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Harnessing social media for cities

Newspapers? Who needs stinking newspapers?

Municipalities are increasingly embracing social media as a way to directly connect with its citizens, and get their stories told beyond traditional media confines of paper and ink.

Twitter, Facebook and Instagram are not just the purview of teenagers and people who want to post pictures of their food.

The city of Las Vegas fully embraced social media last spring, and uses the tools to interact with citizens with growing frequency. The city had 13,800 Twitter followers on Tuesday, and 6,159 Facebook likes. While these numbers are not overwhelming (I don’t know what they were early last year), these are people who had to actively click on something to say “Yes, I want to follow you, see what you’re doing.”

Reporters, needless to say, also have signed up to hear directly from the horses’ mouths, because there are many. (That’s a whole other column: one of the things that governments have to do is crack down on their employees posting problematic updates on their personal accounts, which these days, in terms of privacy, is tantamount to putting a sexytime mash note on a Times Square electronic billboard.)

In Las Vegas Mayor Carolyn Goodman’s recent State of the City address, people got to see, more-or-less, how the Twitterverse works in practice. As Her Honor discussed the latest triumphs of government and business cooperation, a steady stream of tweets from people was posted on huge television screens on either side of the rostrum. Some of the tweets came from people who were sitting directly in front, or to the side, of the mayor. Some came from people sitting comfortably at home, probably in their pajamas, enjoying some sort of beverage.

The latter posting-point, staying at home rather than posting from the council chambers downtown, probably would have helped CityLife reach its maximum snark level. As our correspondent noted at the time, being in eye-shot of the mayor, and having your tweets reach people all around you, severely compromised his ability to achieve maximum sarcasm. So in that sense, the city government already scored some sort of triumph.

An interesting sidenote to the State of the City Twitter-posting was that not all tweets appeared on the screen. It appeared that there was some sort of filter. At times, some tweets were delayed by a number of minutes, while others went up more-or-less right away. Our correspondent’s bad joke that if you need medical assistance in Las Vegas, go to the airport, still managed to make it on the screen. As did Jon Ralston’s joke that Zappos’ CEO Tony Hsieh was the mayor of downtown Las Vegas, but oddly, only through second-person re-tweets.

Anyway, so tweeting and Facebook, etc., are probably here to stay, at least until a bright young person invents something even more insidious to beam messages directly in and out of people’s brains. Which come to think of it, is pretty close to what’s happening with those Google Glass eyepieces. (Which totally DO NOT make the wearers look like Steve Urkel, so shut up.)

In the meantime, governments on all levels will continue to use social media to communicate with constituents and everybody else, bypassing those nattering nabobs of the Fourth Estate (newspapers, electronic talking heads, bloggers, sidewalk chalkers, etc.). There’s a significant downside to this, of course. Who checks? Who makes sure that the cities, the counties, the state and federal folks are telling the truth? Don’t count on the newspapers, because they way things are going, they won’t be there.

According to the non-profit government technologies consulting group Code For America, “social media helps cities in their core mission of reaching more constituents to more broadly share government information and activities.”

Las Vegas worked with Code For America last year on the city’s social media initiatives, developing the Downtown Food Truck iPhone App, as well as the Am I In Las Vegas App to identify land in city limits.

However, while Las Vegas has fully embraced social media, Henderson and North Las Vegas have been less aggressive. While the Las Vegas Twitter feed is updated many times a day, sometimes an hour, the other two will be lucky to post something daily. I’m don’t know about Henderson, but I know the financially-troubled North Las Vegas probably has a message it would like to communicate with its residents. Mayor John Lee has talked about transparency and openness at City Hall. Engage people where they increasingly live; on their mobile devices, on their computers.

For North Las Vegas, which has tweeted three times since Dec. 9 and only posted a handful of times since then on Facebook, the opportunity to engage the their public on their terms during the most trying time in the city’s history is being lost.

Arnold M. Knightly is the editor of CityLife. Follow him on Twitter: @KnightlyGrind