social media – without organisational affiliation (so no services or products to promote in return for free advice) and without embodied agendas (sales, profits, targets etc). This has been a good project to take on at a time as I’ve pushed myself back into the fringes of the institutions I’ve been connected to (higher education mainly) as I’ve had to think about my autonomy to and within a wider project, but also I’ve been exposed to the real contrasts and challenges of having an open door policy on any problem relating to the web (although, just because it is digital doesn’t separate it from the realities of life.

(photo by @johnpopham)

The location of the internet box is important. It is on a main shopping street, in a place that normally has some sort of stand or fair ground ride on it. If you live in Glasgow, you are bound to walk past this box at some point in the last 3 weeks. It is surrounded by photographs, drawing your eyes to the set up. Before I had even thought about what I would be doing on the project, I was wandering around Sauchiehall St with my friend Sarah (and our saturday afternoon hangovers after my 2-blath birthday) and I had seen the set up before I remembered where I was going to be on Monday morning. Throughout the week, friends and randoms knew exact where I was was talking about, even if they didn’t understand what the internet box was. During the first week, so many people were literally popping their head in to see what the hell it was – by the end of the week, a man came in to tell us how he really enjoyed how the photography brightened up the street in a way that wasn’t trying to sell him something. The warm glow from one person’s comment (who felt he needed to come back to the box to tell us) trumps the need to focus on footfall.

Under the photographs there were facts and figures about the internet, links to websites and why they might be important for people to look at, the sort of stats we are used to seeing on infographics, but instead being shared on blogs – they were in the street for people to chose to read or not. These links and resources were all available on take-away leaflets too.

Inside the box, there were 7-8 internet enabled laptops that anybody could use. There as piles of literature generated by the project that replicated the information outside – plus the partnerships formed in the project (on the website) – and then the opportunity for local services to contribute their own promotional materials for services (such as Glasgow life, the libraries and Glasgow regeneration agency) – essentially, it was a platform, a vessel for those who wanted to showcase the free and beneficial social work they did (some of which was connected to the internet and encouraging/supporting the use of the internet) and we could offer drop-in support or point people in the right direction.

What worked?

It worked because the people who stepped in, with a problem or a dilemma or just wanted a chat – managed to get the support they needed. Because there was no set of expectations – nor was there a target audience – there was an opportunity to get real insight into the nature of what 2012 web problems were. For one, it blasted the myth (often generated by self-select survey stats and personal presumption) about the digital natives. I met a 28 year old counterpart who had never been on a computer in his life – but wanted to learn so his daughter could use one – he didn’t know he could learn at the library and was practically hugging me when I showed him what access he could get. I also met a 90 year old who only started using the internet when he was 85 – and spoke the lingo perfectly, right down to his angry bird score & his gripes with Skype, yet felt he had to apologise for being old and a luddite. John and I have also been challenged with the reality of Glasgow, but more of life really. Characters emerged, seeking solice in our warm-ish (depending on how hardcore you are) internet box, pretty much every day. People who feel they need their stories to be heard, with brutal honesty (because there is no other way) and with no agenda or sales targets to meet, it was often the case that we would spend quite a lot of time getting to know such characters.

Certainly, you place an open doors cabin and policy in the centre of Glasgow, you can not be self-selecting with the people who may decide to enter it. Furthermore, although social norms and practices dictate the feeling of wanting to get out there and grab people off the street as part of the gig, it is very much a place where for it to be effective, it needs to be ‘come to us’ instead. You can’t measure, predict, assume things that you can’t see – standing about asking people if they are numpties with computers is going to terrify somebody who has doubts even more, especially if it is something they feel particularly sensitive about.

The most rewarding feelings was when a person peaked in, explained their problem and we could not only solve it/offer advice of who best to speak to, but also convince them that it wasn’t because they were stupid or a ‘luddite’ or not good at technology – it was all a learning process and the internet ™ is not something you can just master, its a literacy you can get better at navigating and most probably know more than they think. Everywhere else that we might associate with technical support (shops especially) have customer service/support implicitly linked with sales – and training/education courses might be a bit much if you are just wanting to know how to do ‘blah’ on your laptop/tablet/mobile.

Nevertheless, letting go of the feeling of needing to get out and speak to people because it feels like work, like recruitment, like I am fulfilling some sales or evaluation criteria has been difficult. Furthermore, there is also addressing further issues of security, managing the expectations of volunteers from different organisations who were there to offer support or promote their own services and indeed, the personal impact on the person carrying out the intervention. I can’t say it is has been a easy ride spending dedicated time listening to anybody and everybody, it does have an effect on your own mental capacity – especially when you can’t always help with things that are, I guess, out-width the remit of simply getting people to engage in digital technology (in whatever way). We connect out personal identity so closely to how we use the web, in ways to think about the ‘public/private’ dichotomy – privacy, coming across genuine online, verifying the identity of others, ensuring the information that we access is of suitable quality to suit expectations. All elements of becoming digitally literate – but also very personal and unique signifiers of how we might be perceived by other people.

It was a tough gig, but came with insight at a time when I was embarking on my own freelance career (especially when it comes to managing my own energy levels in the process)- and an important realisation when I think about the next project I’m going to write about – the Digital Sentinel in Wester Hailes (where I wrote about my involvement last week).

The Digital Sentinel

I’m very quickly coming to realise that the online world of community media is a pandora’s box in the making. I attended the launch of the STV Local website for the South-west of Edinburgh on Friday as a representative of WHALE Arts Agency – where I am developing the strategy and implementation of a relaunched community news presence for Wester Hailes. STV local (in particular Glasgow & Hamilton) have been incredibly supportive in the past in terms of both reporting on & aggregating content from #citizenrelay, not only sending community reporters to attend the launch of the project – but also directly lifting our content at the time and including it as part of a live-blog of the torch relay in Glasgow.

Although I do have my criticisms about the way that employed journalists, working for established media outlets, treat, use and repurpose citizen-generated media content, overall, when dealing with individuals directly using social media, there has been good relationships formed, maintained & representation has been mainly fair, balanced and importantly, in context. Established vs citizen media is not direct binary that competes directly against each other – although I can see why those who work for the established media are invested (and somewhat protective in some cases) of the current and future models.

Although I’ve dabbled in established media in the past – which has been great for me in terms of raising awareness of the projects I’ve been working on and also been good for contributing to investigations and wider research projects that then went on to be taken up by national newspapers, I’m not in the game of doing what I do so I can eventually get out of the community media circus and into ‘proper’ journalism, its the community media and education game that I love doing. I hold my hands up in the air and say that I have never felt better since the day I realised to myself that the best way for me to work with others is to work for nobody except myself – and it is an easy criticism to make to say that those of us who are working in a community media space are only in it to challenge, bring down or even replace mainstream journalism.

The assumption that people will only participate in community-led creative initiatives  (be it a local newspaper, event organising, creative media workshops, open mic nights – whatever) because it *might* lead to a full-time employed job is misleading and often distracting from the reason of why we do these things in the first place. I might come across overly critical in my approach when it comes to asking tough questions, but I am an optimist at heart – I’d like to believe that people will do things such as get involved in a community newspaper project for something other than gaining measurable (often employability) skills, like feeling part of a wider *thing* than could involve telling, supporting and capturing stories of the community – and in turn feeling that they can make new stories and ideas in the process. There are also the wider aims of making a place feel better about itself – a difficult challenge if you are using the term “to make” – you can’t make people do anything, just like I couldn’t *make* people come into my internet box on Sauchiehall Street, but for those who did, I could try my best to help take them from one place to another, even if it just meant pointing out there the nearest library with a course going.

Next steps

In order to ensure that the Digital Sentinel has a chance to even be born, not grow – not hit targets, but to take root  – then I need to identify three things:

1) the places where people feel comfortable to take to others and tell each other stories (already the Wester Hailes library is proving to be an important hub of activity)
2) the events and interventions that bring people together (events that already happening are much easier to cover & train community reporters around rather than trying to run abstract workshops to my time scale)
3) the people who want the community newspaper so bad that they would be willing to step up and take on the responsibility for housekeeping, recruitment and managing expectations of those who want to get involved. They will be supported but also manage the governance of the community that may emerge around.

Learning indirectly from #ourdigitalplanet, without these elements, there is no infrastructure. That’s why I give larger media organisations a harder time when they use the language of community engagement and, in some ways, emancipation with their hyper-local, area-specific media. Firstly, it is much easier to set up something and present it as a solution to say, the dearth of local newspapers, if you are already in the business of media making. We have to be careful and critical of the language being used to describe such outfits, especially if there is an element of community empowerment attached. Sure, exposure from the more mainstream media can be fantastic – stories can get up the chain quicker, gain authority and respect if it fits the news agenda that day – but in the same breath, so can negative perceptions of spaces and places, a problem that Wester Hailes frequently encounters through existing reporting. Nevertheless, the presence of a hyper-local outfit such as STV local allows for media representation to become part of contemporary, local debate again – generating an interest for reporting and negotiation over such representation. If social media reporting is picked up and used by a media company paying attention to the area, will that content will be represented and contextualised in the way it was intended – or will it simply reaffirm the same old narrative surrounding places such as Wester Hailes.

My next job is to develop an ethical media policy that will do less about dictating/suggesting what might be suitable or trusted content for the Sentinel – and focus more on advising on how the community govern their own narratives online. This may include details about how established media might appropriate their content – and the importance of telling all stories, not just ones that replicate or feel/sound like existing media rhetoric.