This social media guide aims at promoting African knowledge (in particular about climate change adaptation).
This is the background to the guide, explaining the purpose, structure and caveats of this guide.


Social media are the rage. Not only in privileged pockets of the United States of America, Europe and Japan. This global phenomenon is affecting the whole world in a myriad of ways, from the Twitter-supported Arab Spring of 2011 to the American presidential elections and the recent campaign against the war criminal Joseph Kony launched through this video. There are currently an estimated 850 million Facebook users and 500 million Every_60_seconds.jpgusers (according to an article from Mercury News published on 15 March 2012). But can social media be reduced to Facebook and Twitter? What promises do they really hold? And what are they, really?

Social media?
Wikipedia, itself the result of a very large collaborative effort leading to the first social encyclopedia, states that social media "includes web-based and mobile technologies used to turn communication into interactive dialogue. Andreas Kaplan and Michael Haenlein define social media as "a group of Internet-based applications that build on the ideological and technological foundations of Web 2.0, and that allow the creation and exchange of user-generated content."[1] Social media is media for social interaction as a super-set beyond social communication. Enabled by ubiquitously accessible and scalable communication techniques, social media has substantially changed the way organizations, communities, and individuals communicate".

Social media - sometimes also referred to as web 2.0 or participatory web - combine a number of characteristics that have made them very popular very quickly:
  • They are social in their nature - their dynamism and success is based on their capacity to connect people into networks - permanent or temporary - to share messages with each other, joint comment, discuss, rate and create content in a way that adds up to more than the sum of individual inputs.
  • They make it possible to connect people all across the globe, beyond time and space boundaries. They have even contributed to the phenomenon of 'flash mobs'.
  • Among the connections between people through these social media platforms, distributed problem-solving fuels collective action - it is an engine of social media and is called crowdsourcing.
  • Because they are based on connections, trust is a crucial mechanism that helps develop the social networks of individuals (and individual institutions) using these social media, as well as their influence on others.
  • Next to collective action, they also empower individuals to develop their own network-based learning environment, challenge established institutions and power structures and to turn information push (from corporations to customers) into pull (people forcing corporations to change their course and approach).
  • They seem to have an incredible speed to share information and news: when a plane crashes it is usually heard sooner on Twitter than on any large broadcasting television or radio network.
  • They can be infinitely combined and recombined and build upon each other, creating waves of interest and action.

For the sake of simplicity, we are referring, in this guide, to social media for any online platform that shares these characteristics. There is much to say about a number of telephone applications and interactive television features here but we are restricting our focus, in this guide, on the world wide web applications (whether accessed from a desktop or laptop computer, a mobile phone or else.

There are various categories of social media - as explained in the section 'Social media to share African knowledge, along the knowledge cycle' - but the main tools or platforms that seem to have created the fame and name for social media are indeed Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and blog platforms such as WordPress and Blogger. Behind these 'big four' there are however a lot of other social media platforms that were set up with a specific function in mind.

Social media to promote Africa?
These characteristics seem to be at the foundation of the popular enthusiasm for social media. Africa is not the least continent concerned by this social media frenzy and its emerging opportunities. All parts of the African continent are stirring up and finding creative ways to use social media to different ends: business, entertainment, civic education and also development work and research for development. Africa is booming and social media should support this trend.

However, while social media are booming in Africa (figures?), it remains sometimes unclear whether the boom is about Africa, for Africa or by the people of Africa. Development history is marked by contributions from the global North and to date most of Sub-Saharan Africa is highly dependent onoverseas development aid funding. These external contributions to development are largely paved with good intentions but they nonetheless risk failing to represent truly African perspectives, ideas and approaches. Whose knowledge is at stake? For whom? To change what and for whose livelihood?

Africa possesses an unprecedented chance, with social media, to raise its voice and be heard in the global networked forums that social media have created everywhere, for every issue and every agenda. Africans can unite and form movements of opinion and action as they have probably never been able to, previously. The question is: how? And about what?

Social media to promote African knowledge about climate change adaptation?
The power of social media in connecting people with one another is an incredibly helpful feature to address complex development and environmental issues that require the combination of expertise and ideas from various sources. Climate change is one such complex agenda. The causes and consequences of climate change are not directly or easily perceptible, a lot of theories are circulating around the topic and policies addressing climate change are not well organised or even agreed upon globally. Against these unstable factors, adaptation strategies are being drawn, based on old and new practices.

Africa has a dramatic relation with its climate. The poverty affecting the continent puts many Africans in a delicate situation in the face of climate change challenges. The continent represents a specific challenge for climate change adaptation. The complex set of bio-physical, economic, social, political and institutional factors that are at stake in the African climate change agenda put the onus on Africans to find innovative ways to pull their experiences and competences to address problems that concern them before anyone else.

Social media might be part of those innovative ways, provided that indeed African knowledge is being promoted, not knowledge about or for Africa. The question of 'how to use social media' to promote African knowledge about climate change adaptation takes all its magnitude here, as a key opportunity to demonstrate that Africans can find the best ways to deal with environmental and development problems on their own account.

In summary, what are the chances that social media offer - but also their natural limitations, which all of us should be aware of - to effectively promote and share African knowledge from an African perspective, about fast-changing and complex issues such as climate change and adaptation measures?

This is the broad agenda of this guide. We hope it will offer useful insights and ideas.