Topic: How many “likes” did you get? Participation motives and quality of knowledge shared in conventional and digital farmers’ networks
Keywords: farmers’ networks, digital networks, conventional networks, knowledge exchange, motivation
Farmers’ networks are considered as spaces for the promotion of sustainable agriculture, the co-evolution of innovations, and the facilitation of knowledge creation. In this work, drawing on data from semi-structured interviews and focus groups with 95 farmers from 16 distinct geographical regions of Northern and Central Greece we pursue two research questions. First, what propels farmers to participate in conventional and digital networks? Second, how digital networking affects the quality and the quantity of knowledge production and exchange? Our thematic analysis revealed that most of the farmers participate in both conventional and digital networks; however their participation decision is driven by different motives. Conventional networks can be divided into formal (agricultural cooperatives and unions, farmers’ organizations) and informal schemes. Although economic incentives and individuals’ desire to access new knowledge are crucial for the development of formal networks, the construction of informal networks is mainly driven by farmers’ willingness to create collaborative environments in order to reduce feelings of market uncertainty and risk, as well as by their need to belong to a group consisting of people who share the same values, beliefs and ethics. In this vein, informal networks bring together different understandings of farming, facilitating the building of a collective culture as well as the development of common norms, visions, and identifications. On the contrary, the nested structure of formal networks and the dominant power structures, reduce their ability to produce knowledge. Moreover, our results showed that participation in digital networks (which are by default informal) is guided by a particular knowledge sharing behavior, and by farmers’ sociality. Nevertheless, lacking a centralized control, and permitting multiple-role behaviors, digital networks offer farmers authentic spaces for expression, dialogue, and connective action. In parallel, they serve as a basis for social comparison, thus allowing not only the exchange of information, and expertise, but also providing their members with opportunities to question and reconstruct their farm identities. However, the quality of knowledge produced through digital interactions is questionable, since a “popularity law” seems to govern the knowledge co-creation process. In sum, these results indicate that digital networks represent platforms where farmers virtually meet, interact with each other, and develop social ties, not ensuring, however, the reliability of knowledge shared. The present work provides an appropriate venue for discussing the pros and cons of digital farmers’ networks and for analyzing their networking behavior in both the physical and digital world.