Jenna Condie, University of Western Sydney, Australia
Living in an increasingly digital world makes new forms of social interaction possible. The emergence of social media, generally defined as Internet-based applications that enable users to create and share content within social networks (Kaplan & Haenlein, 2010), has been championed as an empowering movement where people are more connected, involved, informed, and heard. At the same time, existing structural inequalities can be reproduced in these new spaces where communities of social disadvantage continue to be excluded, unheard, and stigmatised (Carah & Louw, 2015).
A number of reports have highlighted that social and community housing providers are uniquely placed to embrace social media platforms for the purposes of tenant participation, community involvement, and social change (e.g. Jacobs et al., 2011; Rose et al., 2014). Almost universally, across social and community housing providers’ mission statements and organisational goals is a commitment to strengthening communities and social justice. An effective social housing system “should help vulnerable people, while providing opportunity and pathways for client independence where that is appropriate” and as such, a networked approach that “connect[s] tenants with employment, education, training and other community engagements” is required (NSW Government, 2014, p. 7). Thus, the participatory web can offer significant opportunities to empower social housing tenants and create networked communities.
Yet the sector has been described as ‘lagging’ behind other comparable non-profit sectors (e.g. policing, education, and health) in terms of digital social innovations designed to engage service users (McCrossan, 2014). The 2014 Connected Housing Study (carried out by Visceral Business), which tracked the digital innovation and development of 235 social housing organisations in the UK within a twelve-month period, found that online initiatives for resident management and engagement are increasing but most organisations remain in the early stages of digitalising their practices.
In the Australian context, digital social innovations in the social housing sector are seemingly less visible in comparison to the UK scene. Rose et al., (2014) attributed the uptake of new digital platforms to the UK policy context of public service reform, welfare reform, austerity measures and digital inclusion targets in the transitions to digitalised public services. Even so, ‘digital by default’ public services continue to press forward in Australia too.
In both countries, social media participation may offer significant opportunities to address the stigmatization of social housing tenants. ‘Stigma’ can be understood as “an attribute that is deeply discrediting” which, when assigned, can result in spoiled identities (Goffman, 1963, p. 13). For Goffman (1963), stigma operates in a ‘language of relationships’ with others, which determines whether the attribute works to credit or discredit an individual, a social group, an area or place.
Mooney (2011) notes that “we are living in a period characterised by a virulent and comprehensive assault not on poverty, but on people experiencing poverty” (p. 4). Recent media representations of social housing tenants, Channel 4’s ‘Benefit Street’ (UK) and SBS’s ‘Struggle Street’ (Australia) for example, have been particularly problematic and are arguably indicative of the anti-welfare rhetoric and ‘poverty porn’ entertainment culture. Government policies and mass media representations that are anti-welfare and anti-poor can serve to ‘other’ social housing tenants into stigmatised identities. Research examining mainstream media portrayals of social housing and particular areas or estates largely finds predominantly negative representations (e.g. Hastings, 2004; Kearns, Kearns & Lawson, 2013). Jacobs et al., (2011) argue that new media spaces can enable tenant organisations to counter negative and present positive stories about the role of social housing and its tenants. “All places have identities, but some places also have reputations” (Kearns et al., 2013, p. 579) and by engaging tenants through social media, social housing organisations can renegotiate any ‘spoiled identities’ and provide alternative narratives of social housing.
By being digitally present, social housing associations can also reframe policy changes and communicate them to social housing tenants. Thus, their use of social media can play a crucial role in enhancing digital literacies and addressing issues of digital exclusion. Tenant scrutiny panels and neighbourhood resident groups can be seen to self-organise online developing digital presences and ‘residing’ online to set the agenda in the dialogues around social housing. However, there are significant gaps in the research, both nationally and internationally, around the role of social media in social housing. It is also important that social media engagement initiatives are evaluated in terms of their effectiveness for stakeholder engagement and tenant participation across the sector.
Our current project is exploring the use of social media by housing associations located in New South Wales. The study consists of two key components: 1) a comprehensive audit of tenant participation activities in New South Wales, and 2) interviews with representatives from social housing organisations about their experiences and future expectations of social media for social housing. This research will establish a baseline from which to build a body of knowledge around tenant participation in the digital age. Moreover, this project aims to provide support for the call for action (see Smith, 2014).
Social media can be a powerful tool for social justice and social change. If social housing providers are not engaging with their tenants through contemporary communication platforms, this raises concerns around the power, status, and agency of tenants to influence their own living circumstances and participate in their communities and neighbourhoods. Most importantly, digitally including social housing tenants “represents a major opportunity to effect significant and lasting change” (Rose et al., 2014, p. 15).
Carah, N., & Louw, E., (2015) Media and Society. Production, Content and Participation, London: Sage Publications
Visceral Business (2014) The 2014 Connected Housing Study, available at: http://visceralbusiness.com/owning-the-online-experience-connected-housing-2014/
Goffman, E. (1963). Stigma: Notes on the Management of Spoiled Identity. New York: Simon and Schuster/Touchstone Books
Hastings, A. (2004). Stigma and Social Housing Estates: Beyond Pathological Explanations. Journal of Housing and the Built Environment, 19(3), 233–254
Jacobs, K., Arthurson, K., Cica, N., Greenwood A., & Hastings, A. (2011) The stigmatisation of social housing: findings from a panel investigation, AHURI Final Report No.166. Melbourne: Australian Housing and Urban Research Institute
Kaplan, A., & Haenlein, M. (2010) Users of the world, unite! The challenges and opportunities of Social Media. Business Horizons, 53, p. 59-68.
Kearns, A., Kearns, O., & Lawson, L. (2013) Notorious Places: Image, Reputation, Stigma. The Role of Newspapers in Area Reputations for Social Housing Estates, Housing Studies, 28(4), p, 579–598
Mooney, G. (2011) Stigmatising poverty? The ‘Broken Society’ and reflections on anti-welfarism in the UK today, A Whose Economy Seminar Paper, available at: http://oro.open.ac.uk/29714/2/AEF16A71.pdf
McCrossan, A. (2014) Housing organisations lag behind in social media and digital engagement, The Guardian, retrieved from: http://www.theguardian.com/housing-network/2014/jan/13/housing-social- media-digital-engagement
NSW Government (2014) Social Housing in NSW:A discussion paper for input and comment, available at:http://www.facs.nsw.gov.au/__data/assets/file/0009/303030/Social-Housing-in-NSW_Discussion-Paper.pdf
Rose N., Seton C., Tucker J., & van der Zwan R. (2014) Digital and included: empowering social housing communities. Regional Initiative for Social Innovation and Research (RISIR), South Cross University
Smith, T. (2014) Uptown Top Ranking, available at: http://tonysmiththathousingitguy.blogspot.co.uk/2014/06/uptown-top-ranking.html?m=1
Dr Jenna Condie is a Lecturer in eResearch and Online Social Analysis in the School of Social Sciences and Psychology, University of Western Sydney. Her work focuses on identity and how ‘who we are’ shapes our interactions with environments, places, media, and each other. Jenna curates and co-manages the Twitter community of New Social Media, New Social Science (NSMNSS). She is a World Social Science Fellow with the International Social Science Council on sustainable urbanisation and the transitions to urban contexts. Jenna is a Chartered Psychologist with the British Psychological Society, a Fellow of the Higher Education Academy, and a member of the Association of Internet Researchers.
Twitter: @jennacondie @nsmnss @SSAPChat