The power of connecting via 140 characters

Image Who hasn’t used Twitter to kill time on public transport, procrastinate when there’s something more important to do, or exchange witty lines with friends. Twitter entertains, it informs and it connects. Today I was jolted, not by the latest #auspol outrage or Kochie gaffe, but by the real power of Twitter. By humanity.

I’ve been following the @HomelessInMelb account for a couple of weeks. It’s a curation rotation account, which means tweets are rotated between different guest tweeters. The most recent guest tweeter, @_JoeBrown_ has tweeted his experiences of homelessness. Sleeping in cars, trying to find accomodation, dealing with the red-tape of government agencies, and enduring the cycle of joblessness and poverty that no Australian deserves. Joe is an ex Victorian firefighter who was injured and subsequently lost his job.

He and his male partner, @BS_evens have had particular difficulty accessing temporary accommodation services because of being a gay couple. They appear to fall between the gaps of ‘need’ because they do not have drug and alcohol problems.

Today, Joe & Ben got a house in Reservoir. They tweeted the experience of trying to secure the house. They were short of money for the bond, for food, for removalists and for household items. Twitter responded. The short-fall in rent was raised, and @Mrs_KT is coordinating donations and assistance to help make their house a home.

That’s the power of Twitter. Humanity. Connection. A happy ending to a hard story.

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On hipsters, melancholy and the digital future

Over the weekend the City of Melbourne (CoM) ran the #comconnect unconference. There were around 150 artists, techies, public servants, gamers, community leaders, thinkers, designers, researchers, urbanists and makers gathered to generate ideas, raise challenges, propose solutions, build collaborations and cultivate projects to help CoM to kick start their digital strategy planning.

It is great to see a local council getting such a high level of participation and engagement at the inception of their strategy, rather than consulting when the creative thinking is finished and a strategy document is already drafted. Think of it as uber-brainstorming.

There were up to 6 concurrent sessions running over 4 time-slots over the 2 days, introduced by ‘lighting talks’ by experts, and summed up with plenary sessions. We (the attendees) designed the agenda at the start of each of the two days, opening up the floor for ideas to emerge and develop organically. Sessions were chaired by whoever proposed the idea. Session outcomes were captured online via Google docs. This is a pretty innovative approach to planning for a local council – both the level of engagement and the format.

The agenda was a smorgasbord of digital centered topics such as: future work in the digital age, knowledge sharing for a sustainable Melbourne, the self-aware city, emerging role of government, encouraging digital incubators, open data, sharing the agenda in decision-making, future-ready content, art & technology, who’s in the hood, digital play in the city, using games for positive change, making feedback easy, social cohesion, digital public libraries, digital inclusion through policy, future of civic engagement, data visualization, and experience mapping.

My vote for the session with the best title was ‘NBN WTF?’

Notes from the sessions are online with further summary reports to come.

To get an idea of the flavour and themes of the discussions, check out the word cloud generated from the Google docs summaries.

Word Cloud from CoMConnect

With so many sessions running at once I always felt like I was missing out on some other interesting conversation happening somewhere I wasn’t, but I began to see consistent themes and parallel discussions emerging and a coming-together of ideas. The organisers did an impressive job of facilitating and synthesising.

There was an amazing amount of energy and passion in the room from a bunch of people giving up their weekend to help CoM shape the digital future. The event has generated a lot of buzz for CoM, both amongst the people there on the day, and also via social media. The hashtag #comconnect has generated over 1.3m impressions and reached an online audience of over 153 000 people.

Some of the themes that emerged for me from the unconference were the:

  • Need to support digital spaces/ communities with physical spaces and face-to-face events.
  • Importance of government not starting a raft of initiatives from scratch when there are great community projects already happening that could be supported and strengthened by government.
  • Power of citizen and government collaboration and connection to solve ‘wicked problems’.
  • Exciting possibilities of new ways of working that the digital age offers *jargon alert* – co-working, crowdfunding, crowdsourcing, microniches, gamification, data visualisation, collective action, and social enterprise & entrepreneurship.

The experience of the event mirrored the experience of the digital age itself. I made connections to new people, heard and generated new ideas to mull over and walked away feeling deluged with information.

The weekend left me with these questions:

  • How will CoM synthesise and use these crowdsourced ideas to generate a cohesive (and achievable) strategy?
  • How will CoM engage unconference attendees in further development of the ideas generated over the 2 days? And more importantly, how will they engage the broader community?
  • How will CoM cater to the digital poor and digitally illiterate in the execution of their strategy?
  • Can 150 hipsters effectively represent the diverse needs and views of CoM residents, workers and visitors?

The weekend also left me with a melancholy feeling. 150 people spent a whole weekend trying to figure out ways we could connect and communicate better with our fellow humans, with digital technology as the enabler. The overarching theme was bringing the village back to the city. In becoming urbanized, have we become so disconnected from each other that we have to deliberately construct and orchestrate our community?

I guess so…

Local government use of social media: laggers or leading-edge?

Why aren’t local councils in Australia leading the way in the use of social media to engage with their communities? Does this question keep you awake at night? Read on.

Two recent reports do an excellent job of analysing social media use in the Australian local government sector.

Australian Centre of Excellence for Local Government, Using Social Media in Local Government: 2011 Survey Report

Dialogue Consulting: Use of Social Media by Local Governments Report

Read these reports and you’ll get a picture of the current use of social media and best practice examples, as well as the perceived (but mostly unrealised) benefits of social media. These benefits include engaging with hard to reach communities, more transparent community governance, increased citizen collaboration, improved 2-way communication and information exchange, and enhanced reputation and relationship management.

The benefits seem pretty compelling for a sector whose core business is engaging with the community. You only need to have a look at the legislation governing the sector to get some pointers. Taking the Local Government Act (Victoria) as an example, you’ll see a slew of areas in the statutory objectives, role and functions of councils that could be enhanced through social media use. These include providing accessible and equitable services, transparent decision-making, fostering community cohesion, encouraging participation in civic life, and planning for and providing services and facilities for the local community.  Take accessibility as an example. A recent report by COTA Victoria showed that social media encourages social participation and reduces the isolation of older people. With an increasingly ageing population, this group is a key focus for local government. Social media could help to reach them more effectively.

According to the above reports, these significant potential benefits are being stymied by barriers such as lack of resources, lack of knowledge, and councils being risk averse. I don’t want to seem to be putting the boot into the sector, but the barriers appear surmountable to me, and are the same tired excuses you hear for any initiative not getting off the ground in any sector – a bit lame really.

To be fair, there are other sectors equally deserving of criticism for their slow uptake of social media, for example, the tertiary sector and publishing. But what sets local government apart is that they already own very visible physical spaces and infrastructure for community building and engagement. They have libraries, community health centres, council shop fronts, pedestrian malls, and public parks. They should be reinforcing these community hubs with digital real estate. It’s an incredibly powerful nexus to have both. Most companies would salivate over this level of ‘brand exposure’.

The reports above are the beginning of steps towards developing a social media index for local government. I think it’s only a matter of time until we see quality of life surveys and city livability indices including some measure of online/ social media citizen engagement to assess a city’s desirability as a place to live. Think about that and what it means to local government…

Don’t despair, there are remedies for the social media ills affecting local councils. The reports I’ve referenced suggest a number of practical and achievable steps to getting on board the social media express. I’ll leave you to explore these for yourself.

I’d like to stir the pot by adding a few of my own suggestions that are slightly more contentious.

•    Give all staff access to all social media platforms for personal and professional use. Currently only around 50% have access. Crazy! Reminds me of the days when email and internet were first around and only the librarians were allowed to have access. Yay for being a librarian.

•    Train ALL local council staff in the use of social media. Not just the communications staff, ALL staff, even the mayor and CEO. That solves your lack of knowledge barrier.

•    Decentralise social media responsibilities across the council. It’s never going to succeed if only 1 or 2 staff have responsibility. That solves your under-resourced barrier.

•    Start evaluating your social media efforts. There’s no point doing social media if you can’t measure its impact.

•    And for my most radical suggestion – reposition the communications team as a front of house service. Strategic communications and community engagement are core business to local government and should be managed as a client service, rather than a support function. Communications should sit alongside libraries in the management structure to reap the joint skills and knowledge of these two groups of staff when it comes to social media.

Food for thought… I’d love to hear your comments.

I’m attending CoM Connect – Melbourne’s Digital Strategy unconference  on the weekend. It will be fascinating to hear what comes out of this innovative event for the world’s most liveable city #comconnect

How can publishers survive? By connecting with communities

I’m interested in the idea of creating communities, whether it is virtual or physical and a recent article by Stephen S. Power got my attention. In the article Power suggests 3 ways that book publishers can avoid extinction: publish the e-book first, create communities, and engage more with libraries.

The publishing success of Fifty Shades, which originally appeared as an e-book, supports Power’s first suggestion. Now, I know not every e-book goes on to become a blockbuster, but I’m sure we’ll see other examples in the future of mainstream publishers picking up self published e-books, editing them and turning them into viable hardcopy best sellers. In fact, a recent Guardian article details the acquisition of Author Solutions, a grassroots e-book publisher, by Pearson, the owners of Penguin Books. So publishers may as well compete head-to-head with self-publishers and publish their own titles as e-books before waiting for the long production cycle of hardcopy to hit the shelves.

Then there’s the phenomenon of blogs leaping off the screen to become real-life books, Julie & Julia probably being the best know example, which also managed to cut a film deal. These days, there are even step-by-step guides on how to blog a book and become a self-published author with a (somewhat hopeful) view to being discovered by mainstream publishers.

An online self-publishing community I’ve been watching is Wattpad. I can’t speak to the success of content from this site being picked up by mainstream publishers, but I can say it’s potential exponentially increased recently. Why? Because Booker Prize winning author Margaret Atwood has jumped on board, taking the Twittersphere along with her. A prolific tweeter, Atwood posts regular references to the site. Given she has over 330,000 followers, that’s a pretty good plug for Wattpad. She even has her own poetry competition running on the site, creating more social media buzz.

This leads to Power’s second suggestion for publishers to avoid extinction – create communities. He points out that authors are household names while publishers aren’t but says this need not be the case in the future. To his point, publishers could learn a lot from – guess who – Margaret Atwood. The author has just run a successful crowd-funding campaign to launch Fanado, a mobile app which allows artists and fans to interact and for the author to sign paper books, e-books, etc over the internet. While it’s hard to imagine a publisher having the same pulling power as a star author, they do have 2 very tangible assets – books and market/sales data. If they can’t find a way to build community by translating their sales data into customer insights in the social media space and leverage off their products, which have a high emotional connection to the consumer, then they’re not trying hard enough.

Speaking of community, this brings us to Power’s third suggestion – engaging more with public libraries. It wasn’t that long ago that pundits were heralding the death of libraries, but they are now successfully recreating themselves as community and cultural hubs, with events, exhibitions, bookshops (handy for publishers!) and cafes. Importantly, many are now also doing a great job of engaging with their communities via social media and are working towards being digital hubs. Did I mention e-books before?

Power’s tips for publishers include more library outreach, sponsorship, collection development advice, and marketing collateral. These tips are reasonable and most likely already happen to varying degrees, but they focus on the products – books. A more innovative approach for publishers would be to try to tap into the community which libraries foster – physical and digital. Books need not be central to this approach, but an author’s pulling power could be.

How about virtual book-signings, creative writing classes and readings featuring well-loved authors hosted in the library, sponsored by the publisher, and using technology like Fanado, with the opportunity for interaction and participation from the community? Or publishers as guest-bloggers/ tweeters on the library’s social media spaces, giving self-publishing advice to aspiring writers? That’s got to earn the publishers some street cred with punters.

I’m sure there are many more creative and innovative possibilities for how publishers can connect with communities, but there’s a starting point and some food for thought…