Have we replicated our offline social dynamics and barriers online? I believe we have—and Danah Boyd does, too. As reported by the New York Observer, Danah recently spoke to this when she presented at the Personal Democracy Forum about the data uncovered in her four years of research on new media use.

If we truly are reproducing our offline social divides online, then it’s further proof that the central part of your social media strategy needs to be focused on your audience.

“MySpace has become the ghetto of the digital landscape,” Ms. Boyd explained to the crowd. And many of us in these social environments, she said, “have gotten into the habit of crossing the street like we always do to avoid the riff-raff.” —New York Observer

You’ve probably heard of Facebook; you may even have set up a group or a fan page there for your organization.  But did you do that because you heard of Facebook in the news, or from a friend? Did you choose Facebook because you evaluated your existing community as well as the audience you wanted to bring into your community, and they were already using Facebook?  Did you consider MySpace? or Orkut? or Bebo? Maybe you’ve never heard of those platforms, but for some large demographics they are the hot spots online, not Facebook.

Let’s step back a minute and consider why a nonprofit or social benefit group wants to include social networking as part of a social media strategy.  Why would your organization want to have a presence on a social network?

  • Go where the community already is!  Don’t expect the community to come to you, or even find you, online. Instead, go where they have already set up shop.
  • Make your calls to action part of the routine!  Creating calls to action that match the community and can be accomplished, or promoted, in the same space will increase the overall participation you can garner.
  • Join the community!  Don’t just come to the party and start asking questions or push calls to action; instead, actually join the community, answer questions, share links or information (even ones that aren’t related to your work but you may just know!), and be a genuine part of the ecosystem.

“The fact that digital migration is revealing the same social patterns as urban white flight should send warning signals to all of us,” she said. “It should scare the hell out of us.” —New York Observer

Choosing the platform or platforms to concentrate your efforts online is crucial.  You may hear about Facebook, but if your audience is on MySpace, it doesn’t matter how much time and energy you put in.  They won’t be there to find you.  When evaluating your community, some of the most influential items to consider regarding social networks include:

  • Age: Facebook users can skew older than MySpace; many organizations in the UK have had great success joining the ecosystem on Bebo to extend the opportunity for teens to reach out for social services in a private way.
  • Actions: What kinds of “actions” do you want your community members to be able to do? Each platform offer unique functionality and it may not match what your community members want to do with/for you.
  • Data: Is your work reliant on certain data (whether for eligibility, age, etc.) that you will need validate, or at least advertise? Each platform displays profile information in different ways and you will need to check your settings and profile customization to ensure you are disclosing what you need, and offering opportunities to connect outside of the public messages.
  • Goals: What are your goals for the inclusion of social networking in your social media strategy?  Be sure you don’t get caught up only on functionality that’s new and cool; remember why you’re there.

Danah’s research shines a bright light on an issue many activists and organizations have been concerned about ever since the media hype around Facebook VS MySpace rose as a loud voice in the conversation about social media use.  The issues our social service agencies and social benefit organizations are dealing with offline, in local communities, are showing up online.  It’s imperative that we recognize the social divides permeating online social networks and carefully consider how we craft our online strategies to truly reach and serve our communities.

What do you think? Has your organization had experience reaching your core constituents in an online social network? How did you identify the best place to concentrate your efforts?  What lessons have you learned?

You can download Danah’s dissertation here.

imageAmy Sample Ward’s passion for nonprofit technology has lead her to involvement with NTEN, NetSquared, and a host of other organizations. She shares many of her thoughts on nonprofit technology news and evolutions on her blog.