Does Facebook work as a group project platform?

117 bikes head off for Cape Town from Lund, Sweden.

Reflecting on the process of running the LivsCykel – Bikes for Life project with high school students in Lund, Sweden, one new aspect that came out of the process for me was the use of social media as a tool to aide project management. In fact, it was our key means of communication throughout the six month working project with up to 25 youth and 5 leaders using a Facebook page to coordinate the project behind the scenes. Because I relocated to Germany part way through the project, and many of the students and coordinators were away from Lund at various times, we needed an online platform to help us run the project from a distance. Given that the core team were high school students, guided by four university volunteers and myself, Facebook was the obvious choice. Most students have smart phones and are online on Facebook all the time.

On reflection, there are certainly advantages and draw backs of using the system. On the plus side, it was simple and free to create a group on Facebook. We were all on Facebook, apart from one team member who adopted a pseudonym and created an account for the purpose of the project. In fact, we didn’t even need to be “friends” with each other to be part of the Group. It meant that everyone could post ideas, information, updates, and share their thoughts with each other. What was important was also to ensure that the live Facebook page that members of the public saw was also kept up to date. It seemed that we were at times a little too focussed on using the private workgroup to publish our successes and not savvy enough to distinguish what things should have gone live and marketed what we were doing to the wider public.

I soon realised that the Facebook group method is not really designed for this kind of project management. First, the posts are time categorised, as opposed to being rated by importance, which means that comments easily got lost or slipped down the system as new posts occurred. To enhance the importance of something, it needed to have a comment put on it which would then boost it back up the line. This also meant that threads might not be seen by members of the group, particularly those that were not avid Facebook users or online all the time. Let’s be honest, it’s not for everyone.  And this is the second point: some people are more vocal on Facebook than others, just like all group processes. But the problem with this is on Facebook you can’t see who is listening and thinking,  who is ignoring the comments, or who hasn’t seen them at all – which are of course key parts to efficient group communications. And as a team leader you cannot scan the circle and read people’s reactions to things, you just have to take what is there on the message board: and believe me that is not ideal.  Further, the challenge is that we were working with High School Students who were new to not only this system, but to running projects in general – often shy and used to taking instructions from teachers as opposed to making their own suggestions. To compensate, I tried to personalise many messages and to also get in touch with those who were quiet online to make sure they were ok. On top of this, the core leading team of university students and I skyped frequently to try and ensure that we were covering all gaps. This helped, along with the fact that we had designed the project to run on the Spoke’s Model of group work, meaning that we were a distributed little network with each task having a spokesperson to report back to the main group on what was going on, hence enhancing ownership and motivation of the group members.

The final thing to think about is that I consider the system was not perfect but it seemed to work for us mainly because we had a strong communicative system from the outset. Prior to adopting the Facebook page we had some intensive workshops based on collaborative and participatory practices, which meant that we were off to a good start. In addition, weekly meetings were held throughout the project with two core groups (practicalities and marketing) meeting also on occasion to discuss their work. So, for us, it was a useful tool to complement those processes but there are definitely drawbacks of the system.  I think that for LivsCykel it worked because we had a strong group and great team work that was happening on a personal (offline) level day to day and without this complementing it I doubt that the platform would work for this kind of project.

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