Communication Currents

Taking a Turn at Technology: Leveraging Social Technologies Through Communication Practice

October 1, 2009
Digital Communication & Gaming

After sitting on the tarmac for more than eight hours, American Airlines passengers petition Congress for a Passenger's Bill of RightsCat lovers delight in sharing silly pictures of their feline pets. A community rallies to catch a cell phone thief. A flash mob gathers in Belarus to eat ice cream and send a political message. Around the world people are innovatively leveraging social technologies and changing their personal, professional, and political lives. By decreasing the cost of collaboration and the incidence of technological failure, social tools enable creative problem solving, sharing, and collective action. So how can communication practitioners use technology to advance their cause and do good work?

Using cases like these, Clay Shirky demonstrates, “when we change the way we communicate, we change society.” Shirky's 2008 book, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations, provides a compelling analysis of group behavior and social technologies, yet fails to offer strategies for leveraging technologies for social change. In response to this book, I offer strategies for leveraging social technologies through communication practice and highlight important ethical considerations.

Strategy 1: Evaluate Your Promise. Social technologies are most effective when grounded in an understanding of human behavior, which includes the need for inclusion, control, doing meaningful work, and contributing to something larger than one's self. “The promise” refers to an intriguing or awe-inspiring message that motivates, invites, or encourages participation among stakeholders (e.g., to learn, to serve, to protest, to be entertained). In order to mobilize technology, individuals must first evaluate what their message promises clients, the public, employees, customers, or students. Start by asking what value, meaning, or gratification users will get from connecting with you or your organization by way of social technologies? Reflecting on this question also provides an opportunity to revisit, refine, or rethink your primary purpose, mission, and goals.

Strategy 2: Define Standards for Success. If you are uncertain about where you are going, you might end up somewhere you do not want to be. This sounds simple enough, yet people often fail to begin their communication intervention with the end in mind, jumping instead straight to the method for affecting change (e.g., using Facebook to promote engagement) before determining how they will evaluate the success (or failure) of the intervention. Creating standards by which you will measure communication effectiveness is an important step for leveraging technologies for social change. These assessment standards should be defined after you have established and refined your goals or evaluated the promise you are communicating to key stakeholders. For example, if your goal is to organize a group of citizen-activists around issues of racial justice, you might define success in terms of numbers of registered participants, traffic on your website, attendance at events, or changes in organizational policies. Practitioners should let their goals and standards for success drive their decisions about which social tools to incorporate into their practice.

Strategy 3: Avoid Golden Hammers. The principle of the golden hammer, also known as the law of the instrument, is rooted in a vivid anecdote about a small child and a toy hammer. The moral of the story is that when the only tool you have at your disposal is a hammer it is tempting to treat everything like a nail. Social technologies are tools for amplifying or extending our essential communication skills (as well as our characteristic short-comings; see Shirky). As such, social tools can be used to invite participation, position issues for audiences, or connect across time, space, and social distances. However, the most current or most advertised technology might not be the best tool for the job. Put simply, there is no cure-all or magic bullet when it comes to social tools. This is not to say that new tools should be avoided, but rather that practitioners might consider how existing tools (e.g., wikis) can be mobilized for achieving communication goals. Practitioners can maximize social technologies by leveraging the tools (e.g., wikis, blogs, chat, discussion boards, or e-mail) that bridge their pre-determined promise with their standards for success.

Strategy 4: Bargain Responsibly. Digital environments are populated with people. People create cultures that define the rules, values, and relations of power among members of the community. Thus, leveraging technologies for social change involves an element of cultural consciousness and savvy negotiation. Practitioners must be mindful of the rules and values communicated when building a virtual community of clients, customers, or stakeholders. Key questions to consider include: what types of interactions are appropriate between stakeholders? What is expected of members of the community? What are the rules? How are they established and enforced? What type of spoken or unspoken contract do you wish to negotiate with your users? Do you have the capacity to follow-through with your end of the bargain? What will the consequences be for you or your organization if others do not fulfill their end of the bargain? Leveraging social technologies involves a willingness and ability to identify and responsibly manage the tensions of a virtual community.

These strategies provide a framework for leveraging technology for social change. However, the ability to extend one's message, share, and coordinate collective action involves important ethical considerations. Ethical technological practice implies using social tools:

  • to make a positive difference in the world.
  • for greater inclusion, effectiveness, or social justice.
  • to create happiness and well-being.
  • to provide access where there have otherwise been barriers.
  • to leverage community assets instead of exploiting deficits.

As social tools become more common, people are deploying them in more interesting ways, and their potential for social change (for good or ill) is becoming more imminent. In many ways, greater use of social technology is a sign of a growing public awareness about how communication shapes (and is shaped by) society. Through the thoughtful and reflective use of social tools, communication practitioners and students of human communication are well positioned to lead the way in this epochal transformation of the role of communication in society.