Facing up to Facebook

What follows is an article I wrote for the Local Government Web Network that was printed in their Stories publication for 2010.

According to a survey by Sensis of 1500 people from across this country, 90% of Australians can access the internet from home. It is not surprising then that many community discussions are moving online and the most popular location is Facebook.

In July 2009 the Online Community Engagement blog claimed there are more than six million accounts on Facebook which identify Australia as their home country, around 28% of the population (although some people have more than one account). Data suggests that Facebook users are more concentrated within cities, for example a search showed that about 400 Facebook users identify Wagga Wagga as their location – only around 1% of the town’s population but possibly 1% that consume less media from other sources.

More recently, The Nielsen Company reported there are 9,895,000 Australians using social media websites (although, again, many of these users may have mutliple accounts). Nielsen claim our country leads the world for the average time per person spent on social media sites, with the average Australian spending nearly seven hours logged-in during December 2009. No wonder Facebook is second only to Google as the most popular website for Australians.

One of the key recommendations in IBM’s 2008 report Leveraging Web 2.0 in Government is to “meet citizens where they are online.” Leeton Shire Council, where I work, has Facebook profiles for The Roxy Theatre and the Leeton Library. Locally, other councils are also using this approach, notably Wagga Wagga City Council’s Riverside project, which uses Twitter and Facebook to befriend locals and raise awareness of the consultation process and release of draft plans.

An increasing challenge for councils will be responding to criticism on social network sites, where the debate is public yet proponents can hide behind pseudonyms. No wonder there’s a recommendation in the Government 2.0 Taskforce’s 2009 report, Engage: Getting on with Government 2.0, that ''engaging with the tools and platforms of social networking should be accepted as a valuable and productive way for public servants to share and develop their expertise.''

Social network users are already having an impact within Australia with criticism of Ipswich’s Bell Street by a group of about 900 on Facebook leading to the establishment of a taskforce and the announcement of a safety audit for the street which features two methadone clinics, a sexual health clinic, a taxi rank, bus and train station and pub.

In a sign that not all public servants understand how to engage the community, Rockhampton Mayor Brad Carter claimed to have been so disgusted by comments from the ‘Rockhampton Sucks’ Facebook group users that he decided to quit social media all together.

So how should one best engage the community via Facebook? You could spend hours responding to criticism from a ‘troll’ – internet slang for someone who posts controversial, inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages – yet reading these angry criticisms can be a great way to quickly research opinions on local subjects and evaluate the level of interest among others on the social network. An online presence doesn’t have to be interactive, like the approach of Wagga Wagga’s Riverside project mentioned earlier, by befriending locals they could draw attention to materials located elsewhere online, ensuring ownership of the content – an important consideration in light of the recent defacing of Facebook pages.

Social media is a new frontier for community engagement and it will be interesting to see what is successful. In recognising this new field, I think the Australian Broadcasting Corporation have established a useful set of guidelines that are worth considering for anyone representing a council online:
  • Do not mix the professional and the personal in ways likely to bring the ABC into disrepute.
  • Do not undermine your effectiveness at work.
  • Do not imply ABC endorsement of your personal views.
  • Do not disclose confidential information obtained through work.