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The Short-Sighted Use of Social Media in International Development

By Josh Woodard on April 8, 2016


For those of us working in the field of international development, it has almost become a given that we need to be using social media to engage and share with the individuals we are supposed to be serving. And understandably so.

As more people come online, most of their first stops are on social media platforms. Certainly then, it makes sense that we would jump at the opportunity to increase our ability to share positive health messaging or educational content, for example, through these channels as well.

Is social media just a channel or something more?

Those of us who use these social media platforms for our work are helping them to expand their reach. We often times promote the use of Facebook or Twitter within communities. The content we post, when good, is also helping to keep people more engaged on the platforms themselves.

All the while, those sites are learning more about each individual partly based on their interactions with us, including what their preferences and needs are, all of which can lead to more targeted advertising profiles that they can sell. And of course, we in the development community in turn sometimes take advantage of that user intelligence by paying these platforms to advertise or promote our messages to our target populations.

Many of us seem to just accept this as the way things operate, without even exploring alternatives. The big social media platforms are already attracting users, and we are using those platforms in the same way we might have once – or still – used radio, simply a (often paid) channel to reach them. It is simply a matter of meeting people where they are.

As we move towards an increasingly digitized economy, however, the question to me is whether we should simply accept this status quo or if we have a responsibility to think bigger and ask how social media can be more than just a channel?

Just as some development practitioners have supported the development and use of community radio stations, shouldn’t we be looking at alternative models of social media that can provide more value back to communities?

New models of revenue sharing in social media

This space is still quite new, but examples already exist. Take Tsu, for instance, the social network that shares 90 percent of its revenue with users. You might not have heard of it, although Facebook certainly has, to the extent that it even went so far as blocking its users from linking to Tsu. Or a bit further afield, there is also Synereo, a decentralized, user owned social network that is being developed using block chain technology.

These are just two alternatives, although undoubtedly others will emerge given the small but increasing movement to redefine how apps and platforms on the internet are owned and controlled. Here are just a few examples to whet your appetite: platform cooperativism, the P2P foundation, and the innovation cooperative.

While many of these conversations are taking place in the US and Europe, this is the opportune time for those of us who work in developing economies to also start thinking about how we might be able to expand the conversation to include the populations we work with as well.

It is time for us to look beyond simply how we can engage with people in the short-term via established social media channels, and begin to look towards how we can advocate for shared ownership models of those channels.

While sites like Tsu, Synereo, and others might not meet our short-term needs, writing them off completely misses the opportunity we have to potentially transform the distribution of wealth in the digital economy and increase the direct economic benefit that the world’s poor may be able to get from it.

What are your thoughts? Do you know of any other good (or bad) examples of social media platforms with shared revenue or ownership? Is anyone in your organization have these conversations? Share your thoughts in the comments.

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Written by
Josh Woodard is the co-founder of Civi, a civictech platform connecting people across the aisle, as well as a senior digital advisor at USAID. You can find more of his writings on his personal site and occasionally via his LinkedIn feed
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2 Comments to “The Short-Sighted Use of Social Media in International Development”

  1. Sachi says:

    Thank you much for bringing up this topic Josh. As you point out, we may not be there yet in terms of using shared ownership networks that meet short term communication needs. At the same time we have an amazing opportunity to think about the social and economic models that we want to create in the world and work to create organizations and networks that genuinely reflect that in the long term.

    • Josh Woodard says:

      I’m glad to hear this resonated with you, Sachi. Should you be so fortunate, please share any successes you have on this path with the rest of us here.