In our previous post on community engagement, we talked a lot about innovation and how to make citizen engagement more attractive for community members. Additionally, during our first LA Civics Initiative workshop, we talked about the barriers that prevent people from becoming civically engaged in LA. One of the barriers that our attendees pointed to was a certain disconnect or feeling of apathy from Angelenos towards government or other formal institutions. Could online engagement and social media be the keys to making communities feel more interested and connected to local governance and decision-making?
Social media and online platforms in general are certainly new, exciting, and powerful tools that give leaders the ability to reach a lot of people at a low cost, increasing their capacity. They have a lot of potential to make engagement easier, more accessible and more attractive to people who maybe wouldn’t otherwise engage in local governance and decision-making processes for lack of time, resources, or interest. Those of us who think that bringing in communities affected by policies and projects into the planning and decision-making process is bound to provide a better outcome should learn how to make community engagement “sexy” and online platforms might just give us the capacity to do so.
In fact, last November President Obama guest-edited an issue of WIRED magazine and, in his letter from the editor, said that he wonders what the newest technological advances will bring and what he might see in the White House Science Fair in 20 or 50 years. One of the things he imagines is “the teenager who makes voting and civic activism as addictive as scrolling through your Twitter feed.” There is no doubt that wherever civic engagement is going, we suspect social media and other online platforms are to play a big role in it.
This Planetizen article on newer ways to engage community also advocates for many online strategies that help local governments be better connected to their constituents. For example, they recommend having city services available online as well as having “online town halls” where people can share ideas, comments, and ask questions on certain topics on Twitter at a set date and time. However, these ideas are not only limited to public sector actors—quite often, nonprofits want to engage communities and private entities want to create visibility for themselves by engaging users online.
These online interactions can be garnered into real world impact. Two great examples of this were our Leading from the West guest speakers this semester, Tara Roth and Roy Choi. Tara is the CEO of the Goldhirsh Foundation, which launched a crowdsourcing grants challenge called LA2050 aimed at creating a better future Los Angeles. Giving people some say in how the money they grant is disbursed has helped the foundation create an online community and has helped innovators in LA find a platform to increase the visibility of their ideas.
On the other hand, Roy Choi is a local chef who was at the forefront of the food truck “revolution” with his Kogi truck (gourmet Korean BBQ tacos). He and his business partner would use Twitter to let people know where the food truck would be and they became so popular that sometimes they would arrive on location to find huge crowds or lines of people waiting.
One of the benefits that Tara Roth said social media provided them was the ability to reach a larger number of people with less time and resources invested. When she first took on the Goldhirsh Foundation position, she was the only full-time staff member and there was only so much that could be done to engage people with so little manpower. She says she could reach about 500 people by putting on a series of physical events compared to reaching 8,000 people online with the same amount of time invested. This brings us back to the issue of how social media and online platforms can really help get things off the ground even if you lack capacity.
It is true that 500 people taking time out of their day and physically showing up to an event is probably a deeper level of engagement than posting a few comments online or showing up to an “online town hall”—but the reach that social media and online engagement have is still an impressive and powerful trait that traditional interactions can’t compete with. Furthermore, even “weak” engagements can be effective at bringing about change. In their 2005 article on LA neighborhood councils, Musso et. al discuss “the value of weak ties.” In the article, they explain that what they call “weak ties” are often less costly to create and maintain, yet they still hold a lot of potential to destabilize the “old political order” and lead to structural change.
When talking to Grayce Liu, General Manager of the Department of Neighborhood Empowerment, she mentioned that social media certainly has a lot of potential for reaching people and make engagement easier. However, when people ask her whether she thinks social media or other online platforms could replace traditional engagement and physical meetings, such as neighborhood councils, she says: in some ways, yes; in others, no.
“We could use it to get some information and feedback from stakeholders directly instead of having to go to the councils for it, and that is big. But there are other roles that good neighborhood councils play that social media engagement could not substitute. They have become hubs of engagement that really keep people connected in their communities, and that’s not something that can be recreated online in the same way.” She also stressed how some neighborhood councils have become a breeding ground for new leaders— like for example, there are many members becoming City employees, commissioners and even “electeds” of higher office, such as City Controller Ron Galperin and City Councilmember David Ryu.
For all the promise that these new technologies hold for engaging people, it is important to understand and keep in mind that they have limitations as well.