The significance of volunteering to communities and individuals has been widely acknowledged (e.g. Hedley et.al. 2005) It is perceived to be important for creating social capital, contributing to community cohesion and fostering community engagement. Levels of volunteering have remained remarkably stable in England over the last ten years with latest figures showing that 44% of adults volunteered formally at least once a year and 29% did so at least once a month. However, the average number of hours spent volunteering per volunteer declined by 30% between 1997 and 2007 and there is further evidence that volunteering is becoming more episodic (NCVO 2011)2. This has an impact on organisations and communities that rely on volunteers. Not only patterns of volunteering are changing, but the sector has also been hit by recent austerity measures. Although there have been studies on these trends, research that explores how volunteering patterns and practices have been affected by digital transformations is limited. The proposed project aims to examine, through a case study, this topic as new communication tools, and in particular social media, are having significant impact on how communities communicate altering practices around recruiting volunteers and volunteering in general. By doing so the study will address key concerns of the Communities and Culture Network+ on digital transformations and changing communities.
Social media tools have permeated most aspects of social and cultural life in recent years. These tools, and Web 2.0 in general, enable interactivity, interoperability and collaboration (Mandiberg, 2012) and allow the creation and exchange of user generated content. The underlying logic of such technologies is openness and participation. They do not merely represent a technological phenomenon, but also a cultural one (Jenkins 2006)4, where audiences are encouraged to participate and the relationship among the users of a community is emphasised. There is a growing body of literature which suggest that because of these features social media offer opportunities for the voluntary and community sector (e.g. Kanter and Fine 2010)5, a large section of which rely on volunteers, to enhance engagement and increase sustainability. However, existing studies tend to focus on organisational issues and on how non-profit organisations adopt social media (e.g. Guo and Saxton 2014)6. There is limited research that explores the link between the use of social media, volunteers and volunteering. In particular, our understanding of how audiences interpret, ‘read’ and interact with social media content about volunteering is inadequate. The proposed project aims to address this gap. Arguably, such research could have real impact for voluntary and community sector organisations as a greater understanding of their audiences online will allow for more strategic use of social media, which in turn can enhance volunteering and foster community engagement.
The proposed project will also make a methodological contribution to the study of social media. Research on social media has mainly focused on content and especially quantitative analysis of ‘big data’. Yet, social media sites have meaningful form beyond their content. Audiences create meaning before they actually read posted texts. Audience research in relation to social media has
lagged behind the study of content. This project is intended to explore the ‘readings’ and interpretations of audiences of social media sites through applying traditional qualitative research methods as well as so-called ‘creative’ techniques. The impetus for ‘creative’ media research methods, which have gained popularity in audience research during the last decade, came “from qualitative researchers seeking to move beyond what were seen as the limitations of talk-based methods such as interviews and focus groups” (Buckingham 2009, p.2). Typically, these methods involve asking participants to create some sort of visual content, such as drawings, photography and video. Thus, by applying a mixture of traditional and non-traditional audience research techniques the proposed study is also intended to test the value of these methods to study social media and as such might be considered as contribution to wider research on digital communication tools.
(Gulyás, Case for Support)
Gulyás, A. 2015, ‘Social Media and Community Volunteering: Final Report.’ Working Papers of the Communities & Culture Network+ Vol.5 (April 2015).
Dr Ágnes Gulyás, Principal Investigator: Ágnes Gulyás is currently a Reader in Digital Transformations in the Department of Media, Art and Design at Canterbury Christ Church University (CCCU).