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Social Networking Lessons for Building Local Communities

A city’s sustainability and stability relies on an active, engaged, and innovative population. But local government was never structured to address this social aspect of community even though many expect it to do so. Instead, as Tim O’Reilly said in this video, government is like a vending machine, “we pay our taxes and out come services.” So can governments succeed in building community by following lessons provided by successful social networks?

Here is an example of applying Social Networking Best Practices to Government. (The best practices are taken from the following Smashing Magazine post: Social Network Design: Examples and Best Practices):

1. Engage Quickly
Let people know what your city is all about, tell them what is going on in your city, promote interesting sites/information about local businesses or attractions, help them find others in the local area with similar interests.

2. Let Users Express Themselves
Provide outlets for local citizens and businesses to tell people about themselves and your city. Encourage creativity and self expression. This could be achieved through the use of print or digital media and hosted events.

3. Be Dynamic
Provide up-to-date, relevant, and interesting news and information about your city on a 24/7 basis through a variety of media formats. Encourage the entire community to contribute to this effort.

4. Allow Friends to be Grouped
Encourage the formation of committees and community groups. Many cities already have vibrant groups such as service organizations, religious institutions, scouting, etc. established within their area. Government can promote these existing groups, help others in the community find them, suggest ideas for other groups, and help provide training or assistance in the formation and management of groups.

5. Use OpenSocial
Ok, maybe this one doesn’t directly apply but let’s see how we can relate this to local government. The suggestion is to provide applications to users. So local governments can determine what types of “apps” could improve the community. Then provide the environment for local “developers” to create these applications. Perhaps it is coming up with a better way to pay bills or fees or secure permits or find parking or places to shop. Manor Labs is a good example of this concept in action.

The other idea presented in this section is to allow the creation of profiles. This is an interesting concept when applied to government; almost like creating some type of digital ID for each citizen linking them to your community. Then awesome people from your area become local ambassadors for your city.

6. Make it Easy to Communicate
Local government could work to provide channels of communication and encourage conversations. This can be achieved through sponsoring or hosting radio, print, television, and Web channels. Professionally moderated debates and discussions about local issues would also enhance conversation.

Partnering with local schools to encourage and teach younger citizens not only improves their communication skills but it enhances their sense belonging and provides a format for their contributions.

7. Show Only Relevant Information
This is important because too many times in government one person with an agenda hijacks the entire show. And usually no one else is interested in their agenda. Governments need to discourage one-sided rants or self-promotion and instead focus on creating a format that allows for everyone’s input and ideas.

8. Make it Easy to Take Action
Neglecting to provide a format where everyone can contribute really discourages buy-in and a sense of belonging. And those are two vital components to making the whole community thing work. Successful network managers make it a point to connect with their members and suggest ways to get involved that build on a member’s strengths. Local governments build successful communities by fostering this same sense of belonging and encouraging contributions.

9. Show Avatar Photos
The city of Chicago Millenium Park Fountain is a great example of how a city can apply this strategy. The fountain showcases photos of people. Others cities could take this same concept and apply it in a similar manner by displaying photos of citizens in some public medium.

10. Include Ways for Members to Connect
This step is related to the group and communication steps above. City directories provide somewhat of a framework for this but only group people by location. This could be expanded to include groups based on tags everyone uses to describe themselves.

And here are a few extra of my own:

11. Make it Fun to Belong
People are spending an increasing amount of time in MMORPGs and virtual worlds. Why is this? They are virtual communities that not only give participants a reason to belong, but more importantly they are fun and make everyone “playing” them feel better about themselves. And while life might not be a game, there is no reason we can’t enhance our lives so they are more fun and increase our sense of worth. When we are happy and feel good about ourselves, we are more productive and more likely to help others achieve these same feelings. So can government emulate this “gaming platform” and create something that encourages the same type of participation and distributes rewards to citizens. (Perhaps I need another post: Online Gaming Lessons for Building Better Government!)

12. Hire a Community Manager
All cities have people who are responsible for taking care of government assets like property and infrastructure. So if the social framework of a city is just as important as physical assets why don’t we have someone charged with taking care of it? I used to joke with people cities needed to hire a “city mom” but really what is needed is a community manager. Someone who manages or oversees the community in a manner similar to an online social network manager. And their job duties would follow the practices listed above.

(Originally posted on the Public Works Group Blog)

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Pam Broviak

It’s almost one of those things that make you go, “why didn’t we think of creating that position before and how did we get along without it for so long?!” Your “virtual cemetery” comment is great! You are so right about that!

Frederick P. Wellman

Great post Pam. It is sort of implied in your points but I think another key is responding quickly and effectively to citizen questions and complaints on the social networks. Too often I see government social network outlets as one way communications. It is truly important for someone to quickly address complaints or requests that are made on those outlets and not with the standard “Thank you for your comment for further information please call 1-800-xxx-xxxx” “Or please write x for an answer”. If its done on the site for all to see its exponentially more effective and might just answer a question 10 other people had as well.

Pam Broviak

That is so true Frederick about being responsive – Your points would fit well under the engage quickly strategy. (This is also why I believe government can leverage social media as an educational tool in addition to enhancing service delivery. As you point out just answering one person’s questions educates everyone about the issue.)

Pam Broviak

There are a lot of city-based networks, but I think most are created by citizens. Manor Labs, created by Manor, Texas, is the only government-backed one I can think of right now.

As you point out there are a lot of legal aspects to all of this. As we sort them out, I think we will see more cities venture into this area -either sponsoring the sites themselves as the city of Manor has done or acting more as an incubator or sponsor of a private based site.

We can really brainstorm here too (and maybe go way out on a limb) thinking about the possible analogies between libraries, parks, etc. and social infrastructure of a city. Libraries were first formed and made a taxing body or fund with a governing board after the public and government realized they could create and maintain an asset that was important to the community. Are we at that point yet with our social infrastructure? Would our social communities fit into this model? How could we set up a social network board and fund to offer value and ensure its delivery and sustainability? Would we want to? (I realize this is a crazy idea but once I start down these paths and hear great input from others I start exploring every aspect I can think of.)

Linda Seamore

This is a wonderful post. A lengthy one but it sums up everything that one should do in maximizing the use of social networking. I have talked with friends holding seats in government offices and they are truly are excited in the thought of building communities through the internet, with the help of social networks. Collectionsetc.com

Andrew Krzmarzick

Hi Everyone – Great post, Pam! Joseph Porcelli, founder of Neighbors for Neighbors is trying to come alongside cities and set up neighborhood-based social networks. His website offers some solid examples of cities/neighborhoods that are establishing the foundation for the kind of community building we’re talking about here.

Pam Broviak

It would be cool to see if government could partner somehow with sites like Neighbors for Neighbors. That type of collaboration would be a good representation of the gov-citizen interaction we are working towards.


A few more tips:

1. You MUST have moderators to enforce your Rules of Conduct (which you also must have). Otherwise users will take over your community and use it for their own purposes. Recall the White House Open for Questions…

2. Beware of spammers. Especially if you have a .gov domain. Spammers believe that links to their site from a .gov will improve their SEO. Consequently, they will sprinkle their links all over your community. Don’t allow it. Come up with a consistent rule and enforce it.

3. Watch out for sock puppets. Sock puppets are multiple accounts from the same user. This is done to create artificial support for a user’s agenda. For example, a user with multiple accounts can converse with him/herself to falsely demonstrate support for the user’s product / cause / agenda.

4. Treat all users with kid gloves. It may appear that they are abusing the community, but they might not know what the expected behavior is. Have moderators gently remind them what the rules are.

5. Pay attention to hot threads and ghosts towns. If you have a hot thread, make sure the messages are relevant to the thread to keep the users on topic. If not, split the new topics into their own threads. Don’t tolerate ghost towns. If you have a forum that doesn’t get much traffic, merge it with another one or get rid of it. Ghost towns make your site look bad.

Good luck

Zak Stone

Also–“guerilla customer service.” As Community Manager of SeeClickFix, I try to find the users who are expressing their frustrations with the service and reach out to them before they even reach out to us. This sends a strong message to everyone else in the forum that we are staying on top of their concerns and care about our users.

Pam Broviak

Those are great tips to add! Both of you point out the need to be assertive/aggressive with your management of your network. And it’s really to keep it all on track that continues to add value for people.