Digital communication & social action

Interrogating the complexities of digital communication for young people engaged in social action

Digital technologies are frequently deployed to connect communities, are often assumed to be particularly appropriate for young people to use, and attract significant investments of time and money. However, the degree to which they facilitate voice and recognition for young communicators is as yet poorly understood. This project fills this gap in knowledge by answering the following questions:

1. How do the complexities of digital technology facilitate or constrain narratives deployed by young people as interventions in their communities?

2. How do the complexities of digital technology affect young communicators’ sense of voice and recognition, and of being able to make an effective intervention in their communities?

In an age of austerity, government policy has emphasized the role of the voluntary sector in improving social outcomes for various groups. The topic of ‘Social Action’ appeared in the Conservative – Liberal Democrat coalition agreement , including measures to encourage volunteering, charitable giving, active citizenship and making more space for third sector involvement in public services. Since the coalition has been in office, a range of measures has been introduced to deliver on these promises, including the ‘Decade of Social Action’, and the Centre for Social Action (see: Promoting Social Action and Centre for Social Action).

Encouraging social action among young people has been a particular focus, with the Prime Minister ordering a review of the quality and quantity of youth social action for 10-20 year-olds in 2012 (see In the Service of Others), a process which resulted in the ‘Step up to Serve’ campaign being set up in 2013.

Communication is fundamental to the engagement of young people in social action initiatives, and digital communication in particular, in the form of social media, websites, mobile technologies and apps, is commonly viewed as a cost-effective means both of enabling young people to communicate using tools they are familiar with, and of reaching large numbers of people in targeted communities.

Yet the promise of digital technology to facilitate participation in social action and transform communities may be difficult to realize in practice, not least because digital technologies require access to specialised hardware and software, particular forms of communication literacy and particular formats for delivery (see, e.g. Lance Bennett, 2008; Lundby, 2008). These conditions set parameters for who is able to communicate as well as what kinds of narratives can be constructed, including some individuals and messages but excluding others (Thumim, 2012; van Dijck, 2013). In this sense, digital technologies are contested communication tools, and using digital technologies to create stronger connections between community members is likely to be a more complex exercise than notions of cost-effectiveness or ‘reach’ suggest. The context in which digital technologies are used to communicate, including the social and cultural environment, the objectives of the communication, and the skills and abilities of people who use them, all shape fundamentally the impact they have within and between communities.

(Edwards, Case for Support)




Key Participants

Dr Lee Edwards (PI) Lee Edwards is Associate Professor in Communication and Public Relations at the University of Leeds. She teaches and researches PR from a socio-cultural perspective. A critical scholar, her primary focus is on the operation of power through PR both within the occupational field and in wider society. As well as making theoretical contributions to the understanding of PR’s effects on society, she has published empirical work on the exercise of power through PR as a cultural intermediary, on diversity in PR, and on the use of PR in third sector and corporate contexts. She is the author of Power, Diversity and Public Relations (Routledge, 2014); and of Understanding Copyright (with Dr Bethany Klein and Dr Giles Moss, Sage, 2015 forthcoming). She is editor, with Dr Caroline Hodges, of Public Relations, Society and Culture: Theoretical and Empirical Explorations (Routledge, 2011). Dr Edwards is the Secretary of the International Communication Association PR Division (2014-16). She is on the editorial board of the Journal of Public Relations Research and PR Inquiry, and is a reviewer for a wide range of other journals including Management Communication Quarterly; Consumption, Markets and Culture; Media, Culture and Society; and New Media and Society.