Thursday, 24 February 2011

Online engagement of young people

This evening I met with Rob and Chanai, who are Young Advisors. They have been asked to set up an online tool which will encourage young people to talk online and respond to various consultation activities which local public services wish to involve young people in.

Having just finished reading Clay Shirkey’s excellent Here Comes Everybody I shared a couple of key points made in the book. When Rob talked about a goal perhaps of attracting 500 young people to an online site, I immediately thought about the power law distribution which Shirkey describes really accessibly in the book, and a tad more technically in this blog post. In his book this is described as a predictable imbalance – where we see user-generated content online the bulk of the content has been contributed by a small fraction of participants. This is observed widely, and Shirkey says that the imbalance drives large social systems rather than damaging them. Fewer than two percent of Wikipedia users ever contribute, yet that is enough to create profound value for millions of users. The power law might be more familiar to some as the Pareto principle, or 80/20 rule which states that, for many events, roughly 80% of the effects come from 20% of the causes. So even if 500 young people can be attracted to an online space, how will it feel if 5 or 10 of them are engaging most of the time and otehrs only once or twice ever?

Given the context of the discussion with Rob and Chanai, I couldn’t help also thinking about how it feels as though this applies to involvement in consultation or other community engagement activities. Those ‘usual suspects’ that some public sector officers feel exhausted by can also be seen as our golden nuggets, the few who do participate, and can be supported to do so in the interests of the many.

We also talked about how people network, and the few people who act as connectors between different networks. These Small World networks highlight the importance of a few highly connected individuals. In terms of inviting young people to engage with the public sector we might wish to identify these important connectors.

The area I’ve really got stuck on though, and hope to help Rob and Shanai out with, is where their project fits within a process of engagement, or in this case any number of unknown future processes of engagement. Putting the tool before the process really is putting the cart before the horse, and yet it somehow feels good to want to create a space where young people can chat and also potentially influence change. And there’s the rub. As yet there’s no definition of what is open to influence, no promises of influence, no promises of dialogue with people who have influence. I’m hoping to work with the Young Advisors and other young people that they convene on an advisory group for this work. I think we should be looking at lessons in David Wilcox’s excellent Guide to Participation, which I still use on a frequent basis and has stood the test of time, and also Voice and Echo

And I will return to Shirkey and his suggestion that the successful use of social tools relies on a successful fusion of a plausible promise, and effective tool and an acceptable bargain with the users.

I would welcome ideas, thoughts and signposts to anything else which might be useful. I’m meeting Rob again on 14 March to think through some of this.

NB. I haven’t covered the issue of safeguarding and engaging young people online, as I intend to blog about that separately following a great discussion at our recent Community Engagement Network event in Dudley.


  1. I cross-posted the above to an online network I'm part of ( and received the following helpful response from Sarah Crawley:

    Hi Lorna,

    We too are looking at the power of social media tools to act as engagement and involvement mechanisms within Coventry. We have a Council Facebook page with over 5,000 members, but it is used mainly by the Council only as an informing tool.

    I recently met a young woman who is a youth worker in Coventry working for Groundwork WM who has set up a Facebook page for their 'Our Choice' project which aims to bring together young people in their neighbourhood and across Coventry to influence the services available to them through the Youth Service, Youth Offending Service and other relevant partners. She has managed to maintain this page and now has over 800 young people from across Coventry signed up to it.

    A recent discussion with young people opened up the issue of communication and participation in activities. They liked the way messages were sent to them about activities and that they had direct contact with someone running the project more informally and readily than attending a session.

    There is also a national project going on at the moment called Local by Social. It is a series of workshops looking at the potential for local social networking within communities and neighbourhoods.

    It would be great to see how the young people progress as i am sure we will all be learning social media lessons for community engagement and participation over the coming months and years.


  2. I also received great email from Jonny Zander, Director at The Kaizen Partnership Ltd ( in response to this post. I will just add that it sin't the local authority who have commissioned the work from the Young Advisors in Dudley, it's another key local agency - which I'll write more about when I've had a chance to talk to them about it. Here are Jonny's thoughts, I'd thoroughly recommend reading the blog he's written - link included:

    Hi Lorna

    I really liked seeing the references to Network theory – something I am getting increasing interested in (here is a link to a piece I recently wrote about it

    In terms of the young advisors project to set up an online sounding board for ongoing consultation, here are a few first thoughts:

    starting with a clear strategic plan to shape the engagement and really get clear on the role so that the targeted young people can be engaged to participate.
    Given there will be a wide range of issues that the council might want to consult on, I would think about structuring it by issue so that the YP would get consulted on the issues that matter to them rather than on all issues
    Built in feedback loop to thank them for participating and let them know the result it had/how the council used it
    Directly speak to key motivators that are important to the different YP. We have developed a model which creates a menu of motivation that we find helpful to shape our thinking on this.
    Naturally the site itself needs to be visually appealing to YP and easy to use. Ideally it would be scaled so that there is a low initial bar to participation and YP could still choose to have a major involvement if they wanted.