What I said about social media and political engagement in 2008

May 19, 2011 at 11:09 pm | In leadership, politics, social_critique, victoria | Comments Off on What I said about social media and political engagement in 2008

Social media mavens, Victorians: take note. We have a municipal election coming up this fall, and I just re-read a piece I wrote for FOCUS Magazine in the run-up to the last municipal election in 2008, published in October of that year: Smart Twits? (the link takes you to Scribd).

Below, I copy and paste the entirety of the article. It pains me to say it, but I was way ahead of my time here – underscoring that “here” is not where I belong.

Smart twits? A user guide
by
Yule Heibel

The scenario: municipal elections approach, but you haven’t managed to get excited enough to pay attention.  One candidate says, “our backs are up against the wall,” while another suggests affairs are trundling along as always.  Which one gets your attention?

My bet is on the one who tiddles your panic button (even if you don’t like it).

But wait…  Don’t they say that once you’ve panicked, it’s already too late?  Who manages smart decisions when panicked?  But when you’re voting, choosing smartly is important.

So maybe that’s why you decide not to vote?   You leave the panic-mongers to their wide-eyed, sputtering friends, and you don’t like the “career politicians,” either.  Face it, bud: you’re an alienated citizen, …although we both know you’re smart.

What should politicians do to engage you?  It’s not an academic question.  Locally, I’ve overheard the “our backs are against the wall” statement numerous times in recent weeks, and simultaneously I’ve watched more temperate players struggle to develop a message that gets people’s attention.  There’s definitely a chance to run a dumb race to the bottom, where candidates exploit fear instead of explaining opportunities.

Can we google this problem?

I spend lots of time online.  Believe me, the holy grail of many web developers is to create applications that make users feel empowered and smarter.  Smart is powerful, and it’s in our DNA to learn: we’re a monkey-see, monkey-do kind of mammal, and we want to feel like smart apes, not dumb chumps.  I’m convinced that in the aggregate, web technologies make users smarter.  Since it’s election season, let’s see if politicians are learning here.

Online, I’m immersed in a river of information and feedback generated by an array of sources, from individuals to organizations to traditional media outlets.  That web-based informational flow is as real to me as daily mail, newspapers, and chats by office water coolers were to previous generations.  By using technology, I gather flows of information without relying on just one or two broadcast sources.

Savvy politicians have figured out that they, too, can’t afford to ignore how users are actively re-organizing information, as opposed to being its passive recipients.  Look, and you’ll find that nearly all the local politicians are on Facebook, “conversing” with their social networks.  Look further, and you’ll find that those with national aspirations and an adventurous bent use even more immediate social networking tools.  Twitter, for example, is a microblogging platform where users “tweet” (and can tweet each other) in a constant ping-pong of real-time informational back-and-forth.

We’ve seen a persistent migration to online social media in politics.  The goal?  Relationships with other users and with potential voters.  Politicians need voters to win elections, but first they need to communicate with them.  At the national level, Jack Layton and Stephen Harper “twitter,” Stephane Dion and Elizabeth May don’t (yet).  All are on Facebook, though, as are many of our municipal candidates.

Mainstream media and information sources have migrated to social media, too.  CBC journalists, Macleans Magazine, the Vancouver Sun, the Globe and Mail, the National Post all twitter, as does the Vancouver Library and many individual librarians (who typically are early adopters).  Businesses small and large twitter (AirCanada, anyone?), and customers can tweet complaints (or kudos) directly to a business’s stream.  If the business tweets you back, that conversation is visible to anyone. WorkSafeBC twitters new guidelines, updates, and more, all in real time.  Even BCLegislation twitters (“Automated alerts for legislative changes …Published by Quickscribe’s BC Legislation Portal”).  Facebook and Twitter are just two platforms.  There are others: blogs, Tumblrs, Flickr, MySpace, Identica, FriendFeed, etc.  The list will grow.

Many smart users are online, skinny-dipping in a river of news.

Except not so much at the local level, where information flow is often turgid, dependent on broadcast media, or on having access to the “right” individuals (who may or may not be online).  Local politicians and the civic institutions they represent aren’t using social media to talk directly with “users.”  There’s no VicCouncil twitter-stream, …unless you consider the actual experience a tweet.  While quite a few candidates are on Facebook only a tiny minority of incumbents are.

At the same time, it seems improbable that the lessons of social media technologies aren’t having a powerful effect on local politics.  Online mavens know that VibrantVictoria.ca’s discussion forum has opened up the city’s conversation on urban development and politics (along with many other things) to anyone with access to a computer.  Ask a question, get an answer.

Candidates who face the icky choice of either getting your attention by panicking you, or boring you because they have nothing attention-worthy to retail, should talk to users (potential voters) directly: open the conversation and engage alienated voters.

Just don’t try to get our attention by panicking us.  That’s so dumb (read: not-smart).  Smart should be empowering and make YOU (the user) better.  As one of my Twitter friends noted, “Don’t focus on making your BOOK better… focus on making the READER better.”  She also wrote, “[It] NEVER matters how good YOU are. Only how good USERS can be.”  Substitute “election platform” for “BOOK,” and substitute “citizen” or “voter” for “READER” or “USER,” and we can start talking.  …Or tweeting.

Of course it’s inevitable that we’ll eventually meet offline.  As someone twittered recently: “All my batteries are dead.  Talk to me in person.”

Well, that was my take on public engagement in Victoria THREE YEARS AGO. How have things improved?

PS: This is part 1. Next up, Part 2, about my September 2008 article, which is another piece worth reading, considering that municipal elections will soon be upon us again…

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