MediaNext: Training Online Social Networking in Ukraine, Americanskiy StyleJune 27, 2009
Teaching social networking in Ukraine is a fascinating experiment in “how can an American, with a rather different concept of social networking from Ukrainians, explain this concept and the tools to be used with it in a useful way for these trainees, and not offend anyone in the process?”
The main tools for our social-networking session were Vkontakte and Facebook (not excluding all the other tools that qualify as “social networking”, like LiveJournal, YouTube, Podfm.ru, all things Yandex. However, before we got into the tools, it was important to explain social networking. After all, the tools aren’t the end, they are the means to the end.
So what was the end in the case of this session? First, to help them understand the basic principles of social networking, and connect them to these tools. Second, to help people understand how social networking will help them as journalists, media activists, and NGO strategists. Third, to confuse people, and offend them, as little as possible with my “American” perspective of America, and more importantly, Ukraine.
Not long ago, I saw a presentation that demonstrated how people were using LiveJournal in Russia. It included a diagram of colored dots showing how people were creating networks within different blogging themes. So, one theme had one network, another had another. What was striking about this was that, when compared to other countries, these networks were a lot tighter, clearer, more pronounced. In other words, people were creating closed sub-communities. Or, if you will, mirroring what tends to happen in Russian social culture. LiveJournal wasn’t being used to share thoughts with the world, it was being reserved for communities of known people.
In America, our approach to blogging is to put it out there for all to see, and hope a LOT of people see it. The more people see it, the better our traffic, the more likely this could create opportunities for income and business down the road. Sure, some don’t have the goal of making money, etc. But, it is highly uncustomary for us to restrict our blogs just to people we know and trust.
Given that Ukrainian culture is more similar to Russian than to American, I knew that what I was about to promote in my social-networking session would challenge some existing behaviors. And a hardfast rule I have seen to be true—the hardest thing about Web 2.0 is not using the technology, but changing the behavior. Aka, adopting new tools and practices.
Fortunately, we had this nice video (in Ukrainian, no less!) to kick things off:
I tried to convey that, as journalists and NGO strategists, online social networking was an opportunity for them to reach new audiences, organize them, learn about them, all of which is very valuable for their work. For them, this wasn’t about getting all your friends together and communicating with them. At least, it didn’t stop there. This was about adding new “friends”, connecting with people they didn’t know, expanding their network, tapping into NEW groups of people.
I introduced Mark Granovetter’s idea of “The Strength of Weak Ties” to explain the approach they should take. Basically, I distinguished between the people they are close to, their circle of friends (their strong ties), and people they don’t know very well, or at all, whom their friends know (their weak ties). For successful online social networking, they should try to embrace these weak ties, connect to these people. If they could do that, they could spread their message, their news media content, their blog posts, their network, whatever, far and wide. This was how they could go from an online audience of their handful of friends to thousands of people.
No one outright told me that this was going to be a bit of a leap for people in Ukraine. But, I’ve spent long enough in Ukraine to know that the crevice over which they would have to leap to embrace this was certainly wider than ours in America. We have celebrated our constitutionally-protected, and legally-legitimized, right to free expression for over two hundred years now. It’s part of our culture to share our viewpoints, spread them far and wide. At least, more so, in comparison to Ukraine, which really didn’t have any freedom of the press until the end of 2004, and has had a culture that has very often frowned on public expression for fear of retribution and consequences. Kyiv has enjoyed more freedom in this regard. But, the farther you go from Kyiv, and the deeper you go into villages, public expression thins more and more. In my experience.
Now, I was going to tell them that, for all of these tools to be most effective, it was important to share as much of yourself as you could. Social networking is largely about telling people who you are, letting them get a deeper look into your world. People are human beings, after all, and for them to feel a connection with you, they are going to have to see beyond a closed door. If you can do that, and you actively engage your strong ties, then your weak ties, you can build your network, and reach new audiences. This was probably going to challenge some people’s comfort levels of how open they really want to be in a public environment, which brought people nothing but trouble under the Soviet Union, and still can to this day.
This was going to require them to do their best to find and communicate with people they didn’t know, and invite them into their circle. Based on what I witnessed at the lunch table of deathly silence, this was going to be quite a behavior for people to change. Particularly in Donetsk. But, for those willing to do it, I offered them two basic strategies to expand their network quickly. One, encourage your friends to invite their friends to your pages, etc. Two, find those people out there who have a LOT of friends/members/fans—the “connectors”—and cozy up with these people. If they become your friend/member/fan, you can tap into all of the people in their “circle”.
Behavior change, of course, takes a leap of faith, a little courage, a little perseverance. I certainly couldn’t expect everyone here to embrace what I was saying. But, I would have done them a disservice if I came all the way from America to talk about the “ABCs of New Media” and how people in their fields are using these tools, and not at least expose them to this. Based on the research I have done—which has not been exhaustive, but has backed this contention—it is fairly uncommon for people in Ukraine to approach the social-networking tools we were teaching in this manner. Especially Vkontakte and Facebook.
For those who do embrace what I spoke about in our trainings, and those who can get past their reticence for using these tools in this way, there is a real opportunity for them to gain an edge on their competition. There is real opportunity for them to be pioneers in Ukraine.
Join me next time when I take a stroll through my experience and approach to training Vkontakte and Facebook in Ukraine.
Author’s Note: This is part of a series of posts on my experiences doing New Media trainings with Internews-Ukraine in June 2009, as part of their MediaNext initiative, in partnership with European Journalism Centre. These views are my own, and do not reflect those of Internews-Ukraine or European Journalism Centre. Just so we’re clear on that.
Photo 1: Our trainees in Lviv. Face to face will always be the best form of social networking. Courtesy of MediaNext.
Photo 2: About to dive into some ice cream, a great social-networking tool, in Kyiv. Courtesy of MediaNext.
Photo 3: Social networking commences in Kyiv. Coffee is also a great social-networking tool. Courtesy of MediaNext.