A Terryific Chat: Exploring Tech Tools and Social Change

I have a secret confession to make. Don’t laugh, but I’m not very tech savvy. A couple of years ago I was invited to a training session about different social networking tools, and the wiki at my workstation malfunctioned when I attempted to edit it. I’ve been nervous around new technology ever since.

Recently though, I’ve noticed that a major way I learn about the world and discuss recent happenings is through technological tools. To a large degree, I log onto facebook because intriguing people are constantly posting intriguing articles and readings, and it is a way to gain access to perspectives that I wouldn’t find otherwise. Along with that though, comes web flotsam in the form of quizzes, random life rants, invites to groups/causes/fan pages I have no interest in joining and meaningless trivia.

So though the news is valuable, the nonsense outweighs it. As a result, I am no longer part of the facebook community, though my curiosity about social media remains. Wanting to learn more about technology and social change, I sat down recently with Toshio Rahman, the BC Youth Engagement Coordinator for Creating Local Connections, (a project of Taking it Global) for a terryific chat.

For those new to this topic, Toshio first framed our conversation by speaking about the changing nature of internet spaces. He noted that in the first generation of the web, things were more 1 dimensional and there was less of a back and forth with the technology, but now, in what is commonly called the 2nd generation or web 2.0, interactivity is the norm and tools such as blogs, wikis (where multiple collaborators can come to a document rather than a document going to people), photo sharing sites (ex: flickr), video sharing sites (ex: youtube, vimeo), podcasts, social networking sites and other tools are commonplace. All of these things can help foster communication between individuals and groups. Toshio noted that within each category there are numerous websites that offer these tools for free and generally they are easy to use, but they can also be overwhelming because there are so many different applications available.

To combat those feelings of being overwhelmed, Toshio talked about using tools in combination and experimenting, but noted that all these things require time and commitment. He suggested that “if you really don’t need a tool, or a tool isn’t useful to the people you work with, then don’t use it. (So if your membership doesn’t read blogs, then don’t have a blog). You should tailor the tools you use to your objectives and the people you interact with/want to connect with. You don’t want to overwhelm people; you want to be using tools effectively. So use what you have to and use it in an effective way.”

Excerpts from the rest of our chat can be found below.

Shagufta: One tool you mentioned is blogs. What are some tips to blog effectively so that you have people who are interested in your cause/issue coming back regularly to hear what you’re saying and plugging in to see what is going on?

Toshio: There are a few things. A good blog is updated frequently so people read it, it’s not lengthy, and it has an rss feed. An rss feed is like a pager system, so instead of you going to a website and seeing whether it’s updated, it notifies you, and for blogs this is really helpful. (If you’re not sure whether a site has a feed, a blue/orange symbol in the url window that looks like a soundwave coming out is a good indication). The feed is useful if you like a lot of different blogs, but you do need a reader.

A good blog may also gives insight into how an organization works or an event, or gives you access to the perspective of a participant. A good example of this is the BBC editorial blog. Also, when the Secretary General of Amnesty international went to Chad to do research for the conflict of Darfur, he blogged during his trip and people were able to read his updates as the trip progressed. So that’s an interesting example of the perspective of a head of an organization in an area of conflict.

In terms of campus clubs, they may not go abroad, but some might. So a UBC example is Engineers without Borders, and when they go on internships they blog about their experiences in Malawi or wherever they are while they are there. A lot of people who might want a similar internship can then look up their experiences.

And finally, a good blog also has moderated comments. Something that has worked well at many events (i.e-coffee nights) is to have an open blog for people to talk about the event.

Shagufta: Great. Do you have unique examples of how local organizations have been able to use technology to enhance the work they do?

Toshio:Sure. One example is where Amnesty International started an facebook campaign for Omar Khadr titled the Campaign for justice for Omar Khadr. Since Facebook is a more informal space, people could talk informally about the issue, post pictures of rallies, and talk about how people could help. Almost 6000 people joined and it was a good way of gathering support. That was based out of Ottawa.

Shagufta: So you don’t see social media engagement as a low level substitute for physical participation? That’s one of the debates that I have with myself- is social media helpful to engage people, or just a low level substitute? I feel like I get inundated with things, and I see invites and think yes, I’ll join this group for climate change, but then my involvement stops there. I’m really curious about how organizations can bring people in and get involved, aside from internal goal of supporting those already involved, which is something that many social media tools are able to do.Thoughts?

Toshio: Sure, it can get overwhelming when you get so much other stuff. The thing with Taking It Global is that it’s focused towards social change. So the site give you blogs, wikis, and project pages which can be translated into 11 languages, and it’s nuanced for social change. You can also upload documents for your work, so it is more attuned for the needs of a group that is doing social work. The tagline of TIG is “Inspire Inform Involve”. So you become a member to talk about the interesting things that you’re doing and others can get inspired and informed and then get involved themselves.

When it comes to social change work, since there is no central site, it’s hard for people to learn what’s happening. So the questions of what opportunities are available, what organizations exist in my area, these are things that we’re trying to help people answer.

Shagufta: That’s really interesting. Switching tracks a bit, online volunteering is a trend that is increasing in popularity. And in your role you’ve worked remotely as well. What are some of the unique challenges of not being in the same physical space as the broader team you work with?

Toshio: Well, we are in the age of the digital. So that’s breaking down geographical divides, and allows you to do projects in lots of different places/ways, rather than the traditional way of getting signatures for a petition in person. That’s still needed though- balance is important and you don’t want to become an isolationist. And you can’t compare both experiences- there are positive and negatives to both. With online involvement, it’s accessible, and can open up organizations that are not in your local area, but at the same time, you don’t have that face to face in person contact which can be important. So it really depends on what your own personal objectives are.

Shagufta:For this piece all kinds of guides and resources around social media and technology turned up in my research. Do you have any tips to help ensure one is in control and not at the mercy of the tools to the point where they become stressful/overwhelming?

Toshio: Generally, if you enjoy what you’re doing that’s good. For example with a blog if you’re updating it every day, then that’s a good sign because it means you want people to know what is going on. But if you’re spending hours a day and seem borderline obsessive, it’s a problem. But on the other hand, a horrible blog is one that is updated infrequently, maybe every month or every couple of months, and has no up to date content.
You have to do what you feel comfortable with and give the time you feel comfortable with, but also know that if something is going to benefit your organization, it will require time and dedication and constant checking.
And again, if tools are not going to affect membership you want to connect with or if you find things challenging or don’t know how to use something, or you’re using something because everyone is using it, then really rethink your usage. Better to use a couple of tools well, then to have a lot of quantity but you don’t have time for any of them and don’t know how they operate.

Resources to Learn more:
Blogs: wordpress.org
Social change/Social Networking: takingitglobal.org
Photo Sharing: Flickr.com
RSS: www.google.com/reader

Related Topics


Shagufta is a UBC Political Science graduate with a passion for interdisciplinary thinking, writing, travel, reading, tea, and interesting conversations. She hopes to combine all of these things in her life work someday. For now though, she studies social policy and planning at the University of Toronto and shares her adventures in and out of the classroom at http://seriouslyplanning.wordpress.com.