Social Media Use as Urban Acupuncture

Can social media be applied as a technology for transformation in socially challenged communities?

This is not a co-design project in the usual sense, with researchers designing technology, or facilitating infra structuring activities. Rather, it is a study of how a neighbourhood community in a socially challenged setting can take initiative to induce social change through the use of digital technology.

The project explores potential roles of social media in community empowerment, based on a study of RLabs, a non-profit NGO in a socially challenged suburb of Cape Town, South Africa. RLabs is a social enterprise offering, among a host of other things, free IT courses for the local community. The courses ‘Moms 2.0’ and ‘Geeky-Moms’ are initiatives directed at middle-aged women, to empower them though teaching basics about digital technologies and social media.

The study focuses on the relation between on-line and off-line behavior, and how the use of social media can counteract negative influences in the community, e.g., drug abuse and gangsterism. Interviews with staff and participants reveal that use of social media in the context of a socially challenged community results in social media use, and connections between online and offline activities, that stands in contrast to earlier social media research. These differences may inform design and social innovation for disruptive interaction to address negative influences, such as drugs and gangsterism, in socially challenged communities.

The concept ‘Urban Acupuncture’, coined by architect Marco Casagrande, is chosen to describe this indirect form of design intervention, manipulating flows in the urban corpus to initiate change. In this case, RLabs use of social media activates transformative forces in the hyperlocal setting. Community members themselves handle the ‘needles’, and the transformation stimulates changes in perspectives and values, rather than providing new functions through technology.


Messeter, J., 2015. Social Media Use as Urban Acupuncture for Empowering Socially Challenged Communities. Journal of Urban Technology, 22(3), pp.79-96.

Messeter, J. (2012) Social innovation through disruptive interactions based on new media as a design strategy for empowering socially challenged communities. Swiss Design Network Symposium 2012, 9 Nov, Lugano, Switzerland.