The trouble with social media and cities

Is social media really an effective tool for city hall?
Written by Tyler Falk, Contributor

Big city governments in the United States are embracing social media with the hope that it will help cities become more transparent and connected with residents. But questions are arising about how effective it is at meeting those goals.

Included among the critics of social media use by city governments is a mayor whose city ranks at the top of a list of city governments based on their online presence. New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg -- who has nearly 250,000 Twitter followers -- is worried that social media could be holding cities back in the long run, according to The New York Times:

The mayor noted that technology, despite its benefits, can add new pitfalls to an already grueling process. “Social media is going to make it even more difficult to make long-term investments” in cities, Mr. Bloomberg said.

“We are basically having a referendum on every single thing that we do every day,” he said. “And it’s very hard for people to stand up to that and say, ‘No, no, this is what we’re going to do,’ when there’s constant criticism, and an election process that you have to look forward to and face periodically.”

Later, Mr. Bloomberg noted that long-term urban planning “requires leadership, and standing up, and saying, ‘You know, you elected me, this is what we’re going to do,’ and not take a referendum on every single thing.”

But keep in mind, social media is only in its infancy in big cities. In 2009, only 13 percent and 25 percent of the 75 largest cities in the U.S. had Facebook and Twitter, respectively. Now that number has soared to 87 percent for both social media platforms. Cities still have a lot of learning to do when it come to effectively implementing social media strategies.

While I understand the mayor's complaint -- I'm sure his office hears more comments from the public than most -- social media isn't going to go away anytime soon. Social media is a relatively new addition to city hall and it will take some time to adjust to government being held more accountable. But ideally social media will force cities to become more transparent and more effective at communicating the long-term goals of the city. Surely cities hear a lot more noise with social media, but it also gives citizens a voice that's unlike anything they've had before. Cities need to find better ways to effectively listen to that voice and ignore the noise.

I'd be interested to hear from any city officials who have seen long term city projects struggle to get off the ground because of social media. Share with us in the comments below.

Mayor Warns of the Pitfalls in Social Media [New York Times]

Photo: Angela Radulescu/Flickr

This post was originally published on Smartplanet.com

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