NGOs & Nonprofits, Social media & networking

ActNow meetup on online youth engagement

I had the pleasure yesterday of joining about 60 other people at a seminar/workshop, put on by ActNow, on the topic of online youth engagement.

I’ve been a fan of ActNow, and parent organisation Inspire, since I was first introduced to them in my time at WWF-Australia (thanks Damian!). I really dig their approach to youth engagement – the way they’ve structured everything they do around incorporating young people into the process, not just as a review panel, but actually engaging them more deeply in organisational planning.

Needless to say I was stoked to receive an invite to this particular event. Over the jump I share some of the highlights of the event, and my take on some of the key themes that emerged over the sessions.


First up was a presentation by Dr Rachel O’Connell, Chief Safety Officer at Bebo. Bebo is the number 1 social networking site in the UK, and also quite popular in Australia (anecdotally with the early- to mid-teens). We learnt that Bebo hosts 40 million users. (During question-time Rachel offered some more concrete stats as a follow-up, so hopefully I’ll be able to report a bit more on Bebo’s demographic stats later.)

One of the key themes of the session was a acknowledgement that never before has the power of information been in the hands of so many young people – with opportunities to create, disseminate, moderate and view so much material. Young people are growing up online – interacting online is a part of their self-identity and self-expression – it is second nature and is integrated seamlessly into their life.

Rachel went on to demonstrate some of the initiatives that Bebo has established to support and celebrate their young users. There was the “Be Well” section of the site connecting young people with support services (e.g. mental health, counseling etc.); the “Be Cause” section, supporting social entrepreneurship; and “nanotales”, a very writing competition.

Another key theme was the idea that young people like to be in control online – of what they view online and enjoy interacting with content creators, as demonstrated by the Kate Modern program. This, of course, is a familiar theme across social networking in general, but seems somewhat more pointed for young people, perhaps because they have less such opportunities at school and home.

As far as internet safety goes, Rachel was clearly passionate about, and well versed in, both the theory and practice of safety online. Although I can’t really do justice to many of the things she said, the stand-out point for me was that education is key.

One point she made, that I think is quite pertinent, is that in 5 years time we’ll look back on this period and wonder why “Internet Safety” wasn’t a part of the school curriculum. She also suggested that education for parents was also critical: that it should be part of the “parental repertoire” (a term I really dig). And not just what to look out for, but also appropriate ways to respond when issues arise. Her views made a lot of sense to me – so it’s great to know she’s so closely involved with Bebo’s efforts in this area.

Workshop: Opportunities, Barriers, Solutions

The second session was focused on looking at what opportunities existed for engaging with young people online; what barriers existed for organisations taking advantage of these opportunities; and some solutions to overcome these barriers.

I was impressed with the format of the workshop, which involved wikis, projectors and scribes to create a collaborative environment that worked exceptionally well for such a large group. Kudos to the ActNow team for such a creative and innovative format. I felt this was a great way to leverage the “wisdom of crowds” – kind of like a mass jam session. It certainly made the session a lot more invigorating.

My notes of the session got very slim at this point due to the interactive nature of the sessions. We’ll apparently be receiving some copies of the ideas generated, so perhaps I’ll be able to share some of the key themes here at a later date.

Empowerment, story telling, connecting; these were just some of the themes that emerged from the session.

One thing that struck me was how the barriers seemed very similar across a variety of groups – managerial support, management of risk, sharing of knowledge between organisations, raising diversity and bridging the digital divide. For some groups the digital divide was a really critical issue – their constituents lacked not just awareness of internet technologies, but also physical access. It seems we still have some way to go to address this significant problem, despite recent gains.

I’m involved in a group of NGO-focused webbies that may well have a role to play in the “sharing of knowledge between organisations” issue. Perhaps I’ll have more to talk about in that regard in coming weeks.


All in all it was a fantastic morning – I really got a lot out of it, as I suspect many participants did. Thanks to the ActNow team for not only putting on such a great program, but also for inviting me along. The invite was very much appreciated.