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Interrogating the complexities of digital communication for young people engaged in social action

Edwards, Lee ORCID: 0000-0001-6542-1234 (2015) Interrogating the complexities of digital communication for young people engaged in social action. Working Papers (Vol. 6). Communities & Culture Network, London, UK.

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Engaging more young people in social action is an important policy objective for the current government. Communication is fundamental to achieving it, and digital communication in particular, in the form of social media, websites, mobile technologies and apps, is commonly viewed as a costeffective means both of enabling young people to communicate using tools they are familiar with, and of reaching large numbers of people in targeted communities. However, neither digital technologies nor their usage are value-neutral or independent of material constraints. As such, they are contested communication tools, inseparable from conditions in the material world. The context in which they are used, including the social, cultural and technological environment, the objectives of the communication, and the skills and abilities of people who use them, all shape fundamentally the impact they have within and between communities. This exploratory project was designed to answer two questions. First, how do the complexities of digital technology facilitate or constrain narratives deployed by young people as interventions in their communities? And second, how do the complexities of digital technology affect young communicators’ sense of voice and recognition, and of being able to make an effective intervention in their communities? A case study approach was adopted: five social action campaigns supported by one charity (Young Citizen UK, YCUK1 ), were analysed in depth. Interviews were carried out with the campaigners and with the YCUK CEO and Head of Communications as part of the study. The findings revealed that digital technology is fundamental to the construction and dissemination of powerful, personal narratives that can create change. First, in the construction of actual campaigns resources, the ability to combine multiple media forms (music, sound, visuals, text) allows the message that participants want to communicate to be delivered on multiple levels. Digital technology allows emotional and rational dimensions of experience to be interwoven in a narrative, strengthening the impact of the resource. It permits a more fluid use of time and space in the representation of experience: rather than having to physically accompany the campaigner, the audience is presented with key experiences that communicate a sense of what ‘life’ or a ‘day’ might be like for people in this situation. Finally, digital technology also provides flexibility in the way resources are structured, so that they are presented in formats that appeal to the audience (e.g. in the style of presentation or the flexibility of access). Digital technology is also vital for the dissemination of campaign resources, which in turn leads to greater awareness and more opportunities for intervention. Networking and distribution online can lead to more opportunities offline through the conversations emerging from digital interactions. This link to offline events is crucial for successful social action, since the effects of a campaign as something that has prompted genuine material change in the way people think, feel or act can only really be evidenced in embodied interactions. Online visibility certainly made the participants feel valued, and encouraged them to continue their work, but they consistently said that the most important evidence of success came from their face-to-face interactions. Digital technology is necessary, but not sufficient, for making an effective social intervention. Digital technology also has limitations, particularly if institutional support for communication is lacking. The campaigns in this study were successful because YCUK provided the necessary expertise to construct the campaign resource and maintain it for a period of time. They also disseminated it widely. But participants noted that the more complex the technology, the more difficult and the more costly it was to maintain. It was unlikely they could have created the resource independently, and some participants found it difficult to find the time to continue to disseminate it. The findings illustrate the dialectical relationship between voice and recognition. The articulation of voice, in a context where voice is genuinely valued, kicks off a response and dialogue with individuals and institutions that constitutes recognition. Recognition generates increased confidence and selfesteem, empowering the speaker to a new articulation of voice. The dialectic begins at the point at which participants’ voices are actively listened to and validated – in the case of YCUK, it is the moment when the YPC meets participants and confirms that their ideas can form the basis of a powerful communication process. This individual recognition makes campaigners more confident to pursue a campaign. As they do so, they talk about their ideas to more people, enjoying more recognition in the process. The more they use their voice, the more visible they become and the more they are recognized. Their voice becomes stronger, it is disseminated more widely through the connections they make, and their interventions are more powerful as a result. Voice, then, is a process that requires practice and work in order to develop over time, and in parallel with the confidence and self-esteem generated through recognition. In summary, this study found that digital technologies were fundamental to supporting social action for participants, by helping them to construct a more powerful message and disseminate it more widely. Combined with offline activity, they opened the door to genuine engagement and reflexivity among both audience and the participants, thereby supporting the development of voice and recognition as part of the social action process. However, voice and recognition were experienced most powerfully when the participants had evidence that their social action was creating real change in their communities. Recognition in the online world, in the form of ‘likes’, ‘shares’, and ‘retweets’, without any foundation in a material relationship, were a relatively poor substitute for face-to-face relationships.

Item Type: Monograph (Report)
Official URL:
Additional Information: © 2015 The Authors
Divisions: Media and Communications
Subjects: H Social Sciences > HN Social history and conditions. Social problems. Social reform
Date Deposited: 09 Nov 2017 15:40
Last Modified: 04 Oct 2021 23:16

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