The term "social media" brings to mind images of idle teen-age chat about weekend parties and the drudgery of homework.

Increasingly, governments have started to employ the same communications tools. From the White House to the smallest municipal government, use of Facebook, Twitter and other social networking sites have become common.

"It's just another tool to use to keep citizens informed," said Rodney Campbell, spokesman for the Town of Marana.

A little explanation may be in order.

"Social media" refers to the use of Internet technologies to communicate and share information with others in a way that encourages participation. That sounds simple, but of course, many variables come into play.

Social media include networking sites like My Space and Facebook, where people create online profiles and communicate with friends.

The latest iteration of social media includes so-called microblogging sites like Twitter, where people or organizations send out brief missives to self-selecting groups of followers. The latter feature has quickly become one of the most popular ways for government to use social media.

Marana sends out frequent messages on Twitter, and maintains a Facebook account. The town first started to use Twitter in January 2009 in anticipation of the Accenture match play golf tournament.

Twitter limits the size of messages, so-called "tweets," to 140 characters. For governments, that often means limiting Twitter messages to updates about road conditions and other public safety concerns. Often the messages link to main web sites, where more in-depth information can be found.

"We've had a really good response," Campbell said. As of last week, 542 people had signed up to follow the town on Twitter. Another 126 follow on Facebook.

The Town of Oro Valley also has recently braved the new media worlds of Facebook and Twitter. To date, 166 people follow Oro Valley on Twitter and 269 on Facebook.

"It's another tool in the communications mix," said Mary Davis, communications administrator for the Town of Oro Valley.

Davis said the town has moved slowly in its use of the new tools, practicing only what's called the "push strategy." That is, using the communications tools to disseminate information, not to receive feedback from recipients or to facilitate discussion.

"The purpose is not to define policy," Davis said. "That's not what it's designed to do."

Pima County also has begun to jump on the social media bandwagon.

The Pima County Health Department started to use Twitter in 2008 during the measles outbreak as a way to provide up-to-date information. The site gained in popularity last year during the H1N1 scare.

More than 1,500 people follow the health department on Twitter. The department has considerably fewer on Facebook, with 19 registered followers.

The effectiveness of social media in government remains a subject of debate. Can it grow into a significant way for governments to communicate with the public, or is it simply the latest fashion, soon to outlive its usefulness?

"I think it's a trend, and right now everyone thinks they need to do it," said Ken Strobeck, executive director of the League of Arizona Cities and Towns.

Strobeck said the limited number of people following many local governments on Facebook or Twitter makes him question how useful it would be to communicate anything significant to the public. He cites public emergencies as situations where the new communications technologies could lack effectiveness.

"The problem there is you may be communicating to all of your followers, but its only about 2 percent of the population (of the town)," Strobeck said.

Ines Mergel, a public administration professor at Syracuse University who studies social media and government, acknowledges that drawbacks to social media in the government context exist, but said it's too soon to make any sweeping pronouncements.

"We're still very much in the early stages," Mergel said, adding, "I don't think we can ignore these technologies."

She said many governments continue to search for ways to implement social media policies that reach their communities in meaningful ways. Increasingly, that means creating opportunities for the public to participate in discussions and collaborate with officials.

"It's not just, 'go here to vote,'" Mergel said.

While the goal may be laudable, achieving increased public participation though social media presents challenges.

For one thing, in order to be successful, Mergel said governments need to implement social media policies that eschew centralized control.

"It is necessary to get people on board and don't put the use and content creation on the shoulders of the one-person IT shop, instead understand the need to socialize your strategy and find champions who are interested in experimenting with new media and include them in early efforts," Mergel wrote in a recent issue of Public Administration Times.

Another challenge lies in getting the public to overcome the stereotypes about social media, particularly that such technologies are repositories of idle chatter.

"They feel its random information," Mergel said.

University of Arizona Department of Communications Professor Kate Kenski agrees, adding that getting people to pay attention remains a challenge.

"The big question is how to get members of the public interested enough to make it a part of their media practices," Kenski said.

Davis said she thinks Oro Valley's efforts have been beneficial, at least getting the attention of the media and helping to draw attention to town issues.

"I have noticed an increase in the number of calls we get from the media," Davis said, adding that more media outlets have been following town council agenda items.

Davis also said the town hopes its social media policy would attract a younger demographic.

Campbell said Marana doesn't see Twitter or other social media tools overtaking traditional communication.

"It's just another tool to use," he said. "I think of it as us doing our due diligence to keep people informed."

Local government on Twitter


Oro Valley

Pima County Health Department

City of Tucson

Arizona Department of Transportation

Twins Peaks Interchange Project

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