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Electronic Social Media and Community Engagement

Introduction

The tools of electronic social media, such as Facebook and Twitter, can be used to track, support, create, and mobilize social networks; these tools have significant potential to enhance community engagement efforts (Fine, 2006). Social media venues have undergone a significant shift to greater bidirectional or multidirectional communication in recent years (Bacon, 2009), and thus these venues represent opportunities for health messaging that have yet to be fully realized. In addition, they provide new forums to raise issues, facilitate the exchange of ideas, and engage a larger community.

The Potential of Social Media

Social media tools provide a newly emerging mechanism for engaging a large and diverse group of participants, including individuals or groups that might otherwise be hard to reach or to bring together, such as individuals with a rare disease (Bacon, 2009; Fine, 2006). Social media also provide a forum for discussion that has important differences from face-to-face interactions. With social media, all participants have an opportunity to contribute to the discussion, responses need not be immediate, and time can be taken to review the thread of a discussion. Social media also provide opportunities to reframe questions as the discussion evolves (Connor, 2009).

In addition, social media can generate a discussion archive that is useful for revisiting opinions, information, and collective history. Furthermore, the manner in which social media are used by the community in the initial stages of engagement might be a barometer of the capacity to engage that community and success in doing so, facilitating evaluation of community engagement.

Generally, depending on how groups communicate, a broader group of participants can be engaged using social media than through traditional means, facilitating the process of establishing collective positions and strategies. Specifically, social media can provide a forum for interaction and discussion about both draft and final position statements. Clearly, social media also play an important role in building and sustaining networks by facilitating ongoing communication, social exchange, and coordination of activities. Moreover, these media can help build trust by providing venues in which partners can demonstrate transparency and openness. Meeting agendas, minutes, handouts, and questions (and responses) can all be posted and viewed.

Finally, social media can be a tool for mobilizing organizations and community members and, even more important, social media can help sustain engagement and commitment. Social media can also offer accessible sites to provide information about a developing engagement, such as its purpose and goals and who is involved (Bacon, 2009; Connor, 2009).

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