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Sunday, July 12, 2009

is social media triggering a citizen engagement renaissance in our cities?

Edmonton Journal columnist Todd Babiak has written an interesting column on the use of social media in the Edmonton City Centre Airport debate. Babiak interviewed Mack Male (@mastermaq) and Jørdan Schrøder (@cleisthenis) and focused on how social media was used by many engaged younger Edmontonians to convince City Councillors to close the ECCA in favour of smarter urban development.

Enough evidence has been collected to show that social media can have powerful advocacy uses, but I'm not convinced that social media alone will succeed in "turning the channel on the old boys' network." While the organic nature of social networks like Twitter, Facebook, and blogs allow for the kind of direct interaction and conversation that radio ads and giant billboards could never, the back rooms and cheque books will continue to play a large role in influencing political decisions in our cities. This is a key reason why the types of changes made in Athabasca-Redwater MLA Jeff Johnson's Bill 203 municipal campaign finance reform legislation are so desperately needed.

While the ECCA debate was only one example of how the positive merger between social media and citizen engagement is evolving, there are other shining and nascent examples of other emerging citizen groups that taking place in our province, including ChangeCamp, CivicCamp, Better Calgary, and Better Edmonton. Tackling a wide range of issues from smart growth (including Plan It in Calgary) to connecting citizens and government in dialogue (through ChangeCamp), these groups are forming around active citizens who are willing to take a public stand (both in person and online) for the kind of positive change they want to see in their cities and communities.

It is easy to become cynical about traditional politics, grandstanding politicians, and old-style political parties, but I am constantly encouraged by the exciting citizen engagement that is happening on the municipal levels in Alberta's cities.

Related Link:
Adam Rozenhart: A shifting discourse

4 comments:

Ken Chapman said...

The back story of the social media impact on the Muni Airport debate is another example of how everything about power and influence is changing.

The traditional lobby efforts of those who wanted to keep it open were well covered and MSM coverage gave a distorting sense of what was happening. It was oblivious to what was happening in the SM world.

We say the same thing recently on the NE Edm plan public hearing when City Council had 700 people show up - much to their astonishment. Again online issue awareness, event promotion and request for citizen engagement showed who things are changing.

This is not news to those who are engaged in social media. But it is astonishing to those who are ignorant or naive about simple things like what it is, never mind its impact as a political game changer.

There is a need for the authority structure to learn about what is really going on in the virtual world reality, especially if they wish to stay relevant.

jpro86 said...

Social media is an excellent communicative tool, as exemplified by the Edmonton City Center Airport debate or in Calgary's Plan It discussions, but as seen in the case of Bill 44, despite the opposition seen through noth traditional media and Twitter, FB, etc... the backroom pressure trumped our ace.

While these means may have encouraged a great range of debate on the issue, with only a few MLA's participating, the direct impact of people's opinion was small.

I agree that it is on the onus of authority to remain relevant on how their constituents communicate, it is also the responsibility of any citizen to communicate in a way that has the greatest impact on the party they are targeting. An @ reply to MLA Doug Griffith has much more impact than trying to engage Premiere Stelmach through the same means.

I think there has been a lot gained by using FB, Twitter, Linked In, etc... to share idea's, to bolster support and to provide information but there still needs to be those who will stand up, physically, in their city council chambers and speak out.

Anonymous said...

It is still so disheartening to see so many vitriolic letters in the Journal and nasty notes in the venting section. What is more frustrating is the level of ignorance and misinformation that is being spouted off and spun into libelous allegations against council.

The readership may be down, but I would venture a guess that the 'new wave' or the social media politicos are the ones not writing into the papers and leaving those mediums to be dominated by the old boys used to an old style of politics.

I don't think we have seen the end of this issue.

Party of One said...

It's true that social media facilitates engagement on social and political issues, but is engagement equivalent to commitment?

Perhaps in the case of the city getting 700 people to a meeting...but maybe that's because of effective communication, in which case I concurr with those suggesting that status quo politicians and other leaders need to get more "tech savvy" and plug into those social networks.

But those promoting citizen engagement on any issue also have to understand that when you DO get people "engaged", you also have to be organized enough to give them something meaningful to do. If you don't, they disengage, because attention spans are short, and there are lots of distractions in the social media world.

It's like fishing; you get a nibble or a bite, and then you have to set the hook, if you don't, you lose the fish.

From another perspective, just because you're getting f/b updates and can tweet doesn't mean you're committed to an issue...or particularly well informed on the issue, either. That seems to be setting the bar very low in terms of commitment, akin to running a TV ad and claiming that everyone who saw it is "commited".

I think the jury's still out on the essential utility and effectiveness of social media to do more than communicate effectively and MAYBE give people some sense of involvement on issues.