Social media is potentially a very useful tool for grassroots organisations that concern themselves with political action for social justice and/or the provision of community facing support services, such as LGBTQ charities and community groups. Social networking sites in particular offer the possibility of communicating with multiple constituencies and can be used to publicise services, campaign, engage potential sponsors, create peer networks, as well as communicate directly with existing and new service users. When it comes to LGBTQ youth engagement, social media outreach work offers a means to effectively reach its target group. In light of recent research in the US (Mitchell et al. 2014) that suggests a significant difference by sexual orientation among youth in relying on online sources for sexual health information (78% of LGBTQ youth compared to 19% of heterosexual youth), it can be argued that an online presence is an essential dimension for organisations working with LGBTQ youth in any capacity.
This article addresses the challenges and possibilities of social media to help generate and support outreach work with young LGBTQ people in the context of youth services. This involves among other things looking at how commercial, mainstream social media platforms are utilised in pragmatic and sometimes dissident ways to fit the needs of marginalised youth, highlighting in particular the praxis of making, sharing and caring online. Thus the article is of interest both for academics working in social media and youth research, as well as outreach support workers in the public and private sectors. Based on our collaborative research project with a community partner, the Brighton/UK based LGBTU [Lesbian, Gay, Bi, Trans and Unsure] youth project Allsorts, we examine the ways in which social media are currently utilised by a youth service provider to reach and engage with isolated, marginalised, vulnerable and at risk LGBTQ youth in their everyday campaign work and service provision.
Since 2003, five of our young people have taken their own life and one died of HIV-Aids related illness. A third of our young people have attempted suicide. Many more self harm, either directly or through harmful behaviours (unsafe sex, sale of sex, substance misuse). Many suffer homelessness. Some struggle to form healthy relationships. These young people are not destructive. These young people struggle, often completely alone, for years to come to terms with bullying, abuse, discrimination and isolation from their LGBT peers. This has an impact on all of their life. (Allsorts Annual Report 2009-2010)
This reality speaks of different forms of vulnerability as well as giving an indication of the need to address issues of mental well-being specifically.
Charities, social services and health services are in a transitional phase in terms of shaping and being shaped by their social media provision. Currently, however, few digital programs for charities and small organisations are being rigorously evaluated (see Fussell, Sisco and McCorkindale, 2013 and Powell et al., 2010). As early adopters of social media, Allsorts therefore provides a rich case study that engages young people not just as audiences, but also as producers of content for the organisation’s media profile. The 2011 national survey ‘Equipped to Engage?’ concluded that of over 130 local authorities, only 25% of organisations were using social media in youth work. Attitudes towards the use of social media may have changed since this study was conducted, but barriers such as lack of understanding of how social media work in combination with restrictive e-policies remain. Social media initiatives at Allsorts may therefore provide examples of working practices that other organisations, service providers and local authorities may look to for knowledge and reassurance.
In light of this background as well as recent public debates about young people’s management of risk in relation to social media – such as loss of privacy, unsafe contacts etc (cf. Livingstone and Brake 2010 and Pascoe 2011) – the study looks at, among other things, the translation of ethical guidelines from offline practice to services offered via social media, arguing that organisations may be influenced by such public debates to take a conservative or very cautious approach, but that this may have negative implications in terms of the aim to engage with hard-to-reach youth. Thus, we need to assess both the challenges of new media technologies as well as the potential for providing relevant support services through digital and online formats.
The area of ICT (Information and Communication Technology)-based interventions in mental health provision is emerging in tandem with the increased uptake of smartphones and social media among young people (c.f. Powell et al. 2010). The aim of the study is thus also to further identify and highlight future social media strategies that can enable such organisations and service providers to utilise social media effectively in their efforts to facilitate good mental health and wellbeing. Allsorts support a diverse range of young people who may have different challenges in their lives and their approach is to take a holistic view on the individual. In the drop-in (group) sessions service users frequently want to talk to staff and volunteers about issues to do with relationships, family and identity. However, in the most recent review of issues raised in a face-to-face setting ‘mental health’ (12%) and ‘relationships’ were (19%) the top two most common concerns (Allsorts Annual Report: Year ending March 31st 2013). Support is also offered over the telephone and increasingly via social media, and the observations staff have made about issues frequently raised in sessions or causes for intervention have put the need for mental well-being support at the centre of their social media provision. Further, in relation to digital media praxis as the ‘making and theorising of media towards stated projects of world and self-changing’, we also critically evaluate the notion of ‘low level’ microactivism (Hinton and Hjort 2013: 74) as associated with mainstream social media campaigning (often contrasted to a tradition of LGBTQ campaigning deemed more authentic), paying particular attention to the creativity, agency and identity work that goes into campaigns run by the young people themselves.
A critical point that the study to an extent confirms is that young people access and use social network sites in different ways, thus effectively creating multiple spaces rather than all participating in a large single networked space; in this respect there is a divide between Allsorts’ digital campaigners and their support service users. Our observations confirm that socially connected positions offline tend to translate into active engagement online. However the study also shows that this division in some instances is being countered, particularly by the ‘Transformers’ group who with their wide-ranging social media use show a strong indication of bridging the maker – user divide. The multitude of networked space also presents the organisation with challenges when it comes to the managing of different Facebook profiles, groups and other social media accounts, currently a structurally complex operation, involving different people, different purposes, different working styles. This energetic, expansive and somewhat straggling phase is expected to be followed by a phase of streamlining (ST, October 2013).
The aim of the research collaboration was and continues to be one of fostering further insight into and understanding of digital social media practices to inform and enhance baseline provisions in youth support work. The insights gained into the working practices thus far will be taken forward into the next phase of the research project, which focuses on and engages with service user perspectives and practices more specifically.
Reaching out and/or networking the networked
Digital social media have changed and are changing the way in which Allsorts works and is perceived in and around Brighton. Thomas points out that more young people come to the drop-in from further afield now compared to years ago, for example, as far as Kent (further along the English South East coast, but still relatively close in proximity to Brighton). In relation to Allsorts’ online campaigning work, they do get ‘Likes’ from around the world (ST, October 2013). Although Allsorts has arguably managed to somewhat extend its reach geographically (not one of its core objectives given the financial limitations discussed above), the really hard to reach do not necessarily live further afield, nor can social media necessarily bring them closer to the centre of support. An interesting, if not entirely surprising picture emerges: Allsorts as an organisation is based on a hierarchy of staff, volunteers and service users. Traditionally, volunteers have been recruited from outside the organisation, but there is some fluidity between the two categories. According to Sam Thomas, there is more or less a 50/50 gender-divide, including a few trans/questioning volunteers. Still, ‘the men are more likely to come forward [to lead], the women you have to push’ (ST, October 2013). Amongst the over-16s, ‘more men are accessing the group than women and amongst the Transformers, there are more trans men than women’ (ML, May, 2013). Lewis points out that online demographics and practices appear to mirror the offline demographics.
In relation to considering digital social media for outreach purposes to engage those who are hard to reach, it appears that they are rather used by those who are already well networked. Sam Thomas, therefore, considers social media as complementary to existing services and audiences (ST, 2013), rather than a simple means or answer to reach the very hard to reach constituencies. The economically hard to reach may not be able to access social media, according to Jess Wood: ‘Brighton is a damaged city … a city full of distress, much more so than its appearance suggests’ (JW, October 2013). Homelessness and the sex worker scene, especially in relation to young gay men, are big challenges and notoriously difficult to tackle from a youth work perspective. On the other hand, Wood’s theory is that some of the geographically more difficult-to-reach LGBTQ young people in rural areas of Sussex get reached through social digital media, ‘but we cannot evidence that’ (ibid.). The issue of remote access to services shows a tension between previous and new ways of working in the organisation. Safety of the young person is also a priority at Allsorts. For this reason, the organisation has a well established and longstanding induction protocol to follow. In practical terms this means that for a young person to join any activities (also online) they need to visit the center to be given the information in person and sign a form. This practice may have several benefits, but in terms of outreach work in the digital realm, it creates an impediment.
Given the context outlined above, the following section addresses more specifically the support provision of Allsorts in relation to mental health and well-being, particularly in relation to the impact of digital social media practices.
Mental health and well-being: fostering resilience through communicative media praxis
Most young people involved with Allsorts would not identify as having mental health issues, according to Meg Lewis. Instead, ‘most can identify with positive well-being and emotional well being’ (ibid.). Nevertheless, the young people seeking out Allsorts are vulnerable in a number of ways and to various degrees. As Allsorts youth worker and trained counsellor Ben Dew explains: ‘[It is] inherent in [being] LGBTU and growing up …. [It] makes you to some extent vulnerable’—either by having to negotiate more obvious hostile environments and being the victim of homophobia and bullying, or through more subtle experiences: for example, ‘when the environment is not aligned to who you are’ (BD, August, 2013). Dew explains that, generally speaking, most LGBTQ people experience over time some mental health issues at some point – or at least a sense of discomfort and dis-ease. In relation to Allsorts more specifically, he notes that there are ‘quite a high number of young people with mild learning difficulties like Asperger’s Syndrome. That’s an added layer of vulnerability … Trans young people are [also] an incredibly vulnerable group’ (ibid.). Working mostly with young men, in his experience young people even with mild mental health issues can turn to alcohol and drugs. There are also concerns regarding subtle sexual exploitation to quite obvious sexual exploitation: ‘Unfortunately, that’s the way the gay scene is … [and this is] true to most cities’ (ibid). Being situated in Brighton, UK, Allsorts youth workers and counselors are in a position to refer young people to a wide range of specific support services in relation to sexual exploitation, drugs and alcohol abuse. The uptake is nevertheless relatively low.
At this stage it is productive to evaluate Allsorts’ digital social media practices more specifically in relation to their mental health and well-being services. This allows us to examine more generally the ways in which a supportive LGBTQ community may be engendered in and through its digital media communications. As will be illustrated next, the (productive) tensions within and through social media use in this context echo a number of fault lines already identified in the previous section in relation to experience and shaping of on/off-line practices, sustainability of services, depth, breadth and types of engagement, accessibility and reach as well as opportunities for peer support and mentoring.
One of the key features emerging from Allsorts’ digital social media practices in relation to supporting good mental health and well-being is that of confidentiality rather than anonymity. We argue that one of the strengths of Allsorts’ social media practice ethos stems from the fact that it counters many current initiatives that use new media technologies exclusively in their counseling practices and youth work and regard the anonymity of service users as an absolute priority. Allsorts divertes from such a practice in their choice of combining meeting house activities with social media activities. Interviews with youth workers and counsellors evidence that there are currently still perceived shortcomings in the use of social digital media as platforms for counseling purposes, given the lack of visual and embodied communication more traditionally relied upon in their therapeutic practice. Due to the sise and funding scale of Allsorts as a charity organisation, current practices focus on frontline services and crisis intervention. Dew explains the nature of their work is therefore less counselling oriented than ‘solution focussed work … Dealing with the immediate problem’ (ibid). Regular off-line workshops for young LGBTU people focus on ‘affirmative work’ and confidence building (ML, May 2013) – hopefully increasing their resilience levels to cope better with difficult and adverse situations and encourage a care of the self. One-to-one sessions with youth workers and counsellors are more specifically mental health oriented and, for example, make use of motivational interviewing techniques (ibid.). Arguably, at this stage, the use of digital social media is still relatively restricted and restrictive in relation to mental health work. Nevertheless, it can and does aid the possibility of quick intervention in conjunction with ‘in-house’ work and the use of more traditional media like the telephone. As Ben Dew explains, Facebook can become a tool in one-to-one intervention, ‘if [there is] something significant [going on]—and it’s a judgment call what makes it significant’ (BD, August 2013). He remembers a case were he had done a lot of off-line one-to-one work with a young person who eventually left Brighton. The connection was kept up over the phone; ‘however, sometimes they have no credit or they cannot speak because the parents are around … [so this young person] just posted a message on Facebook’ (ibid). Normally, Allsorts staff are quite bounded about getting involved in posted messages on Facebook: ‘but, because this message popped up saying “I feel really depressed and down”, I answered it immediately and we got into a chat. … So, we will do it [get involved on Facebook]. On that basis’ (ibid). Interestingly, it is in his persona as therapist that Dew still struggles with Facebook: ‘It doesn’t feel quite right and real. … There is obvious stuff [missing] around reading body language … the subtlety around how people speak … I’m interested in Gestalt, the discrepancies of what people say and what shows in their bodies … losing that is problematic.’
Other barriers to engage more in-depth through social media may seem more mundane but are nevertheless relatively common in relation to media literacy in the widest sense. As Ben points out: ‘I cannot touch-type, which slows me down … it doesn’t have the same flow. I’m always worried I’m typing too slowly. I’m not used to it, I’ve been talking to people [face-to-face] for years’ (ibid). Dew refers to a general increase in e-counseling practices (i.e. an online intervention through Skype chat function or email). ‘I realise a lot of things are moving that way … in my own experience when I was going through hard times – I received emails and letters that were incredibly supportive’ (ibid). We argue that the combination of on- and offline support systems in relation to mental health and well being can provide a particularly successful strategy for organisations that are working locally/regionally and find themselves particularly vulnerable in relation to sustaining funding levels and therefore available staff/hours and training opportunities. There are clearly still questions around loss and gain in relation to the type and quality of on-line support that can be made available and indeed generated by a community itself. What the case of Allsorts demonstrates in relation to Facebook activities thus far is that the platform and its uses create a ‘safe space [for young LGBTU people to talk about their concerns’ (ML, May 2013). As such, according to Lewis, it supports mental health and resilience building even though counseling as such happens elsewhere.
Campaigning and creativity: the young people’s voice
Social media has brought a ‘shifting dynamic’ in terms of communication and information sharing. As van Dijck (2012:142) points out, ‘agents of different nature…and varied sise (individuals, groups, collectives, societies) are building a connective space for communication and information’. However, most of the mainstream SNS are not LGBTQ-friendly by default. In fact, as Cooper and Dsara (2010: 102) argue, ‘while Facebook can be seen as multiplying options for networking among LGBT individuals, in other ways it may be seen as perpetuating the hegemonic discourse by its creation of a structure that does not permit total flexibility in self-identification’, by which they mean the heteronormative constrictions in options available for gender identity and relation status.
In addition to the social media use within Allsorts that predominantly aims to either disseminate information about activities and services or to enter into dialogue with services users (either one-to-one, one-to-many or many-to-many) discussed above, social media is used as their primary domain for a more politically orientated vein of work that is the young volunteers’ group, The Young People’s Voice (YPV). Young LGBTQ people’s lives remain challenging in different ways and within different socio-cultural spheres: in family life, in school, in early working life, in contact with health services and so on. The Young People’s Voice (YPV) is an expression of the LGBTQ youth community’s desire to respond to and work to change social and cultural factors that they identify as negative pressures on their lives.
There is a core group of about 10 people on average and the main purpose of their activities is to campaign on a particular issue – they run four campaigns per year. In addition their work also contributes to publicising Allsorts as a ‘youth-led’ organisation. They cannot simply be categorised as an LGBTQ rights campaign group, as their communication just as often pertains to issues of awareness raising (education) and LGBTQ youth well-being. The volunteers thus straddle these categories in their approach to challenging attitudes and policies on the basis of equality, inclusiveness, diversity and social justice. Campaigns have addressed numerous topics, including the effects of transphobia and discrimination on trans youth lives, coming out, diversity within the LGBTQ community spectrum, and their annual event ‘LGBT Children, Young People and Families Day’ aims to ‘educate and celebrate LGBT identity and community.’ The tone and ethos of their user-created content (UCC) chimes with the user-generated content (UGC) on their timeline / wall; it is about celebrating LGBTQ lives and ‘positive images from around the world’ whilst also negotiating marginalisation and challenges in the LGBTQ youth community. The media content generated here also works to boost the social media provision across the whole of the organisation. It contributes in significant ways to the social media environment and gives the organisation an identity as one that is inclusive and actively working towards the well-being of all LGBTQ youth. In other words, the way material is re-circulated across the organisation’s different profiles and pages works to augment the liveliness of their social media presence taken as a whole.
Volunteers are recruited mainly from outside the organisation, but some of the youth who are attending or have been attending support groups also get involved in the YPV activities. An event, like the Brighton Pride march or Trans Day of Remembrance, is often at the heart of a campaign, but the main objective is not so much to drive footfall to the event or drum up financial support; rather it is the awareness raising agenda that appears to be the main aim and motivation. From this perspective, it makes sense that the group’s main presence is in Social Media.
Pullen comments on the imaginations that the internet and online social network sites offer gay people, stating that ‘we are living in a world where the discursive potential of an “imagined gay community” (Pullen 2007) seems vividly real through online interactivity and identity affirmation’ (2010: 2). Questions remain however about to what extent and on what conditions LGBTQ youth can be part of such imagined community, and questions remain about the differences in online resources and presence between the L, the G, the B, the T and the Q. Our study indicates a gender difference in terms of the levels of activity on social media as well as identifies a participatory gap along established fault lines of socio-cultural capital. Acknowledging this we would still suggest that with the contextualising notion of a particular – in this case local – social media network being LGBTQ friendly, also ‘peripheral others’ (Ellison and boyd 2013: 162) take on a significant meaning and the multi-layered networks serve different purposes in a given moment whilst overall underpinning a culture of care.
The study identifies that social media are not built primarily with outreach objectives in mind. Community organisations like the one discussed here make pragmatic use of them, which involves a range of customised praxes that best serve their needs yet are inevitably shaped by the platforms’ fundamental structure–their DNA. This also means that reaching the hard-to-reach requires strategies that go beyond creating a social media presence. Social media can indeed be used to engage vulnerable or underserved LGBTQ youth, but it is in the work that goes into creating an environment that is relatable and meaningful to them that such opportunities lie. In this respect, we note that the existence of established offline strategies for creating such environments cannot be underestimated as a resource that informs the online praxis. Yet we also note some less compatible working practices.
An area that emerges as significant in terms of learning from the work of the organisation is how their perspective is one that is not just focused on the individual but rather relates the mental well-being of the individual to a more collective and social well-being. Different aspects such as counseling, crisis intervention, peer support, confidence building activities, and community activism inform one other. Their commingling across the social media platforms and different sub-networks appears unruly at times, but such is the nature of social media. Though practically structured at a micro level, the Allsorts social media youth engagement ethos in the main thrives on a make-do approach. Their co-mingling across the social media platforms and different sub-networks appears unruly at times, but such is the nature of social media and the organisation’s make do approach is guided primarily by the needs of service users as they change over time. The strength in this approach is the multiple social roles it allows the young people to inhabit and how it recognises the the value of the connections within the group(s) as a resource in itself.