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Social Work and Web 2.0 with Carrie Rheingans

Social media is becoming increasingly visible in social work. A social work academic may follow the Urban Institute or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Twitter, for example, for updates—“tweets”—announcing when new reports are released. Clinicians might regularly consult social work blogs on domestic violence and prevention, or depression, for the latest research in their fields. Schools of social work are creating Facebook pages to keep in touch with alumni and attract new students. Researchers and practitioners alike may find themselves using other Web 2.0 applications such as Digg, Delicious, and Google Reader. 

With Twitter and LinkedIn accounts, a Facebook page, and a blog, the University of Michigan School of Social Work uses social media to disseminate information and facilitate communication within the School’s community. Recent Twitter posts announce a range of information, including an Office of Field Instruction ice cream social, new appointments for faculty members, and links to articles written by alumni. 

One SSW student, Carrie Rheingans, is on the cutting edge of the social media in social work trend. Carrie is studying community organization and community and social systems at the School of Social Work and health behavior and health education at the U-M School of Public Health. When she has completed her programs, she will have earned an MSW/MPH. 

Carrie sees a place for social media in both areas of study. In the field of health behavior, for example, she believes it may help people with behavioral goals “through monitoring their own changes or receiving social support from friends and family.” She also believes social media tools can be revolutionary in organizing events as large as social movements that take place over years or as small as one demonstration on one day. In April 2010, at the National Association of Social Workers’ conference in Michigan, Carrie spoke about strategies for using social media in organizational-policy development. 

Carrie became familiar with social media as an undergraduate at U-M, when she began using Facebook. Soon, she was using it for both personal and professional purposes. By the time she arrived at the School of Social Work, she was using other Web 2.0 applications and noticed that fellow students and colleagues seemed interested in knowing more about them. “I realized that social media seemed like an enigma to most people,” she says. Yet, proficiency in Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, and other applications, she believes, is an important job qualification for social workers. “Many students will go on to work at nonprofit organizations, and I think that if they had some specific training in social media, that could be the skill that gets them hired.”

One way Carrie incorporated social media into her graduate work was by becoming a student blogger for the U-M School of Public Health. For nearly two years, she blogged about experiences both in and out of the classroom. A few topics she covered were health-care reform, World AIDS Day, census data, and ideas on finding funding for global health work. Mary Beth Lewis, web communications specialist at SPH and coordinator for student bloggers, got a sense of Carrie’s passion and ingenuity by working with her. “I’ve learned a lot from Carrie on how health promotion can be as mobile, educational, and energetic as the people behind it,” she says. One of Carrie’s early posts, Lewis points out, was particularly memorable. In it, Carrie named new experiences she had had since arriving at U-M as an undergraduate such as befriending open and proud transgender, bisexual, lesbian, or gay people, discovering a fondness for Shakespeare, and participating in a protest.

In her field placement at the HIV/ AIDS Resource Center (HARC) in Ypsilanti, Carrie develops strategies for social media usage. “Currently, we’re only focusing on Twitter and Facebook,” she says, “but we hope to expand to possibly blogs and videos for educational purposes.” She and an intern from the School of Information developed social media guidelines for HARC after researching “best practices” within the social media field. 

In July and August 2009, Carrie worked at Vía Libre in Lima, the largest AIDS service organization in Peru. Here, she recorded the stories of youth living with HIV and made them available on the organization’s website. “That content could then be shared across Latin America and was especially useful for those who don’t read well,” she says. Being able to hear the young voices of the people who, for example, had to force down large anti-HIV medicines was particularly powerful, Carrie noted. This past summer Carrie did internships in China and Bangladesh through the SSW Office of Global Activities. While some forms of social media were blocked in both countries, she used various applications to promote organizations for which she worked in China and to make personal connections with staff. She also blogged about her experiences in both countries.

The introduction of social media into social work has spawned a number of concerns. In order to maintain professional distance between therapist and client, for example, should a therapist avoid socialnetworking sites or avoid making personal information available on a blog? Is it okay for a therapist to “friend” a client on Facebook? “Once one posts something, it is public and can get out of one’s hands very quickly,” Carrie points out, weighing in on the debate, “so people need to be very thoughtful with what they publish.” She also raises other considerations, such as the need to manage social media content well, so that typos or misinformation are not made public. Not only might this make an organization seem unprofessional, she believes, but it could have damaging effects during fundraising campaigns or when working for policy changes. “I think that social media is very useful in macro social work and not as useful in interpersonal practice,” she says. 

Though ever the social-media proponent, she adds that clinicians can use Web 2.0 technologies for referrals and to recruit new clients. And she is quick to elaborate on where social media is particularly helpful: online activism, cause mobilization, and fundraising. “Video sharing is also useful, especially for those who don’t read well, and for foreign-language content,” she says. “Videos can be used for training of fellow staff, as well as educating clients.” 

Carrie has another year left to finish her two degrees. After that, she hopes to work for an organization that does international and community-based work, doing anything from project coordination or education and training to evaluation and improvement of existing programs. “I guess, ideally, I’d like to be in a leadership position that still does grassroots work,” she says, pointing out that she wants to work with people trying to improve their communities. “But I want to be able to be there to encourage people to do what they can do,” she adds. And one thing is clear: No matter what position she pursues, Carrie will surely bring her talent and passion for social media.

—Jane Martin is a freelance writer living in Montréal

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