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Tweets, rhetoric and the language of the unhe. . .

Tweets, rhetoric and the language of the unheard: a social researcher’s journey from atheist to apostle

Published on the VCOSS Voice on 6 September 2013.

“Some days this feels like speed dating for activists…”

Kathy Landvogt, Manager of Social Policy Research at Good Shepherd Youth & Family Service, is a true convert to Twitter. But, true also to her profession, she has put it through its paces, wanting to explore whether such a medium can amplify ‘the voices of the unheard’ or just distract us over breakfast. 

She delivered her ‘findings’ – and the odd social media addict’s confession – during the New and Old Media  panel session at the Power to Persuade Symposium run last month by Good Shepherd and the Centre of Excellence in Intervention and Prevention Science.

This is not an expert view. It is a story of one NGO’s social media journey; one that has lifted our sights from the local policy-making community, to the general public, and even to a global policy community.

As the previous speaker, former The Age editor Michael Gawenda has just said, the digital revolution has turned everything upside down, and we must join it in some way – or at least have weighed up the pros and cons – if we want to have social policy influence.

Also a personal story – from non-believer to apostle, from Luddite to convert to, possibly, addict. My family will attest to the latter. But speaking as a researcher there are also observations, analysis, other sources, and caveats to this account.

John Falzon, the CEO of StVincent de Paul, said in his recent book Language of the unheard:

“Social movements ossify when they rest on their laurels. We cannot afford to think that the social gains won by long struggles in the past are inviolate in the future.”

This holds two ideas for our attention today:

  • the need to challenge ourselves continually, and
  • real and consuming anxiety that we are failing to hold progressive ground previously gained.

There is dispute over whether tweeting for policy advocacy is a truly revolutionary tool – and divergent views no doubt within this room. It is also difficult to tease out the arguments for and against using social media for advocacy from other purposes such as marketing. But the critique of the ‘digerati’ is out there, as it should be. We need to challenge ourselves to consider if new media can amplify ‘the voices of the unheard’.

The important question is: does new media make it easier to convince others of the need for policy change?

Twin possibilities reside within social media.

It is used for social good  – we at Good Shepherd were followed the other day by ‘senior techies’ – “reconnecting Aussie seniors to the community through technology training programs delivered by local school students”.

But also, as Barry Jones said with great prescience in Sleepers Wake! in 1982: every technological advance promises to set us free but enslaves us more, tying us to its schedule, making us race to catch up with its possibilities.

To answer the question – ‘does new media, Twitter in this case, really persuade?’ – I will first give the researcher’s account.

The research

We started with a scoping study. Students are great assets to research teams. We set one student the task of finding out why social media might be useful, how particular platforms compare, and what the resource implications are.

We found that Twitter was the best fit, based on what types of social media our target audience  and our peer organisations were using, but that it should augment not replace other methods, and have resources, policies and procedures before starting, including who has authority to tweet, how are messages generated, and how to handle controversial issues.

The outcomes

There were both anticipated and unexpected positive outcomes.

Firstly, greater social policy influence.

We may argue about how much influence we have, but:

  • We now have direct access to politicians and media that we did not have previously – we get the message out and we control it ourselves.
  • Retweets quantify the influence to a degree not possible before.
  • An increase in followers is not such a good measure because more people are starting Twitter accounts, but being followed by new high impact individuals and organisations is, and they now know our name and a bit more about our work than previously.
  • We have crossed into new sectors, and into the general public.

So we are having new policy conversations, broader, daily dialogues about social needs and policy alternatives. And we are connecting more to others, often in solidarity – supporting each other’s events, launches, media releases.

Some days this feels like speed dating for activists but it is a form of collective action.

Then there were the unexpected positive outcomes.

We gained new knowledge as articles and research came to us, without us searching, through a different type of trusted source, the tweets from ‘peers’. Some of the most helpful reading this year has come to us this way. ‘Research without databases’ is useful – remembering that many NGOs struggle to get regular academic database access.

Then there are the international links we have made through Good Shepherd’s global activity and women’s organisations.

Perhaps the biggest revelation for me was that we effectively compile a daily Good Shepherd ‘news and views’ as we source articles and tweet or retweet them in a new accessible type of ‘publishing’.

The lessons

Some lessons learned along the way before I move on may be helpful to pass on:

  • Be polite – and if you can’t be nice say nothing.
  • Be generous in acknowledging others – it’s not a competition.
  • Be diligent and restrained – it may be transient but it is very public.
  • Be congruent – you are the voice of the organisation.
  • Be timely – daily sources need to be tweeted early and while other information is less pressing it loses currency quickly.

Now for some more personal reflections.

Guilt: for those tweet-free days: did anyone notice that I forgot to tweet? It’s like forgetting to clean your teeth; part of the routine.

But how much it is part of routine raises another issue: tweeting too much! Breakfast table tweets: I believe in workers’ rights to home and family life un-infringed by workplace demands. But I need to monitor myself…

There is also the joy of being retweeted by one of the big ones. It’s almost as good as being cited. At least for a day. Of course that is the problem, it doesn’t last. Leaders are made by followers but twitter ‘followers’ are not necessarily that in any other sense. Most of them would not really follow us into policy battle or unknown territory.

Then there is the fatigue from information overload. With Barry Jones, I wonder how much more human limitation can be stretched without losing our mojo, our sense of meaning. The sense of meaning eclipsed by the sensation of doing something, anything, tweeting! Pure action without time for reflection. How many communication channels are enough for one policy officer? This is both a personal and an organisational question.

Beyond the personal and organisational cost-benefit there may be a social cost if we are wasting precious energy on something ephemeral, inconsequential. We may wake up from the long technological sleep one day, nursing our arthritic digits, but with dignity regained, and live once again at a graceful pace.

Or more likely we will keep tweeting until the next big thing. I note that the fastest growing demographic on Twitter is the 55-64 age group, which makes me feel distinctly uneasy – is it on the wane, about to be replaced by some whizz-kid’s new phenomenon?

So should Twitter be taken seriously? Can something called a ‘tweet’ seriously persuade, or endure? It is very transient, but so are all conversations.

Twitter is a public conversation that makes language resources more widely available. It provides an instant public platform for private thoughts. And the movement between private and public spheres is important. Feminism showed us how personal needs become public issues through conversations that create collective accounts. So tweeting contributes to the creation of new discourses and helps to constitute our social relations.

Arguably ‘new media’ now forms an important part of communicative democracy, offering a stage for critical argument (although less so for the ‘dialogues across difference’ that require greetings and storytelling as well as argument).

Finally, the 140 characters of Twitter enforces brevity and if that can be done without ruining the language – that is, rhetoric (in its original meaning), the art of effective or persuasive speaking or writing?

A recent VCOSS blog quoted former DHS secretary Fran Thorne saying good policy writing has relevance, timeliness, brevity, passion and direct language:

“Most of the stuff you write won’t be read, especially if you are sending it to a Minister. They read the last and first paragraphs. You’ve got 30 words to get their attention.”

And isn’t that just like a good tweet?

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