Establishing and growing an online community is no easy feat. The concept of ‘community’ is difficult enough in the physical world, and in the online world it takes on new complexities – especially if it is global in nature and aims at engaging the most merciless of audiences – youth. Notwithstanding, the explosion of social media, especially in the developing world, against the context of frequent youth-led protests and growing concerns about youth unemployment, has prompted many development organizations to talk about the importance of engaging youth, both offline, but increasingly online too.
Now the above paragraph is problematic enough to warrant an entire series of blog posts but I wanted to touch only the tip of the iceberg and to reflect on some of my own experiences on the quest to engage youth online. For the past year I have been closely involved in managing and growing UNICEF’s global online community for young people known as Voices of Youth. As an avid yet somewhat cynical user of all forms of social media myself – and one which falls into the category of ‘millennial’ – I like to think that I have an instinct for knowing what will and won’t work when it comes to designing strategies to get youth interested in consuming and responding to the content that we share, and creating their own. Yet even the most perfect strategy has to live in the muddy waters of reality, challenging expected results.
Obviously a physical online space for young people does not immediately guarantee their engagement. Online communities require large time investments to ensure that the content that is shared is rich, relevant and interesting; to provide feedback on all the submissions, questions and comments from young people; and to stimulate further discussion and debate. And this requires significant amounts of time – something which is typically underestimated, leaving the appointed community manager (if there is one) suddenly unable to write a single interesting tweet or convincing him or herself that re-tweets, likes and unique pageviews are sufficient indicators of success (they aren’t).
This is a particularly sensitive point for me because what I would consider real engagement is more often than not qualitative in nature and therefore a nightmare to track and present to other people. Short of taking and compiling screen shots in a very long powerpoint how do you capture all the positive feedback, the cross-cultural exchanges between community members or their thoughtful commentary?
Another obvious challenge stems from the fact that just because something is on the internet it doesn’t immediately mean it is global; and for an organization like UNICEF it is critical that our global online community for youth is as representative as possible accounting for all the limitations that exists when it comes to internet access. Mobile-friendly social media platforms such as Twitter have helped to grow the interaction with young people from countries in Africa, with South Africa, Kenya and Nigeria making it into the VOY top ten country list for Twitter followers (these countries don’t appear on the top ten list for the blog/website or the Facebook page). In 2014 a VOY ‘mobi-site’ will be developed enabling users on less sophisticated mobile devices to navigate through newly-posted content, and to create their own multimedia blog posts quickly and effectively.
In 2013 Voices of Youth saw significant growth in traffic from several middle income and developing countries: Mexico (127%), Venezuela (95%), Peru (58%), India (44%), Colombia (42%), Pakistan (31%), and Indonesia (20%) which means that we also have to pay close attention to curating content that is relevant across these different contexts, and supporting contributors who are non-mother tongue speakers of the three languages currently available on Voices of Youth – English, French and Spanish.
Language is also not the only challenge that a global community faces – time zones are another. Typically the first thing I do each morning is to engage with the community in the hopes of catching some of the most engaged young people in Indonesia and Kenya, for whom the day is drawing to a close just as mine is starting in New York. In spite of the things I have mentioned being a community manager is probably the most interesting aspect of my job and the gratification that comes from seeing insightful debates or supportive feedback being shared among young people from Nigeria, Indonesia, Pakistan, Kenya and the USA to name a few, doesn’t come in quite the same measure from any other aspect of my work.