Discussing the SDGs from behind a wall of hashtags

An event called the SDG Challenge was described as a showcase of SDG-related projects and ideas aiming to “equip individuals with the knowledge, skills and motivation to take informed action to contribute towards the achievement of the Sustainable Development Goals.”

Last Friday morning in Dublin’s Parnell Square, an event run by the NGO Development Perspectives was taking place involving debates, discussions and explorations around Irish people’s involvement with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. Among the participants were representatives from Irish Aid and the NGOs Trocaire and Concern

Unticketed and unable to attend due to work commitments, I decided to follow the event on Twitter in real time instead. I was curious to see what kind of talking points would arise, and which of those the followers of the event on social media would push discussion on.

Perhaps I was even assuming that discussions might reach beyond the room it was taking place in; that some form of tech-based engagement was incorporated into the event design, such as a video stream or a live blog. Ultimately there wasn’t.

So what about the content of the tweets themselves?

Education appeared to be a strong topic from the early tweets– and rightly so– based on the statistic that only 15% of the Irish population are aware of what the SDGs are. General education on the most basic aspects SDGs certainly seems like it should be a primary concern.

What about tech education or data literacy however? And how this type of knowledge and skills applied to development contexts might assist Ireland in achieving its SDG targets by 2030. From what I could gather from tweets, ICT projects were mentioned once, fleetingly.

Promisingly, #SDGChallenge spent a large part of last Friday morning as one of Ireland’s trending hashtags, boosted by a smattering of tweets from a relatively small selection of accounts, although it did feel like a somewhat insular affair as observed from behind a screen.

As Denskus and Esser (2013) noted when they examined the tweets emerging about and from the 2010 Summit at UN headquarters in New York on the Millennium Development Goals (admittedly a much larger scale affair than this), the nature of many of the #SDGChallenge tweets appeared to offer tweeters a prime platform to assert their belonging as part of a local development community over creating any forms of challenging or alternative development discourse.

Loosely speaking, if data is content minus context, one exchange between two followers of the event seemed to provide an interesting avenue into debating future development policy designs and approaches to communicating about development.

What flickered then vanished here was potential for chalking out varying tendencies in development discourse between emotion or expertise; grassroots activism or entrepreneurial development; the framing of narratives with context or with aggregative generality. Ideas like data and content, which often come into friction although they do not need to be mutually exclusive.

Manning (2012) offers online spaces for discussing development as both a public sphere and an invisible college. He suggests that both a democratization of development discourse is possible yet so is a strengthened platform for already dominant perspectives.

Facilitating Debate and Alternative Discourse

Following the hashtags #SDGShowcase and #SDGchallenge, however, it became most apparent that Twitter might not provide the most immersive way to follow a live discussion series on global development. Much of the discourse on Twitter fell close to that which was described by Deskus and Esser in their 2013 study.

Specifically, sustained debates did not emerge, ritualistic communication forms were adhered to and rarely scrutinised or challenged (except in one brief incident); and overall the new media output from the event suggested that policy formation– or in this case, the vast majority of the actual content and discussion– was framed offline and on-site with very little input or information imported or even exported via social media.

And that could be a key component in equipping people with the knowledge, skills and motivation to meeting the Sustainable Development Goals. However, as it stands, with 15% of the population even aware of what the SDGs are, new media and ICTs should become a key player in furthering, diversifying and globalising discussion on how to collaboratively meet the goals by 2030.

Additional texts used:

-Desnkus, T., Esser, D. 2013: Social Media and Global Development Rituals: a content analysis of blogs and tweets on the 2010 MDG Summit, Third World Quarterly 34: 409-424

-Manning, R. 2012: FollowMe.IntDev.com: International Development in the Blogosphere. Cambeidge, MA: Harvard Business School


  1. Maria #DataTalks

    This is very interesting! It is good and important that populations’ familiarity with SDGs and all other phenomena is measured – it shows sincerity in actually wanting to understand what people know and don’t, using proper baselines to inform planning, which also enable information campaigns to assess their own effectiveness, and so on. However, there could be a range of different, and more important, indicators to see if we’re on track towards the goals, other than people’s “knowledge of the SDGs”! What’s more important – that a majority of a sample population know what the acronym SDGs stands for, or that groups x, y, and z are proactively working to ensure a decent work/life balance for those on the labour market, adequate housing for everyone in a big city, and that adolescent girls don’t school because they’re menstruating? Just playing devil’s advocate 🙂

    • Sean O'Toole

      That comment is right on point. One thing I didn’t get to discuss about Development Perspectives who are doing this “awareness raising” on the SDGs here is that they run a monthly workshop on a different one of the SDGs each time. I know this month’s is on sanitation and water. So beyond how disconnecting the twitter engagement felt, I think they might be trying to deliver on the type of elements you outline.

  2. Natacha

    Hi Sean,
    Having closely followed the SDGs and their indicators during the last couple of months leading up to their adoption (September 2015), your title first intrigued me. As I’m used to detailed discussions on specific separate goals, your event addressing the SDGs as an overall concept seemed quite a broad challenge!
    Second, one sentence particularly caught my attention: “[…], boosted by a smattering of tweets from a relatively small selection of accounts, although it did feel like a somewhat insular affair as observed from behind a screen.”
    I couldn’t help but recall the times when we organized events related to the SDGs (of course; we needed our topic to be included in the final version of the SDGs to remain credible and to interest donors…). We had to have some visibility online and on social media. But as a result, I often found myself with a laptop in the conference room, sitting next to other people also online and tweeting. Nobody really listened to the whole conference and debates, everyone being too busy trying to insert a nice picture, using the right hashtags, connecting with the people they could find online, conveying a short brilliant message (with the additional challenge to fit it within 140 words at that time), and retweeting anything significant to the event. I usually had the feeling that it was rather pointless and didn’t have much added value. Maybe someone far from the room indeed read the messages and the outreach had a positive impact. But overall, I felt that the community concerned with such events was already known from us; they were our partners or key speakers, often even sitting in the room (so as you call it, an “insular affair”!). Maybe one of most interesting outcome of twitter—rather than broadening our scope—was to create online connection with those happy few who were guest lecturers or sitting on the next seat…

    • Sean O'Toole

      This is a really interesting insight Natacha. Thanks for commenting. My blueprint for evaluating this event as an ICT-based example of ComDev was developed from a study of a much larger scale event on the MDGs. In the absence of getting any level of deep information on SDG-related projects from the event over a twitter feed, my objective was to look if either the prior MDG event or this one had a live video feed, or an “in” to the conversation. Jeffery Sachs’ twitter showed that the MDG event had that kind gateway at least. This one did not. Also, an Ireland context: Trending hashtag on a Friday morning doesn’t necessarily mean a lot of tweets in an essentially small island nation but what I was looking for here was some debate or alternative discourse so in the relatively few tweets, there was one example and it was wonderful. I would have liked to have seen more.

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