Social Media and Global Development Rituals: a content analysis of blogs and tweets on the 2010 MDG Summit

Daniel Esser and I are very happy that our journal article on social media, development rituals and the 2010 MDG Summit was published in Third World Quarterly last week!

Social Media and Global Development Rituals: a content analysis of blogs and tweets on the 2010 MDG Summit features quite a few household names of the development blogosphere and is one of the first academic articles that critically engages with social media and development. Individual emails to connect, share and comment will be sent out later this week.

There is also an un-gated pre-print version available on


Social media content generated by web logs (‘blogs’) and Twitter messages (‘tweets’) constitute new types of data that can help us better understand the reproduction of global rituals in the context of international development policies and practice. Investigating the United Nations High-level Plenary Meeting of the General Assembly on the Millennium Development Goals (MDGS), a three-day event held at UN Headquarters in New York in 2010, as a case study, we examine a sample of 108 blog entries discussing the meeting, as well as 3007 related tweets. We find that topics receiving the densest coverage mirrored existing priorities as defined by the MDGS. Although most blog entries created content which, in contrast to tweets, went beyond spreading mere factual or referential information on the event and even included some critical commentary, sustained debates did not emerge. Our findings suggest that social media content accompanying the Summit reproduced global development rituals and thus failed to catalyse alternative priorities for and approaches to international development.
Using development social media as data
In order to examine this potential, we first posit the MDG Summit as both a virtual and physical research site. We then provide an overview of the literature on the ritualistic quality of global conferences and explain how we approached the analysis of content generated by two different types of social media. We investigate our research question by examining a sample of 108 blog entries published on 34 different blogs, as well as 3007 real-time tweets linked both substantively and temporally to the Summit. We discuss our findings along three analytical dimensions and, in conclusion, relate our specific observations on the content of social media coverage of the MDG Summit to the larger debate on the discursive reproduction of global policy frameworks in the context of international development policy and practice.

Social media as ‘ideas space’, as Duncan Green has called the blogosphere, had rather little to add to traditional notions of epistemic communities in the context of the 2010 MDG Summit. Social media involvement during the Summit mainly came in the form of event updates, not as a catalyst of changes with respect to how the event was portrayed, discussed or criticised. It also seems doubtful that social media contributed in ways indicated by earlier research on epistemic communities and their gatherings. Networking or selfmarketing, the normalisation of new terms, and the impact of online information flows on ‘offline’ physical professional spaces, appear inapplicable to the context of global conferences.
With reference to Rothenbuhler’s ritual theory framework, we therefore argue that traditional, pre-digital conference rituals are still very much alive in the digital age. Three important aspects of this claim are highlighted in the following.

In fact, critical blog posts appear to be virtual extensions of what Rothenbuhler has described as ‘ritually structured conflict’ in ‘anti-institutional events’: ‘Sit-ins, protest marches, burning effigies, verbal threats, chanting and so on, are all performances patterned to symbolically effect the serious life’.
Working papers and blog posts thus become virtual representations of how the community can influence the Summit symbolically.

Conclusion: Success of ‘exceptionally boring meetings’?
Global conferences as central components of contemporary global governance are ritualised spaces in which global culture is reproduced by virtue of individual as well as institutional performances. Our research on site-specific processes in the digital age confirms that emerging international development policies continue to be framed ‘offline’, with very limited input provided through social media. For those concerned about a democratic deficit in international policy making, our findings are therefore sobering. The hope that social media might make a significant contribution towards global democratic participation in agenda setting was not fulfilled by social media content generated during the MDG Summit. While the epistemic community framing international development policies today is larger, and communication about it is faster and in theory also more open, this process continues to be shaped by a traditional professional habitus.

While the use of social media in development projects may indeed catalyse positive change in specific settings, global dynamics of how international development is conceived and defined do not seem to be affected by social media to any significant degree.
In essence, then, while members of this epistemic community actively take part in the ontological dynamic, the community itself remains as exclusive as ever. Or, in Laura Seay’s tweeted words:

‘So ends a day of listening to rich people talk about ways to help poor people they’d never dream of letting in the door’.
We are looking forward to your comments and thank everybody who contributed to our research!
Tobias Denskus and Daniel E Esser:
Social Media and Global Development Rituals: a content analysis of blogs and tweets on the 2010 MDG Summit,
Third World Quarterly, 2013, Vol. 34, No.3, 405–422,


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