How to Turn Online Social Media into Offline Engagement

Breaking into the social media world can be an understandably daunting task for local governments.

We should applaud government officials for their efforts. It's become a given that most folks are online; and local governments are working hard to meet residents where they are already communicating.

But social media probably feels like a both an unwieldy beast and elusive target for local government. Which networks do residents frequent? Why does social media feel like it is constantly changing? Therefore, it makes sense that local governments feel obligated to have a Twitter or Facebook page only to end up posting infrequently, unclear of how effective the networks are actually touching residents. This lack of clarity may even make public servants question the value of online tools for fostering engagement.

The reality is online social networks are valuable for engaging residents.

Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram are undeniably powerful tools that reach thousands of folks in seconds.

The question is, on which kinds of online social network should local governments, in particular, be focusing?

The first step in tackling this question is to consider the actual goal for local governments. With these tools, online communication should loop back to tangible, offline action in local communities. In other words, at the end of the day, social networks should be utilized by governments to turn online interaction into offline community engagement. Therefore, the best way for local governments to achieve success is to find a network that is local, public, and tangible.

This is where community-based networks SeeClickFix come into the picture. Location-based platforms like SeeClickFix have a core mission to connect citizens with each other and their government officials to fix issues in their community. Here are a few reasons this works:

It's local. Twitter and Facebook are tremendous at fostering global connectivity. At the same time, they are difficult channels to foster local connectivity. Mutual location is not typically the common element that connects individuals on Twitter and Facebook. And, the thing is, local government is... local. Local communities and neighborhoods are the cornerstones of local government engagement. Therefore, it isn't that these global networks are not designed for government; it's that they are not designed for neighbors.

It's public. SeeClickFix brings people together with other folks in their actual, proximal community. Once there, the public nature of SeeClickfix allows these neighbors to have a real, unfiltered forum to talk to each other and government officials. Contrary to what one would expect, this openness typically leads to more fruitful conversation than it does unproductive discussion. For example, government officials are able to better highlight the sheer amount of work they are doing that typically is hidden from public view.

The lack of being truly "public" has recently shown to be a limitation of Twitter and Facebook ' whose privacy make engagement among diverse groups difficult. Twitter and Facebook algorithms have been shown to create a "filter bubble", narrowing the perspectives of users and further entrenching them in their own beliefs. If the objective for a community is to have productive, forward-looking discussion, neighbor based structures gets closer to this by affording citizens the opportunity to see a wide range of viewpoints beyond their friend group ' including their fellow citizens and government officials.

It's understandable why local governments may be a little wary of a public social network. What might happen if they were to loosen the reins? What if citizens say negative comments about them? But what's fascinating and inspiring, is that the majority of SeeClickFix conversations end up being highly productive. And, although they may not always be completely positive, even the most frustrated interactions have an action-oriented core. How does this happen?

It's tangible. Conversations fundamentally change when a social network is local. When folks talk online to other folks that they might actually see offline, more careful language is used. Additionally, probably the main reason why neighbors based networks are channels for action-oriented conversation is that they revolve around reporting and fixing actual, on-the-ground issues in a community. They easily merge the online and offline worlds. For example, on SeeClickFix, every online interaction on site (i.e. a report, comment, vote) is directed towards the an action that will be tied to an offline result (i.e. a fix, a conversation, a change). Folks go to SeeClickFix to solve real problems in their communities, not to create them.

Pretty cool, right?

Twitter and Facebook are enormously powerful platforms ' changing the way we interact with the world around us. But for local governments, local, public and tangible networks are often more likely to bring about real positive change for citizens.

Neighbor based networks seem to fill a gap ' what do you think? Tweet your thoughts at us at @SeeClickFix with the hashtag #civicsocialnetwork.

Picture 1: Elm City Cycling Picture 2: New Haven Land Trust