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FUTURECONNECT™ Forum in Taiwan
by Lourdes Margarita Caballero

The growth of global platforms such as Facebook or Orkut and of national or regional sites such as Renren and Ibibo has been explosive. This trend presents opportunities and risks for those working in HIV/AIDS. In 2009, aids2031 and the Communication for Social Change Consortium commissioned research on the impact of social networking on AIDS communication. The resulting report, Future Connect: A Review of Social Networking Today, Tomorrow and Beyond, and Challenges for AIDS Communicators explores how young people rely on and trust social networking sites as reliable sources of information on sexuality and other important aspects of their lives. To prompt discussion about the findings of this research, the Consortium is sponsoring a series of dialogues around the world, starting in Asia. In this article, Lourdes Margarita Caballero, a communication associate at the Consortium, describes one such dialogue in Taipei, Taiwan.

This spring, CFSC consultant Ann Kao organised an outreach forum with 20 participants from not-for-profit organisations in Taipei, Taiwan, to discuss the challenges and opportunities of social networking for communication professionals, especially those working in AIDS or in information technology in general. Kao is also the program director of Frontier Foundation and a contributor to the report Future Connect: A Review of Social Networking Today, Tomorrow and Beyond, and Challenges for AIDS Communicators. The research report was introduced as the topic of the month in NetTuesday, a serial event initiated by NetSquared, a Web site that helps not-for-profit organisations leverage social Web tools. The aim of the forum, one of a series of dialogues sponsored by the Communication for Social Change Consortium, was to apply findings of the FutureConnect report to the Taiwanese cultural context.

Affirming the Social Role of SNS
Participants validated the importance of social networking sites (SNS) as an interactive communication platform and a tool. SNS not only spread messages in the shortest time possible, but they also can help raise resources, advocate causes, build alliances, seek consensus and vote for social action. Traffic from SNS has exceeded traffic from portal Web sites, and forum participants predicted future traffic will come from use of mobile devices, on which social networking sites will dominate.

Participants believe SNS modifies people's needs. SNS have given a new stage for, and enriched, conventional sociological theories such as Abraham Maslow's hierarchy of needs. According to Maslow, human needs range from basic to complex. Going up the pyramid, the needs become increasingly psychological and social. “If we look at the consumption of media, the numerous kinds of media and the long duration staying in these places, our social need seems to have been taken to a shallower level than the deeper bond with family, friends and communities,” said Kao. “If nowadays the number of my friends on Facebook is 30, I would feel unwelcome and lonely although I have perfectly good family relationships and friendship.” 

SNS Enables Various Kinds of Participation
Participants also discussed the types of involvement enabled by social networking sites. SNS have made it easy for people to express their feelings on various issues and causes simply by clicking “like” and “dislike” buttons. It has also made it easy for users to select different ways to get involved, e.g. simply reading or browsing content, commenting, posting media content and links and sharing information on the site contacts.

Such simplification of participation provides people more options on how they can participate and remain connected. Simple participation—“like” or “dislike”—can lead to the next level which is active participation. According to Kao, “Once engaged [via SNS], many things and interactions become possible. People and organisations can call [us] to organise meetings for learning and even for forming collaborations.”

A big problem in using SNS for dialogue is how to address “slacktivism,” a combination of “slacker” and “activism.” “Slacktivism” describes “feel-good online activism that has zero political or social impact.” An E-causes representative said it’s very difficult to get online fans to show up and take part in actual events. Communicators must further explore how various ideologies, motivations and agendas influence SNS users and how they act online and offline. This will help in developing initiatives that use SNS strategically to increase active participation on specific causes and encourage users to engage in more dynamic and democratic communication processes.

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