Posted on Thursday, August 20, 2009 by Michael
In classic form, the Burlington Free Press published an unsigned editorial today following up a recent piece of its reporting. Topic? Local government should use online social media…
More communities throughout Vermont should make better use of social media if only to keep residents informed and engaged. More people are turning to online services such as Facebook, YouTube and Twitter to be informed (entertained) and connected.
Local governments must make every effort to be where the people are. The Free Press reports that connection is missing in many towns and cities. Many towns post information on their official Web sites. Some towns also monitor Web-based networks with a hyper-local focus — by streets or neighborhoods — such as Front Porch Forum. But these kinds of online tools are largely passive…
Yes, I agree that local government’s mission is well served when they make effective use of social media. But the reporting and conclusion about Front Porch Forum miss the mark. (In fact, here are two examples of past Free Press articles that reported just the opposite of today’s editorial… here and here.)
For example, in the City of Burlington, 40% of the households subscribe and nearly every city councilor, school board member, and state rep. uses the service. Most Neighborhood Planning Assembly steering committee members partake, as do almost all City departments. In all, 250 local public officials make use of Front Porch Forum in Chittenden County, our pilot region.
And their use of it is anything but passive. A call to City Councilors, like Joan Shannon or Bill Keogh in the South End, would have set the record straight. They, like many other public servants, make frequent use of FPF to engage voters about a wide array of issues.
Further, citizen use of FPF is certainly not passive… that’s who does all the postings… thousand upon thousand of messages are exchanged among clearly identified nearby neighbors through Front Porch Forum (as many of the Free Press reporters and editors should know from personal experience in their own neighborhoods).
“… these kind of online tools are largely passive” — that’s actually a better description of traditional media, e.g., a newspaper, where professionals provide nearly all of the content. On FPF, the content comes from your nearby neighbors.
Finally, “social media” consultants are a dime a dozen these days, and most are telling businesses, governments, nonprofits, etc. the same thing… get into social media and start screaming your message across many different platforms. Anyone deaf yet? It’s growing ever harder to get people’s attention and hold it, let alone to get them to contribute to a discussion. Gratefully, FPF is full of more than 15,000 local people, most of whom are tuned in and making a difference.
UPDATE: An update is posted above.
Posted in: Burlington, Case Foundation, Citizen Journalism, Civic Engagement, Clay Shirky, Community Building, Democracy, Facebook, Front Porch Forum, Good Government, Knight Foundation, Local Online, MacArthur Fellows, Media, Neighborhood, Newspapers, social capital, Social Media, Twitter, Vermont
My intention is not really to get in the middle of a political debate, but I would like to think I offer a unique perspective. I do not think the issue is really active versus passive, it is more about the immediacy, frequency and conversations.
I am a member of FPF in the Brennan Woods neighborhood in Williston, I see the occasional message, ‘lost cat’, ‘please do this’, or ‘please do not do that’. No conversations – hard to have a conversation with email and list serve as the primary channel – just does not work for me.
As for the comment about social media consultants, that is highly inaccurate, not just a little. The smart ones, the good ones (and there are quite a few right here in Chittenden county), do NOT make that statement.
As a professional in the Customer Relationship space as well as in an emerging space where Social Media meets Customer Relationships, FPF could learn a lot from reading and understanding the trends (pick your own experts).
FPF is a series of one directional communications, through list serve or email, which is not the way people want to have conversations these days (it is the exception, not the rule). I find the boundaries of a hyperlocal neighborhood too constraining, and not a very good use of time. (note: my experience is constrained, admitted)
The point you make about the elected officials is interesting, as it is not about how they engage, rather how the constituents engage them – that is the power – what you describe is the “screaming” which you seem to be concerned about. It is all about the conversation, a channel is a means to a conversation. The real value is for the elected officials to listen and observe, and actually talk very little.
Just my $.02
Hi Mitch… thanks for weighing in. One challenge of FPF, people can only see what the FPF activity in their own neighborhood. And, while about 95% of Brennan Woods subscribes, folks there make very light use of it… a real anomaly. Some data from the past 30 days…
Brennan Woods (95% subscribe): 14 postings
The Orchards in S. Burl. (50%): 80
Westford (50%): 110
Old North End in Burl. (60%): 500
Home-Flynn in Burl. (60%): 130
Countryside in E.J. (70%): 50
Huntington (70%): 170
Five Sisters in Burl. (95%): 150
And these posting rates are below average, given August in Vermont. But as you can see, in other places where a majority of neighbors subscribe, FPF is very vibrant.
Further, conversations often do not happen ON FPF, rather they get started there and then continue in earnest on the sidewalk, at the country store, on the playground, or even on the actual front porch. That’s the whole idea of FPF… helping neighbors connect and build community… face to face. Unlike most online social media, FPF’s goal is NOT to keep it’s members’ eyes glued to the screen for as many hours/day as possible. Rather, we aim to interject a couple minutes of neighborhood news and conversation into each day so that nearby neighbors become less anonymous. Where it works well, people report feeling more connected to their neighbors, more informed about local goings on, and many say they even get more involved in their community because of Front Porch Forum.
About the quickly expanding field of social media… I’ve been participating in the industry, speaking at conferences, engaging top thinkers online, etc. for years. What I’ve seen in the last several months is an explosion of “you’ve got to rush your business/town/church/etc. onto Facebook and Twitter or you’ll be hopelessly out of touch with everyone” type of pitches. I’ve seen this repeatedly… sat in on some such sessions. Sure, there are responsible and effective consultants, but they risk being crowded out now by this other variety.
Finally, the public-official aspect of FPF is lively in many parts of Chit. Co., but not everywhere. Some places it’s one-way official to public, other places it’s reversed, and in the best cases it’s both ways. But again, FPF is often a starting place and a catalyst for more substantial conversation in other settings.
Thanks again Mitch. Now how do we encourage your neighbors to liven up FPF in your area? Cheers.
I am on the Westford Front Porch Forum and look at it as the best way to keep up with neighbors, get community information, form new community connections, and have healthy, respectful debates about local issues. In the year and a half I have been on the Forum I have found it helpful in the following ways (this is just off the top of my head)
1. Started a singing group
2.Found a new home for a friend’s dog
3. Debated the merits of town meeting vs. australian ballot
4. Debated the merits gay marriage
5. Been reminded of events at the library such as Women’s Game Night and speakers and then attended these events.
6. Started a local neighborhood watch program
7. learned about musicians coming to the town green
8. Learned what booths will be at the farmer’s market each week.
9. Joined a Westford CSA for local produce
10. Found a neighbor to help carpool to high school with our foreign exchange student.
That is just how I have personally been able to use the forum. I also get to have an ongoing conversation about everything with my neighbors. I am not a major community organizer. I am just feeling like an active member of my community with this important tool. What is even more telling is that much of Westford does not have high speed internet access. While I know the FPF works fine on dial up, there are people who skip connecting altogether at home because they do not have a high speed option. I only see the FPF expanding as the options for connecting expand.
I talk about the forum at work (which is in Franklin County) and they are intrigued and would like FPF to expand beyond Chittenden.
It actually pains me to read that Brennan Woods is not making good use of the FPF when they have such high participation. It is an opportunity to connect that looks like it is being squandered.
Wow! What a wonderful list and comment, Beth. Thank you.
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Could it be that the neighborhood grouping for Williston are inappropriate, leading us to be passive users? I strongly believe that Williston’s forum would be far more effective if all of Williston were connected as one neighborhood.
Could be, Debra. We’re always open to feedback.
Front Porch Forum is based on the notion that relatively small groups of clearly identified nearby neighbors will benefit from having access to easy online communication tools. Our average FPF neighborhood forum encompasses 350 households. All of Williston contains about 3,200 households… nearly ten times our target size.
I concur with Debra about some towns being one neighborhood. I’m on the South Hinesburg forum, which is kind of sleepy. Having grown up in Hinesburg, I consider folks all over town to be my neighbors, and would love to be in touch with them through FPF. There are often things I want to communicate to all my Hinesburg neighbors, and I feel cut off that I can’t do it without a lot of research to find contacts in each forum and asking them to post for me. I also think there is an advantage to uniting all residents of a small town – often there are issues and decisions that a whole town must be involved in, and FPF could provide the arena for timely discussions and information dissemination that isn’t so much available with the monthly newspapers many towns have.
I’d like to agree with Michael that FPF is what people make of it. I belong to the Orchards forum in South Burlington and sometimes it seems like there is even too much conversation going on (in a good way!). Our forum is made up of an area that you could walk through on foot in 1/2 an hour or less, which allows us to have conversations that really affect us all, like a specific stop sign or dog-walking ettiquite in our neighborhood park. For us, the size of our forum is perfect, because there are few enough people that we recognize names when we see them but enough voices to keep a conversation going.
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