Take councillor Matt Whitman. Whitman represents the Tantallon and Hammonds Plains Road areas, and bills himself as the “inventor of reverse networking.” As he explains on his website, “reverse Networking is promoting others rather than myself. If I say I am the best whatever, you discount it because I am saying it. If someone else says something nice about me it is much more authentic…The key is not just ‘who you know’ anymore, it is who you know that is saying good things about you!”
Such an emphasis on positivity probably makes Whitman a good neighbour, and likely contributed to his successful election campaign. But on Twitter, Whitman has taken to blocking people for “being negative” by doing things like respectfully asking questions and highlighting problems in the district—precisely the reasons people want to contact their councillor. (I was blocked by Whitman, after I suggested an unannounced, and so therefore effectively secret, meeting between the managers of the Business Improvement Districts and councillors should've been agendized and open to the public.)
“Why does [Whitman] get to decide what is negative, what is constructive, and what about my online presence is ‘worthwhile’?” asks Jenny Gammon, who was blocked by Whitman last week, after she politely inquired about his habit of blocking other Twitter users. “Since I’m blocked on Twitter for being negative, will he answer my phone calls or emails? Will he take my opinions into account when he makes decisions for our district? Now that I’m on his twitter blacklist, are my family’s needs now less important than those who toe the line the way he wants them to?”
Gammon took screenshots of the exchange:
Whitman subsequently apologized to Gammon on Twitter, but only before unblocking her. He also continues to have a protected account, meaning he must give prior approval to people following him.
In an email exchange with The Coast, Whitman seems perplexed by the reaction he's gotten from blocking people on Twitter.
"I like Twitter for my personal use, I like clicking on news stories from the Chronicle, Coast, Metro etc.... And Re-tweeting...." he writes. "I don't really use is a Councillor... Not really trying to effect anyone via twitter. I am very accessible to meet with people in person over coffee, or by phone or email.... I just don't think twitter is the best way to communicate about serious issues..."
From my perspective, Whitman is missing the point entirely. He's the one who ran for public office, and got elected. He's in the public eye. Twitter is a very public social media platform, and far more than with Facebook or Google +, users expect freewheeling discussion. More, Twitter can be an excellent way to see what is on people's minds, what's generating discussion; Whitman and other councillors would do well to follow as many of their constituents as possible, and engage with them.
And sure, Twitter isn't "the best" way to communicate about serious issues, but it's a damn good one: I've talked about any number of city issues on Twitter, and have learned much from my followers, while hopefully better informing at least a few people. Used with full engagement, Twitter can likewise bring a councillor into better and more fruitful contact with his or her constituents, without having to take "the best" step of arranging face-to-face meetings.
The exchange made me curious: how successfully are other councillors using Twitter?
Here's the basic Twitter information of Halifax councillors, as compiled through WhendidyoujoinTwitter.com and from information gleaned through their Twitter accounts Tuesday afternoon. Dates refer to when each councillor joined Twitter.
Councillors not on Twitter:
A few comments:
I don't think it should be a requirement that councillors be on Twitter. It's better that they not be on Twitter, than to do it badly. I know that Twitter can be hugely time-consuming, so I can respect the decision to not partake...even though I would encourage councillors not to avoid this potential for interaction with constituents.
What surprised me is that the councillors who have been on Twitter the longest—Mosher and Whitman—are among the weakest Twitterers. Mosher got on Twitter so early, that she has a premium handle, @kicking, that's probably worth real money, if she wanted to sell it. And yet, she's only following 139 people, and makes few tweets herself. I think she's missing out on a great tool.
Whitman is also the only sitting councillor who has a protected account, although former councillor Dawn Sloane did as well. For politicians, protected accounts are problematic. As Gammon says, "Whitman unblocked me over the weekend but still continues to use a protected account so to see it I will have to follow him in the hopes that he doesn't disagree with something I say and block me all over again." More, protected accounts are just another barrier, preventing even approved people from re-tweeting the protected tweets.
In my opinion, the best councillor Twitterers are Tim Outhit, Waye Mason and Darren Fisher, who are on Twitter often, engaging in honest conversation and following many people.
It appears to me that mayor Mike Savage's account is overly cautious, and in the hands of communications people rather than the mayor himself. It ill serves him, I think, making him look increasingly like a packaged, sound-bite-y politician.
I'm curious to see what readers think. Please tell us how you perceive councillor Twitter use in the comments.