Building Communication Networks Between Associations and a Potential Public: Using Social Networking to Inform Teens About Cultural Programming

Problem Statement:

The number of violent crimes reported in France has been rising for the past ten years, with an increased percentage of these offenses performed by juvenile offenders in ZUS (Zones urbaines sensibles) regions. Addressing juvenile crime has been identified by police as a major challenge for the future.  Many grass-roots organizations in the suburbs of Paris seek to prevent juvenile crime by providing cultural programming. Although this has been demonstrated to be a sound means of crime prevention, many teens are unaware of such programs in their community and thus, forego opportunities for positive individual development.
Cost-benefit analyses of extra-curricular programs in the United States have consistently indicated that spending for well-targeted crime prevention is less than that necessary to prosecute and punish offenders.   Adolescence is a crucial moment in individual development; psychologists note that it is often a time of identity crisis, and that "the more marginalized the person, the more difficulty they have in formulating a positive identity."  Unstructured free time can exacerbate this identity crisis, and is positively correlated with crime, drug abuse, and other antisocial behaviors.  However, US-based researchers have also found that extracurricular activities that are merely entertaining are actually correlated with an increase in high-risk behaviors; in contrast, activities that involve long-term development of skills are most effective at promoting long-range behavioral and attitudinal changes.  Art workshops and other cultural programming provided by organizations and associations fall into this second category, and are more accessible than competitive activities that test athletic or academic ability. 
This is acknowledged in France, where a national network of youth centers and summer camps has been in development since the 1980s.  One publication targeted at employees of grassroots organizations points to art as an effective tool for preventing crime, stating, "Violence is often the direct consequence of a lack of global education and of an insufficiency of means of expression. Artistic and cultural workshops help sublimate negative impulses." 
It appears, then, that problems with access to cultural programming for at-risk youth in the Paris suburbs are not rooted in a lack of programming. Instead, organizers point to a failure in communication, resulting in misinformation and a diminished audience among their target population of adolescents.  Ultimately, their access to these programs becomes more theoretical than actual.  

Context:

Public awareness campaigns relying on standard media, like posters and brochures, have been demonstrated to be ineffective. Steve Fidol, organizer of Café La Pêche, a venue encouraging artistic expression in Montreuil (a Paris suburb), describes "Poster Wars" in Paris; public space is viewed as premium advertising space so an organization's posters are inevitably covered, often only hours after being placed.  Old media also provide little in the way of strengthening networks between grass-roots organizations, which is unfortunate because the value of a network increases with the number of users as this "increases the odds of productive interactions."  
Previous attempts to develop communication networks have not addressed the lack of communication between organizations and potential audiences. For example, Le RIF, Le Prince Oreilles, Le Cry pour la musique, La Rezonne, Le Reseau, Le MAAD, Le Combo, Chroma/Zebrock, and Le Reseau Musiques are publications that compile organizational listings in the Paris region, and have developed ties between organizers. Yet, they are primarily used by these organizers, and not consumers, who are often unaware of their existence. 
In addition, Montreuil organizers have created a radio station to provide daily updates about the city's cultural programming. Collaborations between organizations such as Café La Pêche, Baz'Art Fondation and other cultural organizations make the links between them explict; even so, the radio station is not available on-line, which lessens its impact on the target audience. 
Projets-Citoyens is a well-known, frequently-used website focusing on "citizen initiatives" in Paris. Created and funded by La Mission Démocratie régionale de la Région Île-de-France, Projets-Citoyens is intended to be primarily interactive; it "aims to...facilitate the dissemination of citizen initiatives in the Paris region" through a "collaborative website for sharing...to exchange knowledge, views…but also information on activities."  The success of Projets-Citoyens demonstrates that inter-organizational collaboration and involvement on the part of citizens can be possible, if there is support and funding from larger bodies. Still, the network's primary concentration in Paris, and its general scope, means that there is still a need for social networks more specific to suburban regions. Organizations providing cultural programming to teens in the suburbs of Paris must focus on reaching a young audience that often feels alienated from adults, as well as downtown Paris itself. 

Proposed Solution:

The Internet is an untapped resource for grassroots organizations who seek to increase their impact on a young audience. Up to now, many of these organizations have had little or no online presence, but they are increasingly looking to online social networks because they "make it easier for like-minded individuals to come together and mobilize advocacy efforts." 
The development of a centralized, interactive website that lists a particular district's arts programming, and contains relevant applications for popular social networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Myspace, would improve communication and provide teens with greater access to opportunities for positive creative expression. In the implementation of this proposal, then, there are two goals: inter-organizational cooperation, and use of the website by teenagers.
The former goal will be addressed through the creation of a separate organization, dedicated exclusively to the creation and upkeep of the district's website. The existence of a centralized authority responsible for the website's quality will reassure organizers who are hesitant to contribute their listings for fear of damaging their reputations. Without such supervision, the website could become chaotic and disorganized, resulting in its diminished utility.
 
A lack of expertise is often cited as a reason behind outdated and non-user-friendly websites; therefore, low-cost workshops in web design should be available to organizers. This training will also make organizers better able to design and update their own websites, helping to address their aforementioned anxiety about losing control over one's image. The websites for individual organizations will be linked to the main website, but in such a way that these group associations do not diminished an organization’s individual promotion. 
Funding of these projects by other institutions is necessary if there is to be sufficient incentive for organizational cooperation. The prospect of such funding, allocated on a local level, could serve as a positive incentive for participation in the district-wide website.
As indicated above, a cooperative network of organizations must also be accompanied by measures to encourage use of the website by teenagers. In this regard, the website must be exciting and aesthetically pleasing. Rejane Ereau, editor-in-chief of Respect Magazine, argues that her magazine's focus on under-represented groups and issues of social justice does not mean that appearances are insignificant; to the contrary, the gravity of these issues makes accessibility and appeal matter even more.  
Incorporation user-generated content, and encouraging teens to submit videos, MP3s, or photographs of their work, offers the prospect of public recognition and an incentive to use the website. This two-tiered model for generating content ― professional writers who encourage engaged amateurs ― was found by McKinsey & Co. to create “substantial value for...content sites”,  and has been employed successfully in multiple French contexts. Much like Projets-Citoyens, discussed earlier, Bondy Blog communicates a point of view often ignored by mass media. The organization employs a small staff of professional bloggers, who are each expected to publish an article every week and help look over reader submissions. By encouraging readers to share their own perspectives, Bondy Blog creates opportunities for residents to get involved in their communities.   An interactive website which targets each district's teens would similarly create new opportunities for artistic expression, and perhaps ― for some at-risk youth ― alternatives to crime.

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<http://www.editorandpublisher.com/eandp/columns/
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