Social media refers to the web-based tools and media that allow users to personally and informally interact, create, share, retrieve, and exchange information and ideas in virtual communities and networks. Social media includes social networking sites, blogs and microblogs, online forums, discussion boards and groups, wikis, socially integrated text messaging services, videos and podcasts, and many more. Rural advisory services (RAS) have seen enormous changes in the 21st Century that require interaction among multiple stakeholders ‒ public, private, and non-profit – and learning to take collective action. These services have been called upon to be less ‘top-down’ and more interactive, and social media can be a potentially powerful tool in this regard. With increasing reach among rural people, especially the youth, through increasing mobile phone subscriptions and decreasing data tariffs, social media can help RAS to reach farmers more efficiently. The high level of user engagement in social media also makes it one of the most participatory mediums of extension. This makes the sharing of data, information, and knowledge faster, easier, and more cost-effective, while at the same time enabling collaboration and demand-based RAS.
Philosophy and principles
The basic philosophy of social media is the democratisation of information, communication, and knowledge management. The following principles for using social media for RAS should be considered:
- Involve and engage: The ultimate end goal of a social media strategy should be the engagement and involvement of clients and other stakeholders, in order to achieve sustained communication processes.
- Organisational policy on social media: Sharing personal and professional information online needs guidelines. The key consideration is how users can differentiate between personal and professional opinions when using social media. A social media policy for organisations, including an ethical standard for users, can create a balance between maintaining a professional reputation and encouraging the free flow of information.
- Broad-based information: RAS facilitate communication, learning, and action related to improved livelihoods of clients. Therefore, a social media strategy should cover a wide range of knowledge and information resources, while also addressing specific information needs.
- Subject to change: Social media works best if based on continuous, iterative processes that allow for necessary changes in the social media platforms used, as well as adjustment to the content and delivery needs of the clientele. For example, social media might start off on one platform, such as Facebook, and later include other platforms or lists of users.
- Gate keeping: One or more facilitators should be assigned to make sure that conversations and information flows remain relevant and contribute to the strategic goal associated with the use of social media. A content filtering technique to eliminate any irrelevant or repetitive information is important to ensure everyone’s right to communicate, whilst maintaining the free flow of information in the group without repeating past posts.
- Facilitating the interaction: Social media encourages extension organisations to act as facilitators, bringing all stakeholders to the same platform, but it can also relieve the organisations’ central coordination of information and encourage direct interaction among the communicators, namely, rural community members.