I’m looking forward to attending Lucy Suchman’s forthcoming CSISP/Sociology Annual Lecture at Goldsmiths on June 1. This lecture promises to focus on exploring methodologies for understanding digital practices and their implications. Suchman is concerned with the interface between devices and users both as a point both of material practice (we manage the device and operate it, in a physical sense) but also a place of cultural imagining where meanings are made and identities forged. Suchman will be discussing the politics of digital practices that emerge through this dynamic socio-material engagement, and exploring examples from her recent research, including a focus on military simulations and remote control weaponry. All of this is a long way, substantively, from digital volunteering. I am hoping, however, to draw inspiration from Suchman’s close attention to the detail of the interfaces, the practices through which we bring them to life and the agency with which they become invested. It may be that our study of the experience of volunteers in the digital age could benefit from a very close attention to the socio-material qualities of the various interfaces through which volunteer identities are forged.
A recently published article by Shelley Boulianne describes a systematic review of studies exploring the relationship between use of social media and participation across a wide range of civic and political activities. The majority of the studies she reviewed found positive relationships between use of social media and participation, in a broader sense, in civic and political life. This is not, of course, sufficient to indicate a causal relationship. Whilst it does appear that amongst youth who are habitual social media users, and have relatively weak political engagement, social media use can significantly increase engagement, in other sub-populations a discrete influence of social media as a causative factor in promoting participation is hard to find. Standard surveys are finding it difficult to crack this problem, suggesting a need to extend research in the area either with more systematically designed comparative studies, or more in-depth qualitative explorations of experiences on-the-ground.
Boulianne suggests several themes for future research, one of which points directly to our interest in the volunteer experience in the digital age. Boulianne suggests that: “Few studies have examined the relationship between social media use and civic engagement. A mixed-method approach would examine survey data on the relationship between using social media and volunteering in the community as well as would examine how community groups use social media to recruit or communicate with volunteers.” Research from the volunteer perspective would be a valuable contribution to plugging this gap in our knowledge of what social media can do and under what circumstances positive effects emerge.
The most talked about aspect of volunteering and social media in 2015 continues to be event-focused volunteering – whether that be major sporting events, elections or, sadly, natural disasters and humanitarian crises. Houston et al review the role of social media in disaster response, and find that many different ways of using social media have emerged in this context (they distinguish 15!), with multiple forms sometimes emerging in response to the same disaster. Among these, particularly relevant to volunteers are the role of social media in raising awareness, identifying ways to volunteer, and connecting people who might otherwise feel detached or helpless in the face of a large scale event. Further articles published so far in 2015 include a discussion of support for moderators of Facebook groups formed in response to the European floods of 2013, analysis of Twitter traffic in response to the 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon Oil Spill, a comparison of Twitter use across different forms of crisis, and an evaluation of the future for social media use in emergencies in Australia. Social media sometimes, but not always, transition from a means of communication into a way of getting involved and taking action (whether online or on-the-ground) in response to an event.
Questions that continue to occupy the scholarly community discussing event-focused volunteering include:
- How can volunteer effort be crowd-sourced effectively and organized to best effect?
- How can existing software be used, and where are dedicated platforms required?
- How can digital forms of volunteering be integrated effectively with on-the-ground efforts drawn from more traditional sources?
To these we might add, can other forms of volunteering learn lessons from the experience of event-focused volunteering with social media? Can voluntary efforts aimed at meeting an ongoing need, rather responding to a dramatic and suddenly occurring event, find similar virtues in social media’s ability to connect? What challenges and tensions arise when the fleeting attention span and fast pace of social media are combined with a need for sustained effort over long time-spans?
As the dust begins to settle on the election results, it’s time to ask whether it was indeed a social media election – and if so, did social media’s role in organizing the many different kinds of volunteering that animate an election campaign really make the difference. Did the Conservatives’ Team2015 Facebook campaign, for example, tip the balance in their favour? Has the grass-roots social media based campaigning pioneered in the US by Obama taken its place in the UK – or have British political parties (or some of them, at least) found their own way to make social media work for them? Social media-based recruitment of volunteers offers the key advantage of reaching out beyond the existing party members, and once volunteers are on board, of providing social spaces to motivate their continuing efforts and to encourage them to do more. Social media spaces make volunteers’ efforts visible to one another, offering a means of rewarding through recognition of efforts, and creating a sense that one is part of a community of volunteering. Parties create a virtuous cycle, using social media spaces to recruit volunteers, then posting pictures of their volunteer activities online to encourage yet more efforts. The “campaign volunteer” photo – a smiling, thumbs up group of appropriately colour-branded volunteers grouped around a banner – has become the visual cliché of the political volunteer site, flourishing in Team2015 but also replicated across hundreds of local constituency Facebook profiles across the land. Has social media been able to normalise political volunteering in the UK?