Change-Dot-Gov at the Social Media Club Boston, 3/24/2009

I went to my first meeting of the Social Media Club Boston tonight. I’d held off for a while, since I’m not in marketing. Of course, now that I’m on Twitter, I can’t help from being in marketing. And, the promised topic was good: “Change-Dot-Gov”. The panel featured a good diversity of professions: the Director of New Media Strategy for the commonwealth, Brad Blake; a political reporter for the Globe, Matt Viser; and an elected official, State Senator Jennifer L. Flanagan; and a consultant/author/blogger, Brian Reich, whom I am friendly with.

It had a good turnout, around forty to fifty folks, and mostly on the ball with questions. There was a bit of tension from a number of the questioners who felt that the government doesn’t do enough to reach people online. One eager questioner figured that all he needed was an API to the voter database in order to make an online community come into being (he must have been unfamiliar with the experiment from two years ago). The irony is, as Blake and Sen. Flanagan poined out, most government officials are often begging their constituents to come out in person to events. Blake further explained that one of Gov. Patrick’s constant questions to him was, what do the people think about this?

Reviewing the tweets around the event tagged smcboston, this stood out:

“Trying to figure out why Flanagan is on #smcboston panel if she doesn’t participate in social media?”

Perhaps that was after Sen. Flanagan had bluntly stated that she didn’t read blogs. A middle-aged man in the back  — already upset by Matt Viser’s suggestion that his paper reconsider being free online — cried out in protest. She gave her reasons (anonymous bloggers), and the man jousted his responses (no they’re not!)

Is this guy some sort of expert, I whispered to Laura Fitton, sitting next to me. Indeed he was, she told me, he is Paul Gillin. I later checked his LinkedIn resume: he was the editor-in-chief of ComputerWorld for a dozen years, and after that, an executive at TechTarget, and now is an independent consultant. His wife Dana had written the Twitter post above.

One thing about social media devotees: they’re the sort of folks not averse to speaking their mind, and out of turn; even posting to Twitter in the backchannel may not be enough. I myself had raised my voice out of turn early in the evening — to Brian, because he was rambling and describing “the press” and “politicians” in abstract terms when they were sitting on the same panel with him! Brian’s a friend of mine, so he could take it; and the other folks were able to get their words in. But the Gillins’ comments smacked of rudeness and chauvinism. It’s no big deal, but you’d like the next panelists invited to speak at an SMC event to feel welcome.

My sense of being a technology consultant is that you never suggest the solution up front. You listen to your prospect’s needs first. If the prospect isn’t talking needs then listen to them about anything, and then imagine yourself their shoes.

Jennifer Flanagan grew up in Leominster and lived their her whole life, getting her B.A. at UMass-Boston, and her M.A. at Fitchburg State. She was elected state representative at age 29, and state senator at age 33. Her district has a much older population, she explained, not really as tech-savvy as one finds in Cambridge. (Granted, it does contain the terminus of the Fitchburg MBTA line, which goes into Boston via Waltham and Cambridge, so there’s probably a healthy number of tech commuters in the district.)  Many of her supporters reacted with fear she got around to posting her own website, worrying that she’d abandon direct communications. Her office at the State House in Boston may be only 40 miles away, but her district prefers her to not go there if she can avoid it. She also won her race comfortably in 2008, 60 to 40 percent. Successful politicians are creatures of habit, after all.

So I tried to imagine what the State Senator from Fitchburg would give as a full answer to this question.

I don’t read blogs.
That is, I don’t read a blog on a daily basis. I try to read our local newspaper, the Sentinel & Enterprise daily.
Now, obviously, if a constituent sends me something they posted in a blog, of course I’ll read it.
I don’t tell my staff what to read, and they don’t really report to me that they do. They’ll clip something out and remember it when it comes up.

If a friend of family sends me an article, I may get to reading it.

When I have time, I like reading magazine articles from [New Yorker|Vanity Fair|Commonwealth]

I guess I’m prejudiced to the way newspapers work: you know who to yell at when they screw up.
With “the blogs”– and I mean any random blog– I just don’t know the person. Each blog is laid out differently, and it’s not just not uniform practice to have someone’s name in the byline– if they even give their real name. I found an endorsement for me written last August by a blog called “No Drumlins.” It signed by “lance.” Of course I know Lance Harris — he’s the secretary of the Stirling Democratic Town Committee where I spoke last night. If Lance has a question, he calls me directly.

And don’t get me started on participating in blog comments. But I’m not looking for an argument. If I want one, I go to my local supermarket.

Twitter sounds interesting because I can choose the people I want to. But, seeing how all you here are texting away, I’m worry that it will suck up my time!

Certainly I’d love to be able to use social media technology to be able to interact with more people without overwhelming me. I get [400] emails a [day|week] now. A [lot|few] of these are repeat questions that my constituents could probably answer amongst themselves if the technology could show them the way. Part of this is voter education as well. They could be satisfied with a neighbor, but they’d rather ask me– they know who I am, after all.

And sure, I could imagine myself reading a blog produced in one of the cities and towns I represent, but it would have to be a very good one.
Have them have a strict registration. No anonymous or pseudonymous posters. I’d only feel comfortable posting if they could guarantee that no one would post as me.
Have them do more than just opinionize. They should go, or at least have a diversity of writers.
I don’t know if you’d call it a blog, but that would be a way to use social media to help me connect to my community.

Dana Gillin was looking for some social media superstar politician. I don’t know if one exists. You’d need to find someone who could impress a crowd of social media sophisticates– not easy. The next best thing is to get somebody who hasn’t joined the bandwagon yet. The toughest challenge in social media, I would guess, is to convert someone over. If you don’t interact with a holdout every now and then, how can you do this effectively?

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