The expansion of social media is associated with rapid growth in digital spaces for civic engagement and deliberative democratic discussion. Yet while these networked public spaces offer many possibilities for engagement and interaction, the technology also shapes social dynamics, raising questions about managing professional relationships and boundaries online. The development of a closed Facebook for social workers in New Zealand provided an opportunity to explore their perceptions on the use of a shared social media space for information sharing, professional deliberation and debate about public issues: our findings highlight perceived benefits and pitfalls.
A research team was formed, with four of the members also members of SWANZ, a social work Facebook group. We shared an interest in social media within the social work profession, and have at various points been active participants in discussion and debate within the group. Following an April 2015 announcement by the New Zealand government of plans to reform child protection services ( see for example this blog post) and alter the structure and funding of social services ( see Mike O’Brien’s post) , SWANZ became a place where group members shared information about proposed policy changes and discussed and debated these and other issues.
It was a time of intense debate and discussion as the changes proposed were likely to have a major impact on social work and social services in Aotearoa New Zealand.
As participants we observed the ebb and flow of discussion and noticed the growth of interest in the group, indicated by a rapid rise in membership. We also observed that, as in other online communities, some members were very active in making contributions and comments to the online discussion, but the vast majority were relatively passive participants (they may be logging in and reading content posted to the group but made little or no active contributions to discussion or debate). The study aimed to explore with participants factors associated with active engagement in this networked public space, and factors associated with reluctance to participate. Our specific research questions were:
- What do participants value about their membership of the SWANZ Facebook group?
- What problems or issues are associated with membership?
- What factors are associated with active engagement and with reluctance to participate in the SWANZ community?
Our recently published article presents our research as an exploratory case study which highlights the potential benefits and pitfalls associated with the use of a networked public space for debating issues of concern to professional social workers.
The creation of an online community of practice in which users can engage and share news, information and opinions was valued highly. However, in this case study, there were issues associated with examples of online incivility and a pervasive reluctance to express policy or political opinions because of concerns about critical comments by others. What is not clear is the extent to which concerns about critical feedback are just a normal, and sensible, part of interaction in networked public spaces; and the extent to which our respondents were reacting to a group climate and recent events in this particular Facebook group. It is also possible that sensitive issues, such as race and culture, pose particular dilemmas for democratic deliberation in the context of a postcolonial society where indigenous people are vastly over-represented in the care and justice systems.
Ballantyne, N., Lowe, S., & Beddoe, L. (2017). To post or not to post? Perceptions of the use of a closed Facebook group as a networked public space. Journal of Technology in Human Services, 35(1), 20-37. doi:10.1080/15228835.2017.1277903