Social media comes to the city (kind of)

Kudos to the city of Asheville for inviting “social media experts” for Wednesday’s roundtable discussion of its new media initiatives. But the city’s approach feels too old-school and limited. To work in Asheville, social media can’t be approached in the same way as a traditional initiative.

Local governments around the country are trying to find ways to incorporate social media into the way they operate in order to improve the dissemination of information to their citizens and to engage in dialogue in a way that meets the citizens’ needs (and keeps them happy ‘til election time, it should be noted). Asheville, given that there’s already a connected, tech-savvy shard of the population here, seems a natural fit for the city’s social-media initiative.

Among City Council members, opinions vary about social media. Council member Gordon Smith acquired much of the notoriety that helped get him elected through his use of social media and he remains an active Tweeter. At the other end of the spectrum, Mayor Terry Bellamy has expressed skepticism about the need for the city to invest in social media during tight financial times. Naturally, her remarks to this effect at a budget work session found their way onto Twitter.

On Wednesday, the city announced that, with the help of consultants, including local media maven Justin Belleme, it was nearing the end of “Phase 1” of its social media plan, including setting up a central city blog. However, the social part of the plan apparently doesn’t kick in until “Phase 2” (for another take on this, see Jason Sandford’s Citizen-Times column). In the meantime, the city is using its blog in a fairly old-fashioned way.

That’s where I raise a red flag.

First, let’s face it, there are no “social media experts,” because the field’s simply too young to have the degree of expertise you’d associate with most professions. At best, there’s some very talented, driven amateurs who have just enough experience to know some of what works and what doesn’t. Justin’s quite good, as are the rest of the crew the city’s gathered for its social media efforts (including my former colleague Brian Postelle). But this isn’t a science, and likely never will be. Those who are good at it will continue for some time to learn mostly by trial and error.

However, the city isn’t treating its social media project like the uncharted-but-important territory that it is. It’s using an old approach, in which you hire expert consultants, get their suggestions, then follow them, mapping the plan into neat “phases” to contain and manage spending and manpower.

That approach isn’t very well-suited to social media. One of the reasons so many people use Twitter, for example, is that it’s so easy to set up and maintain, connecting users to an extensive social circle with great ease and speed. Like Twitter, a social media plan should capitalize on these attributes.

The city could take a note from the Asheville Fire Department’s approach. The AFD already maintains a basically useful Twitter feed. Though it just uses it to distribute information, It’d be good to see at least the same effort from the police, as well as Parks and Recreation. Given that setting up and maintaining a basic Twitter account is fairly easy, why aren’t these city operations aren’t yet on Twitter? We don’t need a phase one or two when aggressively jumping into the ongoing conversation and trying out new approaches in social media works far better. The city, just like the so-called social media “experts,” needs to get used to learning by doing.

For example, it would take only a moment for a city staffer to put up a fugitive’s picture onto a police Twitter feed or Facebook. When done well, social media will do the rest, as people around the community spread the word without further effort from the city.

One last thing: Those who are already plugged into the Internet’s social-media platforms are, in many ways, the ones who least need government’s social-media outreach, because they are a population that was already relatively well informed before tools like Twitter and Facebook came along. What’s more, this group is also just a small subset of the overall population. At some point, the city needs to make a concerted push to inform a much broader swath of the population.

Otherwise, however, well intended, all these social media efforts will end up as more flash than substance.

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5 thoughts on “Social media comes to the city (kind of)

  1. shadmarsh

    Mayor Terry Bellamy has expressed skepticism about the need for the city to invest in social media during tight financial times.

    Maybe she could kick back some of that 33K she raised and never used back into the pot. Or maybe she could spend that on an advertising campaign on how domestic partnership benes are going to destroy the American family?

    But seriously, How does one become a “Social Media Expert?” Is there a course, or pamphlet series somewhere? maybe a mail order certificate?

    please advise.

  2. Leigh

    Thanks for addressing the elephant in the room, David. The field of social media IS too young to have experts, yet all manner of folks are running around claiming the title of guru, analyst, or worse. Social media, through simplicity, accessibility, and modify-ability, allows a whole niche of people who were never quite sure what they were good at to finally feel good at doing something. To them I say…congratulations. You know how to use a hashtag. Now can you please close the budget gap while preserving vital services? THAT takes expertise.

    Not trying to minimize, just acknowledging the fact that having a lot of enthusiasm and creativity around a topic does not an expert make. But learning = growth, so maybe someday.

  3. Your Copy Editor

    ” . . .Council member Gordon Smith acquired much of the notoriety that helped get him elected through his use of social media . . .”

    Synonyms for notoriety
    1. disrepute, ill-repute, shame, infamy.

  4. JenniferSaylor

    David, agreed that a “just do it” approach is needed here.

    I don’t know that I’ve yet noticed ANY changes in the city’s social media presence, save for more and better Facebook posts and better city tweets from one account. Shouldn’t the changes be noticeable and widespread at this point?

    Where are the multiple city Twitter accounts? Where are the city employees empowered to tweet about city info and happenings? Will we have a hashtag for Bele Chere, and people sharing pics and tweets with it? Will the Bele Chere Twitter account be used more than once a month? Will there be live webcasts of Bele Chere events?

    Will there be a forum in which city players gather, as has been proposed twice by locals, to talk about how to best use social media to help people and share info during times of disaster a la #avlsnomg?

    Why has the city’s social media presence hardly changed during “Phase 1”? I think of Justin as a back-end social media user, someone who tracks data. Was that really what was needed?

    And I don’t know that there are social media experts in Asheville (the field isn’t new, but its penetration in Asheville is IMO new enough that only a handful have paid pro experience), but it does have people who have used social media effectively, like Justin (or Wendy Lou, or me, or Kelby Carr).

    Shad, you become a social media expert the same way you become an expert in anything else. I’m sorry that the field seems to have this mythical contingent of know-nothings who have no expertise but blather endlessly regardless. I’ve yet to encounter one in the wild… (And Belleme isn’t a “maven.” He’s a social media contract employee, blogger and coder. Please let’s retire maven and guru, save where they are appropriate — Justin has skills and experience that lend him a better description.)

    What Asheville seems to have are a few passionate social media rookies slowly building skill and a clientele (time will tell of their success), and successful social campaign leaders, organizers, consultants and blogers (Lou, Carr) who have real knowledge based in experience and success.

  5. CityRez

    Nailed it!

    If the city would stop wasting our tax dollars by validating so many self described “experts” on hairbrained and ill conceived stunts, maybe they could do a half baked job of actually communicating with tax payers. Maybe if they hired anyone who actually knew anything, they wouldn’t need to keep hiring more people who know nothing but talk a good game. Most of their website is so out of date it’s a joke, and they can’t even spell in many cases. God help you when you call and try to get anything done.

    Asheville is the only place I know of that wastes money on something they don’t need which they could do for free and totally neglects every important thing they should be doing. What a sham. If they are so good at keeping secrets when it comes to their own staff’s corruption as demonstrated lately, what in holy heck are they supposed to do with social media? Isn’t it time they fired that joke of a city manager and his lackies and got someone in there that knows their own butt from a hole in the ground and doesn’t let Gordon Smith or Cecil Bothwell run the place for them?

    Way to disenfranchise the majority of the taxpayers who don’t waste their time texting while driving or those not fortunate enough to have all the trendy new gadgets. Maybe they can’t afford them for all the taxes they pay for this junk. The genius behind this grand multi-tier social media experiment should be dropped like a bag of flaming poo on the steps of city hall and replaced with anyone who knows anything about public relations.

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