A Guest Blog from Dr Amany Elbanna,, Royal Holloway Amany Elbanna
The last few years have seen a significant, and likely to be permanent, shift in the level and format of communication and information disseminating from the epic centre of a crisis or an emergency. This is mainly due to the widespread use of social media and the rapidly developing use of digital volunteering.
As a consequence, I have set up a research project, Social Media for Emergency Management (SM4EM) which is funded by a joint grant from the British Academy/Leverhulme Trust. This project seeks to explore the implications of social media in this context and how it can best be utilised.
As part of this project, on 13th July 2015, a diverse group of professionals and academics in the area of humanitarian and emergency management met for a one-day workshop to examine the potential role of social media and other technologies in emergency management. The workshop was supported by the Knowledge and Organisational Learning Research Group at the School of Management.
One of the interesting themes that emerged from the discussions was the recognition that, in an emergency situation, people go to their friends before organisations. This means that communication traffic is mainly directed to friends, family and social media followers in the first few hours, and possibly days, depending on the nature of the crisis/emergency situation.
Whilst this use of social media provides a great deal of first hand information from the centre of the action, it presents a complex analysis challenge in distilling the key information that could help emergency organisations develop a clear picture of the situation. Volunteering organisations play a significant role in humanitarian and emergency situations however they traditionally work to support the first responders. Consequently it was suggested that volunteering organisations could perhaps play a new role by coming closer to affected people and actively informing the response strategy of traditional first responders. However it was also recognised that this might require a significant change in mindset and a more comprehensive view of how to reach out to and support people in emergencies.
For more information about the project, the next series of workshops or to get involved in the discussion, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Just ahead of publication, we were very pleased to get an early view of two articles that have examined the volunteer experience from Michelle O’Toole (Robert Gordons) and Christopher Grey (Royal Holloway). In one paper, to be published in Human Relations shortly, O’Toole and Grey coin the term ‘thick volunteering’ by which they mean “a form of volunteering which is rich in quality, heavily saturated with social and individual meaning, and having a depth to that meaning” which imparts a “significant sense of identity” for volunteers themselves. While the circumstances of their particular case study, RNLI, may be very particular (as an activity deeply embedded in local communities), the concept of ‘thick volunteering’ we feel has broad resonance. From our perspective, this raises issues about whether digital volunteering can maintain ‘thick volunteering’ or whether this may have a diluting effect? Can we create a digital community, that is not local, not geographically embedded, but that would replicate the same social meaning and identity creation?
In the second paper (appearing in Organization Studies later this year) O’Toole and Grey focus on the relationship between RNLI volunteers and RNLI managerial rules and practices. In this case, the authors seek to understand to what extent managerial cultural control may translate from the paid work environment to the voluntary context. In the case of the RNLI they conclude that rather than aiming to encourage commitment to the organization’s objectives, managerial control is aimed at limiting the autonomy of volunteers. Resistance to this control expresses itself in a struggle over what constitutes “legitimate moral ownership” of the RNLI, as managerial provision of equipment and standards clashes with volunteer provision of effort and commitment. As one volunteer said:
I don’t think [HQ] understand what it is we do here … They don’t really realize what effort goes into it at local level.. we are volunteers, we get nothing and we don’t want nothing for it, we do it because we love what we do … them people [VO managers] would be on serious money and they come down once in a blue moon and they have a whole lot of rules for us … you couldn’t … it’s local knowledge, you have to do what you think [is right] on the night … [to] get the job done”.
We too are interested in the interaction between volunteers and the VO, and see O’Toole and Grey’s research as providing potential conceptual grounding for understanding how that interaction may be played out through various digital means. Does digital communication create distance that may accentuate the potential conflict over appropriate behaviour and identity? Do VOs seek to use digital means as a new way of controlling volunteers’ behaviour? Or can the potential informality and immediacy of social media communication draw voluntary organizations closer to their volunteers’ lived experience? Can digital technologies and platforms support a democratic model of interaction?
Many thanks to the authors for these previews – look out for these publications, coming soon!