Monday, March 30, 2009

My Question of the Day: How Can Social Media be Used to Increase the Reach of Small NGOs?

While going on a Twitter Search this evening I found this page, which I could argue is about the use of social media technology in international development.

In a way, it does fall under that category, despite the link not really being from entirely the same angle as this post is going to be. It of course barely scratches the surface of a whole ocean of topics, when it considers how SMS is being used to promote sexual health in Uganda.

It's nice to see a really innovative project embracing new technology to reach its target directly. I haven't looked into it in any detail, but I hope it's as amazing a project as it first sounds.

It reminds me (as if I need reminding) of my own obsession with technology, and the Internet in particular, and my current pet project. Any of my friends reading this blog will already know that in just less than seven weeks, I'll be returning to Tanzania to volunteer for the Hoja Project, an NGO I helped set up in my friend's village.

I'm also, as some may have noticed, a recent convert to Twitter, having set up my own @evilflea account. What really caught my attention was how I will be able to micro-blog via SMS from the village, where I will have an intermittent mobile phone reception, but no Internet connection.

I can also feed this blog automatically into Twitter using a third party application called Twitterfeed. Not only that but the Twitter Facebook application will automatically synchronise my Facebook status to my Twitter updates.

It all ties in so beautifully and easily, all thanks to Twitter's simplicity and hence versatility. I can post one thing on one site, and it will automatically update all my other social media personas.

So, a couple of weeks ago, believing I was realising some unlocked potential in this suddenly trendy social media phenomenon, I set up @hojaproject too. Surely this powerful tool could easily reach hundreds, if not thousands, of new supporters instantly?

But there is a problem with that line of thinking. It's utter twaddle.

I linked in Twitterfeed to the Hoja blog, and then set about promoting Hoja to anyone who might possibly care to add us (whilst trying not to be too spammy). I searched for and then added anyone who had recently tweeted various combinations of the words Africa, Tanzania, international development, sexual health, education project, and so on.

We had over a hundred "followers" pretty quickly, without too much effort, and after a day or two, people were finding @hojaproject without me having added them first.

One problem is that I'm sure at least half of these "followers" aren't really following @hojaproject at all, each for one of these reasons:

* we started following them, so they returned the favour out of courtesy, but aren't actually interested
* they added us randomly, despite not being interested, in the hope they'd acquire more followers
* they are following thousands of other people, and will never ever notice Hoja tweets in amongst all the other stuff they're "following"

Even those who are interested, and do spot our tweets, may not be very useful to us as supporters. Many of them are located outside of the UK, and so would find it difficult to support us by getting involved in activities and events.

Most of all, these new people don't know me. They don't know Julia, or Lucy, or Oswin, or anyone else involved in the Hoja Project. They have no emotional attachment to the project or anyone involved in it.

Twitter is useful. If that's how someone wants to follow Hoja's news, then it's in our interest to be on Twitter. The last update directed a handful of people to our blog, and that's a handful of people who probably wouldn't otherwise have seen it.

But its usefulness lies far more in keeping existing supporters informed (mostly our friends and families), than in finding new people. I'm sure we'll catch a few people's attention along the way, and make a few new friends, but let's not get carried away, shall we?

Having said that, in four days I'll be finishing my teaching job, and for six weeks I'll have a lot more time on my hands to look into the fascinating potential of social media and NGOs.

I think you can see where this is going...

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Why I think Earth Hour was just a pointless gimmick

Today I was was sent this webcomic by the artist's brother, whom I know via StumbleUpon. It's a special comic in support of Earth Hour, which yesterday aimed to persuade 1 billion people around the world to turn off their lights for sixty minutes.

Sadly, I had a couple of problems with it.

The first is that the comic itself is based upon a myth. On numerous occasions over the last couple of years, people on the Internet have suggested that web pages with a black background are environmentally friendly because monitors consume much less energy to display black than white.

Unfortunately, this information is based on old CRT monitors, and hence some way out of date. Most people are now using LCD screens, which produce images in a completely different way, and actually consume slightly more energy to display black webpages than white.

The second problem is with Earth Hour itself. I just don't know what exactly it is trying to achieve, and its website offers very little help in answering my question.

From their home page, it seems to be asking for people to "vote" for action, by turning their lights off, in order to make decision makers sit up and listen. It took six or seven clicks before I could even find a page of FAQs that could confirm this rather feeble request.

Job done, then, surely? The world has spoken, and said, "We think something should be done," and the leaders will listen, and say, "Thanks for letting us know."

That's not going to be much of an achievement though, is it? I would have thought that we'd gone some way beyond that now and had started asking for specific changes in policy, but it seems we're not.

Or maybe, the environmental campaign experts have figured out what to ask for, but they're not telling us, their supporters. Which makes our "voting" for something we're not being told about a bit meaningless, and very very easy to ignore.

If I'm going to support a campaign, I want to see around two to five clear and concise aims on their front page. Then other pages can go into more detail. I want to see what I'm asking decision makers to do.

I want to see that I'm asking them to reduce fossil fuel emissions, subsidise research into alternatives to the internal combustion engine, limit the abilities of multi-nationals to cut down large areas of rainforests.

I don't know what "urgent and unified action" looks like, and neither do our leaders. We have to be much more specific than that.

Otherwise a stunt like this just looks like yet another way for us to feel better about doing nothing.


[Edit: I've realised from Jay's comment (that's the guy whose webcomic started me thinking) and then reading my post back that I probably sound a bit harsh on him. The black background myth was merely what started me thinking, and it's a myth that lots of people harbour, so I would never intend to slur someone who simply didn't realise it wasn't true - that would be deeply unfair. Also, his site is excellent - do check out his other artwork.]

Saturday, March 21, 2009

the blog with the woofing dog

This blog started life as a travel blog, but sometimes I wanted to post things related to the places I've been to and the work I've done, and the name of the site (TravelFlea) never seemed quite fitting.

So I've changed the title. And the URL.

I'm going to post on here when I'm back in Tanzania for Hoja in May until August. And I'm going to micro-blog via Twitter, from the village, using the wonders of the text message.

And then I'm going to blog about stories I'm interested in, probably largely about Africa, development, sexual health, and education.


I don't intend, for the moment at least, to corner myself into posting at a set rate. Because I want to blog about things I know a bit about, when I really care to blog about them. Not ramble on for no good reason.

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