A Placemaking Journal

Municipal Dilemma: Get social?

Having worked in communities big and small across the continent, we’ve had ample opportunity to test ideas and find approaches that work best. Urban design details. Outreach tactics. Implementation tricks. Many of these lessons are transferable, which is why we’ve created “Back of the Envelope,” a weekly feature where we jot ’em down for your consideration.

Picture this scene: It’s your regularly scheduled city council meeting and the room is packed. Roughly two thirds of the audience is wearing matching red t-shirts with stickers reading “NO!” while the other third, sporting all manner of dress, displays stickers reading “YES!” There’s considerable tension in the air and it’s clear that things could turn ugly at the slightest provocation.

Now imagine the Mayor calling the meeting to order by saying, “It looks like everyone has a lot on their minds tonight, so we’ve decided to cede control of the meeting and let the audience run the show. We’ll just sit right here, maybe chiming in from time to time if the opportunity presents itself. Now, here’s the microphone for anyone who wants it.”

Bedlam, right?

This seemingly unthinkable scenario is actually a lot more plausible than you might think. In fact, it’s a potential reality every single day if your city is actively engaged in social media which, according to this recent study from the University of Illinois at Chicago, it probably is. Or will be soon.

According to the study, which examined the country’s 75 largest cities, 87% now engage residents through Facebook and Twitter. Which means that, day in and day out, they’re handing over the microphone. To God knows who.

But let’s revisit our packed council meeting for a moment. This time, the room’s abuzz with laughter and chit-chat. Residents mingle, speaking freely with councilors and city staff before the meeting begins, asking questions, stressing concerns and catching up on the latest news. In this instance, turning over the meeting to the crowd doesn’t seem quite so terrible. In fact, it might result in some interesting dynamics.

If your city is among those still considering social media, these two scenarios are what you need to be thinking about.

That’s because your community is already engaged in conversation. All kinds of conversation on issues big and small, happening on terms you don’t — and can’t — control. Social media is your attempt to join these conversations. To enter a new forum through which your relationship with your citizens can play out in plain sight.

Such platforms can make friendly relations even more interesting and valuable. But they can also empower networks of discontent. In essence, becoming a tool to be used against you.

Skeptical? Then ask the city of Camden, South Carolina. Or the Mayor of Oakland, California. Or the police department in Canton, Ohio. Or the Idaho Department of Fish and Game.

You get the idea.

If your city leadership has built strong, trusting relationships with residents, social media can make them even stronger and help you develop wider circles of support. But if your community is dysfunctional, with little or no trust in governance and a legacy of gaping political wounds, then watch out.

In short, before firing up a new Facebook page or Twitter account, take a good look out into the audience.

Would you hand them the mic?

–Scott Doyon

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