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Social work meets social media

Researchers, social workers champion benefits of blogs, Twitter

By Susan White

Anna Scheyett never considered launching her own Internet blog until a UNC colleague suggested last spring that Scheyett should be sharing her social work leadership experience and expertise with a broader audience.

“I knew nothing about blogging, and I don’t particularly follow anybody else’s blog,” explained Scheyett, the UNC School of Social Work’s associate dean for academic affairs. “But eventually kicking and screaming, I set up a blog.”

What resulted was “Social Work Leadership,” which Scheyett uses as a space for commentary on the roles social workers and others play in addressing social injustice issues. The blog is still building an audience but since finding her footing and developing her own writing voice, Scheyett said she has grown more comfortable with and has a greater appreciation for using social media.

“It really is a quick way to flag issues, which I think can be helpful,” she said. “And I think [blogging is] a great way to disseminate information and offer a secondary education around what social work is.”

Social workers and social work educators have been using electronic bulletin boards, e-mail and online forums to interact with one another and raise social consciousness for years. But the transition to social media, where users connect, create and share online content, has been much slower. Until now. Scheyett is among a growing group of academics and practicing professionals learning to navigate Web 2.0 technology, a virtual smorgasbord in which communication and interaction more commonly occurs in waves of Twitter tweets, Facebook feeds, YouTube videos and Blogger posts.

“I have found Twitter very useful,” Scheyett said of the online messaging platform where news, opinions and personal information can be shared or “tweeted” in 140 characters or less. “It’s a way to push out information to people without being intrusive.”

Like Scheyett, other faculty members at UNC’s School of Social Work were not initially sure what to make of the innovative technology or why they should even experiment with it. However, associate professors Rebecca Macy and Susan Parish were intrigued and quickly became the School’s most prolific social media users. Both regularly post news or social commentary around their research interests on Twitter.

For Parish, the micro-blogging site has turned into a great personal assistant, helping her to organize and keep track of research news around her interests in disability, poverty and health care issues. Many state and federal government agencies and independent research institutes have established Twitter accounts and frequently post reports to their pages. “Followers” of these groups receive tweet alerts when new information is posted. Parish is among those alerted when, for example, The Urban Institute issues a new report on children’s health.

“[Twitter] is a very efficient way to follow breaking news and the kinds of policy research that I need to follow,” Parish said.

Macy started a blog in late 2008 after realizing she could use the site to connect with social workers in the field and others on her work around domestic violence and prevention issues. “I had read an article that said academics should blog because how many people are really going to read our peer reviewed research, and it questioned whether our work is really that accessible,” Macy explained. “So, I’m trying to take my research and evidence and make it more accessible. I’m really trying to connect to people out in the practice world.”

That more social work researchers and clinicians are starting to embrace social media doesn’t surprise Karen Zgoda, a licensed clinical social worker and Ph.D candidate at Boston College Graduate School of Social Work.

“I think one of the biggest arguments for using these tools is that clients are already using them,” said Zgoda, whose research focuses on the role of technology in social work. Zgoda writes a regular column on the subject for The New Social Worker Online magazine.

“As social workers, I think it is important to go where the clients are and understand how they are using these tools and how we can use them to help folks,” she added.

Young adults have been mastering these Web tools for awhile and still make up a large proportion of social media users. According to a 2009 report from the Pew Internet and American Life Project, “nearly one in five (19%) online adults, ages 18 to 24, has ever used Twitter and its ilk.” Blogs, which enable virtually anyone with Internet access to publish their work or opinions, have exploded as evidenced by the tens of millions of online sites currently in existence.

Although no one appears to track the total number of social work researchers and clinicians using social media, Zgoda has started compiling several lists using Twitter. Many users already work in environments where social media is gaining popularity. UNC’s School of Social Work is among numerous schools on the Chapel Hill campus that have Facebook pages and Twitter accounts to keep up with alumni, attract prospective students and distribute news and information.

Research shows that higher ed institutions are learning to harness social media to increase exposure and improve recruitment efforts. The National Association for College Admission Counseling reported this spring that more than half of the nation’s colleges and universities now monitor social media for “buzz about their institution.” A third maintain blog sites, while more than a quarter maintain Internet social networking pages.

The trend continues beyond college campuses. Businesses, philanthropic groups and others are also capitalizing on social media. Some nonprofit groups, such as Charity: Water have been especially creative. The nonprofit, which brings clean and safe drinking water to developing nations, used Twitter last year to bring more than 200 international cities together to raise public awareness on the global water crisis. The one-day fundraiser or “Twestival” raised more than $250,000, enough to cover the cost of drilling wells to serve more than 17,000 people in Uganda, Ethiopia and India. In the social work world, professional organizations are among those using the interactive technology to advance social work practice and education. For example, The National Association of Social Workers (NASW) and The New Social Worker Online magazine have created blogs, Facebook pages and Twitter accounts to keep practitioners up-to-date on research, best practices and available jobs. Both also recently sponsored online chats through to bring social workers together to discuss Internet predators and foster care.

A few Web sites, such as “Social Work Blogs,” help connect field clinicians with peers, including to those who regularly blog or tweet about their daily experiences working in mental health, aging or domestic violence agencies. Others offer research and statistics tips. The NASW launched “” as a way to get social workers talking about and influencing how they are portrayed in film, on television and in the news.

“Some of the most popular movies and television programs deal with issues social workers handle each day, including children and families, the aging, and health and wellness,” said James J. Kelly, NASW president. “However, social workers and the issues they address are not always accurately portrayed in the media. Social Workers Speak will help us tell the real story and generate a healthy dialog between the media and social workers.”

Because social workers are held to ethical standards that apply to confidentiality and conflicts of interests, understanding where to draw the line is a must, particularly for those in direct practice, said Kim Strom-Gottfried, the School of Social Work’s Smith P. Theimann Distinguished Professor for Ethics and Professional Practice.

“I urge people to think about – is this something that you would tell somebody else who you have a general relationship with,” said Strom-Gottfried, who will lead a workshop on the “Ethics of Social Networking” in April. “Think of your clientele. How would this be perceived? Does this blur the boundaries? Does this make you feel more visible than you want to feel? What are the things that you are comfortable having known about you?

“To me, the important part of the conversation is around ethical challenges and where you set boundaries.”

Still, Strom-Gottfried, who maintains Facebook and Linked-in accounts, appreciates the value of online platforms, especially for sharing academic research. “We have knowledge to bring to the town square in this discourse,” she added.  “A lot of people are also using social media for problem solving. So I think the risk is worth it.”

Linda Grobman, publisher and editor of The New Social Worker, and a licensed social worker, counts herself among the “early adopters” of new social media, though she has been using the Internet for social work networking for years. She expects other social workers to eventually invest in the communication tools.

“I think today’s traditional-age students already know about it because kids are growing up with technology-assisted learning,” Grobman said.

“They already know about Facebook, text messaging, iPhone apps, YouTube and so forth. So as younger people enter the social work field, there will naturally be more social workers using social media.”

Not everyone is eager to dive into the virtual realm. For many academics, including social work educators, the idea of developing an online presence stirs up mixed emotions. Many say they just don’t have the time to blog or tweet, and the rewards of doing either as a scholarly extension of their research or teaching are not clear. Even among those already plugged into the technology, the benefits are not always immediately evident.

“It’s completely unknown to me who the heck cares that I blog. I don’t really have much of an audience,” said Mat Despard, a School of Social Work clinical assistant professor who blogs on “All Things Nonprofit” and “Macro Social Work.”

Despard sees a functional purpose in using blogs for “content management and connecting people to ideas and perspectives,” and generally uses his sites to assist students on classroom discussions as well as others interested in philanthropy. After Haiti’s devastating earthquake in January, Despard turned to his nonprofit blog as a space for sharing his knowledge of the country and his personal experiences working with an organization there that cares for children.

But he remains dubious about Twitter. “I think there’s good reason for social workers to kind of question how does this exactly enhance our current efforts.”

Scheyett and others agree their initial hesitancy stemmed from the unconventional way that social media requires people to communicate. “I think a part of it is that social work, probably more than any other profession, is about interpersonal relationships,” Scheyett explained. “Being able to conceptualize an interpersonal virtual relationship is kind of challenging. So I think social workers might be a little more hesitant than other academics. That personal connection just isn’t there as much. It’s not how we communicate.”

Yet globally, the Internet and social media are forcing a culture shift over how communication occurs, who participates and what information is spread.

As a self-proclaimed technology geek, Macy eagerly praises social media for the advantages she thinks it affords. For example, Facebook, Twitter and blogs enable her to receive more immediate feedback on her research, she said. They also let her explore others’ thoughts for preventing physical, psychological and sexual violence. With just a few mouse clicks, Macy can tap into the brainpower of people and experts she probably would never have another chance of meeting.

And as she noted in her first blog posting in November 2008, the opportunity for such back and forth dialog may lead to new ideas for social change.

“I have come to realize that finding the best ways to help violence survivors and … [preventing] violence require creativity and innovation,” Macy said. “And I believe that creativity and innovation do not occur in isolation. Creative and innovative solutions develop in conversations with others.”