Friday, 25 November 2011

Think before you jump (into the social media ocean)

By Emilie Wilson

In the last few months, I’ve been reading and following debates about the use and impact of social media, especially blogging, so where better to share my findings and reflections than in this blog...

First, a spate of recent research and surveys on use and impact of social media in the development sector

The Global Development Network (GDNet) has recently published a review of the use of social media (or not) for research collaboration amongst southern academics. As a network comprising of more than 8,000 researchers worldwide, GDNet should be commended for not jumping onto the social media bandwagon without doing some homework around relevance and appropriateness for its members first.

Findings seem to show that, while there are regional and gender differences, the levels of up-take amongst academics is generally low. Barriers for adoption include poor infrastructure or equipment (still), usability, time and perceived value or credibility of the tools as well as lack of institutional incentives. Sound familiar?

Accessed from:
 In the global North, the development sector (at least when it comes to aid agencies, NGOs and think tanks) is well and truly on the social media bandwagon. In the last couple of months, Devex published Top 10 Development Groups on Social Media, Vodafone’s World of Difference charity recommended Top 10 Development blogs, and the Guardian highlighted 20 blogs in its Global Development Blogosphere.

Those engaged in social media seem to range from individuals (activists, aid workers or academics) to small groups with shared interests to institutions who have a clearly articulated ‘social media strategy’.

This has prompted some thinking around sustainability and impact.

Following the closing down of established and popular blogs, such as AidWatch, Duncan Green, who writes the popular From Poverty to Power blog, recently speculated on whether the blogging bubble was about to burst. However, when considering whether to wind down his own blog, Duncan came up with some good reasons to keep it going. Some were personal: “blogging forces you to read stuff more carefully and come to a view”, others aspirational “blogging has turbocharged a part of the development discussion best described as the ‘ideas space’”.

The blogosphere as an epistemic community

Duncan’s personal reflections are corroborated in a recent paper by David McKenzie and Ben ┼Ézler on The Impact of Economic Blogs (PDF). This is a substantive attempt at collecting evidence around the following questions:
1. Do blogs improve dissemination of working papers or journal articles?
2. Do they raise the profile of their creators?
3. Do they cause changes in attitudes among their readers or lead to increased knowledge?

It seems that their evidence shows positive results:
  • Blogging has a significant impact on abstract views and paper downloads
  • Regular blogging is strongly and significantly associated with being more likely to be viewed as a favourite economist
  • A majority of readers have read a new economics paper as a result of a blog posting, and more policy-oriented respondents say that blogs are having an influence on how people feel about the effectiveness of particular policies
This latter finding chimes well with a recent survey conducted by SmartAid, which asked respondents, amongst other questions, why they read [development] blogs.

This was their encouraging response.

Graph accessed from:

A full break-down can be found on Dave Algoso’s blog, Find What Works, and makes for some interesting perusal.

Phew! It’s all a good reason to keep blogging then!

However, in case we bloggers start to take ourselves too seriously, I wanted to share a view on blogging from the McKenzie and Őzler paper which I found amusing, but I hope no one who reads this thinks it applies to Impact and Learning...

“a largely harmless outlet for extrovert cranks and cheap entertainment for procrastinating office workers” (Bell, 2006)

Post-Script: do you write a blog? What do you do to measure influence and impact of your blog?