If you walk down the corridors of most development organisations you will see the words ‘civil society’ on many of the name-plates screwed to the office doors. Comforting words engraved on nice solid plaques. But what does it mean?

This is not an academic debate. I used to think that civil society meant all the non-commercial, non-governmental organisations that live in buildings with offices, often with name-plates. There were people inside them who ran trades unions, NGOs, churches or perhaps arts groups. They were flesh and blood.

But perhaps they are now bits of binary code. Instead of people they are software programmes. Rather than concrete institutions we now have networks.

These thoughts were sparked by a recent seminar I gave at the heart of a government aid department. My presentation was about how the uprisings in the Middle East show us how people can use social media and mobile telephony as tools to inform and organise. I suggested that the ‘weak ties’ of online communication built effective networks for solidarity, debate and action. No buildings, no meetings. A kind of virtual civil society, if you like.

Many of the excellent officials who were in the seminar had ‘civil society’ in their job titles. Generally, they shared my interest and even excitement at the role of the new technologies in catalysing underlying forces for change. But being practical people focused on longer-term sustainable development they asked some very good questions about where this goes.

I would love to know if you have any answers!

Inevitably, the first question was how do you measure the impact of these diffuse, networked communications? The Internet makes it easy to count the clicks and to tot up the page views. But how do you judge whether ‘liking’ something on Facebook makes you actually go on the streets and protest?

Another good question from a development governance policy point of view was whether you can intervene? Can you promote this kind of social media activism? Or by interfering do you violate its organic, voluntary, self-organising principles?

The other critical question from anyone interested in the long view is what happens when you achieve your campaign goal? In other words, what do you do with the networks after the dictator leaves the country? Can you convert that momentum into social capital? How do you translate those Tweets into a commitment to continued participation?

In a sense, this is the age-old political problem of moving from the poetry of campaigning to the prose of governance. Inevitably, you do need different structures and systems.

This is where we remember the limitations of media in general as a tool for development. It is a means not an end in itself. But at the moment there is still much more to be done to understand and to use social media before we start worrying about its limitations.

You won’t be surprised to hear that I think we need more research (and that’s what we are doing).

I am convinced that this ability to create and energise communities by creating flexible, organic, multi-directional networks of communication is going to be vital to our understanding of the future of civil society.

Here’s the thing. At the very least, these technologies give people a voice and a way of connecting with each other. They also give everyone working in development a way to listen. Before we plan our next civil society policy, I would suggest we do exactly that.

Charlie Beckett is director of POLIS, the media think-tank at the London School of Economics.