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Voice as value: a powerful tool for transformational change

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

Engaging more young people in social actionis an important policy objective for the currentgovernment. Communication is fundamentalto achieving it, and digital communicationin particular, in the form of social media,websites, mobile technologies and apps,is commonly viewed as a cost-eff ectivemeans both of enabling young people tocommunicate using tools they are familiarwith, and of reaching large numbers of peoplein targeted communities. However, neitherdigital technologies nor their usage are valueneutralor independent of material constraints.As such, they are contested communicationtools, inseparable from conditions in thematerial world. The context in which theyare used, including the social, cultural andtechnological environment, the objectives of thecommunication, and the skills and abilities ofpeople who use them, all shape fundamentallythe impact they have within and betweencommunities.

This exploratory project was designed toanswer two questions. First, how do thecomplexities of digital technology facilitate orconstrain narratives deployed by young peopleas interventions in their communities? Andsecond, how do the complexities of digitaltechnology aff ect young communicators’sense of voice and recognition, and of beingable to make an eff ective intervention in their communities?

A case study approach was adopted: fi ve social action campaigns supported by one charity, Fixers, were analysed in depth. Interviews were carried out with the campaigners and with Fixers CEO and Head of Communications as part of the study.

The fi ndings revealed that digital technology is fundamental to the construction and dissemination of powerful, personal narratives that can create change. First, in the construction of actual campaigns resources, the ability to combine multiple media forms (music, sound, visuals, text) allows the message that Fixers want to communicate to be delivered on multiple levels. Digital technology allows emotional and rational dimensions of experience to be interwoven in a narrative, strengthening the impact of the resource. It permits a more fl uid use of time and space in the representation of experience: rather than having to physically accompany the campaigner, the audience is presented with key experiences that communicate a sense of what ‘life’ or a ‘day’ might be like for people in this situation. Finally, digital technology also provides fl exibility in the way resources are structured, so that they are presented in formats that appeal to the audience (e.g. in the style of presentation or the fl exibility of access).

Digital technology is also vital for the dissemination of campaign resources, which in turn leads to greater awareness and more opportunities for intervention. Networking and distribution online can lead to more opportunities offl ine through the conversations emerging from digital interactions. This link to offl ine events is crucial for successful social action, since the eff ects of a campaign as something that has prompted genuine material change in the way people think, feel or act can only really be evidenced in embodied interactions. Online visibility certainly made the Fixers feel valued, and encouraged them to continue their work, but they consistently said that the most important evidence of success came from their face-to-face interactions. Digital technology is necessary, but not sufficient, for making an effective social intervention.

Digital technology also has limitations, particularly if institutional support for communication is lacking. The campaigns in this study were successful because Fixers
provided the necessary expertise to construct the campaign resource and maintain it for a period of time. They also disseminated it widely. But the campaigners noted that the more complex the technology, the more diffi cult and the more costly it was to maintain. It was unlikely they could have created the resource independently, and some found it diffi cult to fi nd the time to continue to disseminate it. The fi ndings illustrate the dialectical relationship between voice and recognition. The articulation of voice, in a context where voice is genuinely valued, kicks off a response and dialogue with individuals and institutions that constitutes recognition. Recognition generates increased confidence and self-esteem, empowering the speaker to a new articulation of voice. The dialectic begins at the point at which the
campaigners’ voices are actively listened to and validated – in the case of Fixers, it is the moment when the young persons coordinators meets a Fixer and confi rms that their ideas can form the basis of a powerful communication process. This individual recognition makes campaigners more confi dent to pursue a campaign. As they do so, they talk about their ideas to more people, enjoying more recognition in the process. The more they use their voice, the more visible they become
and the more they are recognized. Their voice becomes stronger, it is disseminated more widely through the connections they make, and their interventions are more powerful as a result. Voice, then, is a process that requires practice and work in order to develop over time, and in parallel with the confidence and self-esteem generated through recognition.

In summary, this study found that digital technologies were fundamental to supporting social action for Fixers, by helping them to construct a more powerful message and disseminate it more widely. Combined with offl ine activity, they opened the door to genuine engagement and refl exivity among both the audience and the Fixers, thereby supporting the development of voice and recognition as part of the social action process. However, voice and recognition were experienced most powerfully when the Fixers had evidence that their social action was creating real change in their communities. Recognition in the online world, in the form of ‘likes’, ‘shares’, and
‘retweets’, without any foundation in a material relationship, were a relatively poor substitute for face-to-face relationships.