Without a doubt, social networking has changed the technology landscape in places like Europe and the United States. But what is the role of this technology in the Global South? The February #ICT4D Twitter Chat focused on this during a lively 90-minute dialogue between technologists, implementers, and others in the ICT4D world. (Take the Chat Survey)
Social networking is driving ICT adoption, but which tools, why, and to what extent?
How can social networking increase donor, implementer, recipient participation in development?
What are the gaps and limitations in social networking engagement - where doesn't it work?
What social networking technology is involved?
Vincenzo Cosenza recently published a map reinforcing the dominance of Facebook as a powerhouse in the social networking world. And with new features like Facebook Zero, its also changing the way people interact with the Internet.
While Facebook is the major player in social networking, more local and regional sites like Mixi and Hi5 also have a presence in the Global South. Many others are being rapidly launched, even using other platforms, such as SMS. In fact, on Twitter, 50% of tweets are not in English.
Older technology tools like email can be used to connect and communicate with existing social networks. Still, the idea of the social networking site as a stand-alone platform has undeniably taken hold in the developing world - 25% of Kenyans who are online do not have email addresses yet 80% of all Kenyan Internet users are on Facebook.
Social changes increase participation in development work
Not surprisingly, this month's roundtable seemed to reach a consensus around the value of social networking for international development work. Social networking has tremendous potential to give voice to the people on the "receiving" end of international assistance.
It's also helping implementers in the actual work of development. Organizations are using different social networks for different purposes - Facebook is seen as a great for public outreach and youth engagement, while Twitter is better for peer exchange and identifying new partnerships.
This is one reason that ICTworks has a Facebook empowerment strategy.
Limitations on social networking
The largest constraint on social networking's influence and reach is the limited Internet infrastructure of the Global South. Communities that are not online do not feel the impact. In addition, socio-economic barriers like literacy and education can limit adoption and growth in connected societies.
Also be warned that big numbers of Facebook or Twitter followers doesn't directly translate into meaningful interactions. In fact, during the #ICT4D Twitter Chat, we came across one group that's steadfastly held its own against the social media tide: the "big men" of Africa - ministers and other government decision makers.
Reaching government decision makers with social networks
There is a still a strong culture among government leaders that "big men" don't use computers. The feeling that typing is for clerks or students. However, even if government officials are not using Facebook or Twitter professionally, they may be online in their personal life.
Regardless of personal status, they are listening to what their employees, direct reports, and family hear though online social networks. After all, they're "big men" because of their skill in reading offline social networks.
Here are a few early adopters:
President of Togo - 4,997 fans
President of Rwanda - 6,365 fans
President of Côte d'Ivoire - 1,576 fans
Social networking future impact on development
Social networking technology is disruptive - no longer are donors and "big men" in government the only voices that communities have; those parties can be bypassed directly to launch grassroots movements. Indeed, many government and NGO leaders are reluctant, unable, or unwilling to use technology and are in fact being "leapfrogged" by the people they serve.
As today's youth who are growing up aware of social networking technology (even in the developing world) become the leaders and decision-makers of tomorrow, the role of global communication in "mainstream" international development will grow even more rapidly. The fast-paced spread and dropping costs of mobile technology will only feed the fire.