Many experienced public sector managers recognize that there’s something important in all the hype about Facebook and Twitter and the need for agencies and governments to embrace their use. But, for those who are not users of social media themselves, it can be a struggle to understand exactly why it matters as much as it seems to.
Fortunately, The Fels Institute of Government at the University of Pennsylvania recently published a fabulously thoughtful and interesting report on social media and local government that offers as good an explanation as I’ve ever seen about what social media do that’s different that might help you or others in your agency truly get your brain around the value of Facebook and Twitter.
A very useful suggestion is that we should stop worrying about making sense of terms like “web 2.0” and instead think of social media as communications channels that have “a different set of rules and habits than traditional types of news and broadcast media.” From here the report outlines three points that are at the heart of these different rules and habits.
1) Social media are typically interactive rather than authoritative. Social media like Facebook and Twitter facilitate conversations rather than one-way announcements. Much of the value is provided by users who respond and recommend them, often in near real-time. A city’s Facebook post about bad potholes after a winter storm, for example, might be enhanced by user comments that detail where, exactly, the worst ones are so that other drivers can watch out and so that the city knows to fix them.
2) Social media are personal rather than institutional. Users exercise great discretion over their personal “channel”,
subscribing to only the information they want and ignoring the rest.
3) Social media tend to “narrowcast” through networks rather than broadcast. The Fel Report notes that even a large government social media audience is small by the standards of radio or television broadcasts (the City of Topeka, for example, has 120,000 residents and only 550 followers on Twitter). But, importantly, “social media facilitate a more voluntary, interactive, and symmetrical relationship between an agency and its audience, and the right message can travel extremely quickly through these networks to the general public.”
Far more quickly, it should be noted, than an announcement posted on a city’s website. A “tweet” or a Facebook update is pushed out to interested users who, if they find it relevant or worthwhile, will “share” it with their friends or followers on these sites, some of whom may then share it with theirs. This is in stark contrast with an announcement to an agency website that will only be found by those who happen to visit the website while the announcement is posted.
This also contrasts with “e-government” portal sites for the same reason: users are required to visit the portal in order for it to be useful. With social media sites, however, I get updates from my city as I catch up on new photos posted by my sister and what’s happening with my friends from college.
For professionals used to drawing a pretty thick line between their personal, professional, and public lives, this can be a new and peculiar concept. For many of the citizens you’re hoping to engage, however, nothing could be more natural. And it’s this fact that makes social media so important as a communication channel.
What benefits has your organization seen from using social media?