In public health we’re always trying to make some sort of change that will improve people’s health or create the right conditions for it. Of course, we can’t do that alone – we need to work with communities to get the messages out there in the right way and mobilise people for action. Sometimes what’s required is a change in policy and what you need from the community is support for the idea, e.g. getting people to sign a petition on energy use. At other times, you’re trying to get community members to change their own behaviour, such as using their cars less.
Meeting in clubs vs meeting online
In the old days, people would attend public meetings and/or belong to clubs or associations. So, you could reach them face-to-face quite easily. How do you bring them together in these days of dispersed families and scattered communities? Clay Shirky says in his book, Here Comes Everybody, that this fragmentation has reduced social capital – networks and ties between people enabling them to cooperate and support each other. He also says it’s caused the “transaction costs” of groups meeting in person to become so high as to make it really difficult.
Getting the Community Behind You
Twitter can be a really effective way of bringing people together, with much lower transaction costs. You can get people behind an idea. It’s particularly handy for bringing together a lot of people, who share an interest in the same issue, but might not bump into each other otherwise. Sometimes that’s because they are widely spread out – maybe even all over the globe – and sometimes they live in the same neighbourhood, but don’t know each other. If you can capture their imaginations, you can bring them together online to join your campaign. Just look at the success of #blacklivesmatter in raising awareness, or the campaign to get Twitter to add an “abuse button”. You could use Twitter to get people together to develop a food bank, time banking scheme, local park, or whatever, as a way of creating or strengthening social capital.
As with any public health campaign, you need to know your community. Twitter can also help you to understand who’s following your tweets. E.g. you can find out what health interests they have (and even what risk factors or illnesses) by seeing what they’re tweeting about. If you have the resources, you can check user profiles to find out where they’re located and other information they might have included, like their occupations (Paul & Dredze, 2011).
What can you use it for?
Prof. Helen Bevan is a renowned change leader in the UK National Health Service (NHS). She is very well-known and well-regarded among NHS managers and some clinicians (most have no clue about management). Her Twitter timeline is mainly made up of catchy quotes about leadership and change management, usually with links, such as this one about team diversity – https://twitter.com/helenbevan/status/620250839593164800 . She uses Twitter to help bring together the change agents across the NHS. https://twitter.com/helenbevan
Chris Bolton’s Twitter profile says he is “Interested in learning, sharing & better public services.” He tweets and blogs quite frequently about management and leadership, particularly in the public sector. His Twitter timeline contains a mixture of serious and humorous (Dilbert style) posts about management, personal homilies and health messages. Despite the somewhat distracting mix, he keeps the stream engaging by using lots of visuals – photos and cartoons – and adds links to his and other blogs. He uses his Twitter stream to create community around leadership in the public sector.
How to create a Twitter storm
A couple of years ago we used Twitter to promote a weekend of physical activity events in the town centre, including a 5k run. We drip fed the info for a few weeks, then got really busy in the last couple of weeks. The local pressed also tweeted about it and hundreds of people turned out on a freezing Saturday accompanied by hail!
That’s not the type of storm I’m talking about, though. A Twitter storm is
“ an ATTEMPT to COORDINATE user actions on Twitter in order to create and maintain a “Trending Topic” “– http://globalrevolution.tv/blog/547
The storm can be a social movement for good, generated by some creativity, a catchy hashtag and a message that speaks to people. The community can help get the message out, by retweeting and sharing it. This is what happened with Dr Kate Granger (@GrangerKate) and #hellomynameis – https://twitter.com/hashtag/hellomynameis?src=hash
So Twitter can help you create a movement, rouse your community to act and get them spread the word. Try it and see!
Paul, M. J., & Dredze, M. (2011). You Are What You Tweet: Analyzing Twitter for Public Health. In Proceedings of the Fifth International AAAI Conference on Weblogs and Social Media. Retrieved from http://www.aaai.org/ocs/index.php/ICWSM/ICWSM11/paper/viewFile/2880/3264.
Shirky, C. (2008). Solving Social Dilemmas. In Here Comes Everybody: how change happens when people come together (pp. 188 – 211). Penguin