10. LEVERAGE social media

“Too often ‘experts’ believe they have the rational answer founded on evidence. They ask the public to trust them. They miss the ‘wisdom of the crowd’… The time is ripe for a citizen–centered agenda.”
—Paula Ellis, Vice President, Knight Foundation [from The Power of Social Innovation]

To rethink and rebuild the way we deal with social problems, you will want to engage citizens as catalysts for social change—whether as clients, community members, or fellow entrepreneurs. There are a number of important opportunities for digital media to help build citizens’ capacity for self-organization and for community problem-solving and to help grow the most exceptional providers.

First, social media tools increasingly allow you to mobilize your fellow citizens in a way that grabs the attention of government and service elites. Imagine citizens virtually marching on city hall. We saw this when Ashton Kutcher and Kevin Rose asked their two million Twitter followers to demand a response from elected officials about ending malaria.

You can also use social media to produce opportunities for creatively constructing a new model of citizen participation. These tools not only change how advocacy efforts occur but also fundamentally democratize news gathering and reporting, following a trend of devolving control over information from authoritative experts to citizens.

A third opportunity provided by social media is in activating citizens who could pressure funders to redirect underperforming resources toward higher-value solutions. Such pressure comes, for example, when community-based reporters or bloggers comb government data, make sense of them, and broadcast the information to force change. In this case, mobilizing citizen demand for transformative social progress via social media requires that you access and make available performance and financial data in the hopes that an engaged community that will post reactions.

Finally, because a third party and not the client pays for social services, citizens have little voice or choice in what services they receive. In effect, there is no market discipline if customers can’t “vote with their feet” if a provider does not perform. Consider efforts that use digital media to secure this type of feedback, for example a platform like ratemyprofessors.com, Angie’s List or  Yelp for rating social services.

Opportunities to leverage social media include:

  • Provide new, attention grabbing ways for individuals to mobilize fellow citizens.
  • Devolve access to information from “experts” to citizens.
  • Gain access to and post providers’ performance and financial data.
  • Capture and organize citizen feedback.

In Action

The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Community Information Challenge provides $4M a year in grants to community foundations to “find creative uses of media and technology to help keep communities informed and their citizens engaged.” Why? According to Alberto Ibargüen, former publisher of the Miami Herald who today serves as the Knight Foundation’s president and CEO, an engaged citizenry needs to be able to pursue what he calls “their own true interests.”

Read more about the Community Information Challenge here.

A terrific example of how social media can catalyze and increase the value of delivery systems can be seen in the work of Nina Zolt and her husband, Miles Gilburne.  Their ePals and In2Books technologies connect millions of students across the globe and match reading mentors to grad-schoolers.  Through ePals, more than 500,000 classrooms in 200 countries and territories connect to engage in project-based learning.  In2Books connects carefully screened adult pen pals who each year read five books with young students who read the same books and then exchange six letters through the ePals site, with teachers using the site to reinforce discussions.

Read more about ePals here.

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