Notes from the Field

Global Trends in Social Media: An Interview with Blogger Beth Kanter

April 10, 2013

Beth KanterIn Asia editor Alma Freeman recently caught up with author and social media expert Beth Kanter after a talk held at The Asia Foundation’s headquarters, organized by the Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy. Named one of the most influential women in technology by Fast Company and one of the BusinessWeek’s “Voices of Innovation for Social Media,” Kanter is the author of Beth’s Blog: How Nonprofits Can Use Social Media for Social Change, and Visiting Scholar at the David and Lucile Packard Foundation.

GlobalWebIndex’s latest data shows that the internet now makes up 57 percent of global media consumption, with social media alone taking 26 percent of people’s media time, more than TV’s 23 percent. What does this trend mean?

If you think about the media landscape, it looks like a clover: you have traditional media, influencer blogs, and social media. People are now getting their information from all of those sources, especially in places with good broadband access. But this means that people, especially younger people, need to have a really good sense of digital literacy and be able to detect: Is this the whole story? Is it balanced? Is it the truth? Especially now that we have the filter bubble with Google, which is feeding us back what is likeable, as opposed to search results that are balanced.

Increased internet access, pervasive broadband, and the ability to get internet on the smartphone have made information so much more accessible. Things like the $25 tablet in India are making a huge difference. As the tools and technology become more accessible, the environment online becomes more socially interesting. But there’s always resistance to technology and social media ā€“ the argument of why should we do it now, it’s just a fad, it’s going to go away. Now, most of the nonprofits I work with view social media as an important part of their marketing, but there’s still the struggle that organizations have on getting everyone to participate. Navigating the personal and professional is also very tricky ā€“ many employees may be using it personally and care about the issues around the organization. Figuring out how to navigate and leverage that personal passion for your organization’s work in service of the mission is not an easy thing to do.

Internet usage is sky-rocketing in Asia, making it one of the fastest-growing social media regions in the world. How will this change social media and particularly, how non-profits and NGOs can use it?

That’s true, but when I go to India, I hear people say often that only 3 percent of the population is on Facebook, so why should I care? While that’s true, that 3 percent represents over 60 million people, which is the third largest country on Facebook. Most of those people are concentrated in urban areas, but that doesn’t mean that someone in a village with a smart phone can’t get that information and influence others off-line.

You have a deep connection to Cambodia, and helped raise money for the first Cambodian Bloggers conference in 2007 and recently attended another bloggers conference last year. What has changed?

I first started blogging in 2003 and had three blogs, one for non-profits, and two on Cambodia. I started getting comments from Cambodian young people, and became the bridge blogger for Global Voices, and started blogging and interacting with Cambodian bloggers more on a regular basis. Then I met Tharum, one of Cambodia’s first and most influential bloggers, and helped to get him a scholarship to go to London. He went on to become a very well-know blogger.
When I was first in Phnom Penh in 2000, there was one traffic light, and the only internet connection was in the fancy hotel that was a dial up and super slow. In 2004, there were a couple of internet cafes. Now it seems like there is Wi-Fi everywhere, and people are getting it to their phones. It has changed vastly.

What role can blogs play that traditional media cannot? Can they help increase transparency and citizen participation?

The later question is asking a lot, honestly. Unless everyone is working together, and has a tremendous amount of backing, I don’t know how realistic it is to expect bloggers and social media alone to be able to transform countries and governments. Although we have seen things like the Arab Spring which was driven by Facebook, we’re still watching to see the impact it had on lasting change. However, blogs can be an authentic, local voice. They can give a sense of what’s happening locally and how people are thinking about issues. That’s what attracted me to Global Voices. For example, during the viral online campaign to capture Uganda warlord Kony, I loved going and reading from the Ugandan bloggers. You found that what they were thinking and how they were talking about the event was completely different than here.
Social media is a double-edged sword. There is social media for good and social media for evil. It’s a question around the resilience of our networks. In September, I was supposed to be on a plane to Tunisia, but it was cancelled because of that video that triggered a wave of unrest in the region. So, I wrote a blog on why I’m not on a plane to Tunisia right now, and it was basically about how we need to build more resilience in our networks and civil society so that when something like this happens, people can rise up and resolve it, as opposed to just escalating the bad.

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