Who are social media surgeries for?

Melissa helping someone learn about Facebook at Dudley Social Media Surgery

This post summarises emails I’ve sent in response to enquiries about the Central Birmingham Social Media Surgery I coordinate – and advice to other Surgery Managers.

It’s about my personal take on what – and specifically who – the surgeries are for. It also stems from feeling protective of the helpers who volunteer their time and skills for free at the surgery, the very social capital that makes the surgery work.

The surgery description on the website says:

“Volunteers are offering social media help to voluntary organisations, community groups, charities, clubs and societies in a relaxed, informal setting.”

When individuals book a place or send me an enquiry, I quickly look at their website or search to find out a little about them. Basically, I’m doing a quick check asking “does this person represent a voluntary or community group or a charity?”

If the individual looks like a private business or a politician, then I’ll write back to them to find out more information − I don’t immediately say “sorry, you can’t come.” Our jobs and community activities aren’t always so clear cut. Life is messy. Relationships, work and communities overlap.

If the individual can come along to the surgery – and ask for help there – in a capacity representing her voluntary or community group, then great, come along. If she wants social media advice to help campaign for political reasons, or to improve her business, then the surgery isn’t the right place for her.

My response goes something like this:

“Thanks for getting in touch about the Birmingham Social Media Surgery. I can see that you’ve booked a place at the next event.
Please note, as it says on the website, the surgery is for voluntary and community organisations, charities, local clubs and societies. The surgery doesn’t provide support to politicians or private businesses with their own resources for communications or training support.
This is because the surgery is staffed by volunteers – and I don’t want any volunteer helping someone who they wouldn’t want to help or any paid-for public servant advising someone for electoral reasons. It puts them in an awkward position.
Also, some of the volunteers provide paid-for social media consultancy and training as part of their day jobs. The surgery is a good way for them to provide free help back to the community they live in and care about.
However, from past experience, I know that individuals wear many hats in and out of work. A communications manager in local government might be a scout leader. A nurse might coordinate a bridge club in a community centre. A self-employed mortgage broker might chair the local residents forum and want help setting up a website.
Are you able to attend the surgery in an individual capacity – and ask questions – with your “community hat” on, rather than as a politician or business? If so, you’re very welcome to come along.
If you need help using the internet to campaign for political reasons, or to improve your business, then the Surgery isn’t the place for you.

Another, increasingly common, enquiry I receive is “I’m unemployed and trying to get my freelance business running. I need some help with social media.” I usually reply with links to other meetups that may be more suitable, such as the Birmingham Social Media Cafe.

I hope this text is useful for other surgery managers who may wonder how to handle enquiries and keep the surgery focused on the voluntary and community groups the surgery is there to help – those very organisations doing great work that inspires the helpers to keep coming back. I also hope this gives you more of an insight into coordinating a surgery and my personal view on who the surgeries are for.

I’d be interested to hear from others on how they handle this.


  1. Andrew Brigthwell says:

    Sometimes when I’ve been confronted by someone who doesn’t really meet the strict definition of who we help I’ve suggested that I don’t mind helping once, but if they come back I’d like them to help as a surgeon themselves. I’m not sure how successful this tactic is, but I remember that I was confused exactly about why I was turning up at my first surgery and then it all sort of just fell into place.

    • Nick Booth says:

      Ideally the person who organised the surgery will filter out the folks who probably are not the main beneficiaries – for example, people running a business, those working at lark public sector bodies, political parties, someone wanting to know how to start using the web – the people the surgeries are designed to help are local small community groups and charities and active citizens. Why? Because mostly surgeons are volunteers – so they want to be helping people who are also volunteers and don’t necc want to be helping people they may have some clear ideological problem with!

    • Roddie Grant says:

      Gavin’s comment about multiple hats and Andrew’s comment about first-time confusion reflect my experience. I, too, came to my first surgery with an imprecise idea of what it was for. I was representing a community group, but looking for advice on how to include social media links in website code; there’s no doubt that such help would have been useful for my business as well.

      After half an hour with the wonderful Nick Booth I understood a great deal more about social media – things I hadn’t known I didn’t know – and also about the role of surgeries.

      The fact that coding wasn’t mentioned didn’t matter a jot, but if I’d known that in advance, I probably wouldn’t have gone, and that would have been my significant loss.

  2. Marcus says:

    Hi there, I’ve found surgeries great for practical digi stuff (see weoleypedia – new wiki started with Paganel School), but also interested in meeting folk and, well, networking too. I’ve recently started running Hall Green Arts Forum and aware many artists in our patch need help with funding applications and digi stuff. Do you think combining the two in surgery form might work? M

    • Gavin Wray says:

      Hi Marcus. Thanks for the comment. Nice to see Weoleypedia up and running after meeting you at the Birmingham surgery.

      I think the surgery format could definitely be used as you describe. A venue that’s easy to get to and based in the community, a relaxed atmosphere, and people willing to share knowledge and skills – worth a try!

  3. Lorna Prescott says:

    Thanks Gavin, it’s really helpful to have your response here to reference and probably use in future. It’s also a good reminder of one of the commitments surgery managers make – to have a look at people who have booked, in advance of the surgery. The Social Media Surgery + website makes this simple.

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