Social Media 101

101The age of participation proves too scary for some.
Life is unscripted, uncontrolled and unpredictable—yet government in general proceeds under the premise it can control all things. This unfortunate reality resulted in a lost opportunity for many elected officials and civil servants who didn’t attend ChangeCamp Edmonton, an unconference in mid-October at the UofA’s Lister Hall. More than 150 people participated.
Ironically, I was unable to attend due to health, so I relied on real-time information on Twitter for some of the unscripted play-by-play. Chris LaBossiere, a colleague on the organizing committee, was able to provide me with his on-site perspective. “There would have been no better way in Alberta to engage in discussions with citizens yesterday than at ChangeCamp. People contributed easily, and volunteered to lead discussions. The success of the day was based on the individual participants. I was surprised and happy to see such age diversity in the room.” That statement by Chris is supported by pictures posted online. “Many stepped up and pitched new session ideas, we planned 25 and ran 27.”
I asked Chris why he thought more politicians or government employees didn’t attend ChangeCamp. He speculated that “Politicians didn’t see this as an opportunity. They didn’t realize that this wasn’t about talking about the past but talking about change.”
In response to the same question, Laurie Blakeman, Liberal MLA for Edmonton Centre, said plainly, “You didn’t ask.” This, despite the fact that she and other politicians, including City Councillors Don Iveson and Ben Henderson and Liberal Senator Grant Mitchell, were in the room or on the list to attend.
Doug Elniski, PC MLA for Edmonton-Calder, said he was there because “the more I know about social media the better I feel about using it. People in government have created a reluctance to use social media and I think it’s a symptom of a lack of understanding of what it’s all about. There’s still a belief that social media is this interesting novelty, the government infrastructure has not caught up. The speed of it is remarkable. You can’t manage this like an ad in the newspaper, it’s not static.” I couldn’t agree more.
“There’s an old saying in politics,” Doug chuckled. “The loudest thing you hear in politics is the grinding of the axes.” This was his light-hearted response to my query about whether the tone of the discussion changed when he entered the room at ChangeCamp. “Sure the tone changed to some degree, but I focused on listening to what other people had to say. The overall flow of the conversations was really good and, for the most part, people followed the rules of engagement. People were building off of the ideas of others.”
Laura also felt the tone changed with her in the room. “Well, in the first session I attended, I got outed. I made no attempt to engage in the discussion, but was asked direct questions. By the second session, everything was fine.” When asked why she attended ChangeCamp, she replied, “I’m interested in new ways in engaging my constituents. I was there to learn.”
Laurie’s opinion of the unconference structure seemed positive. “It was the self- generated structure, people seemed to be less stressed and approached things with an open mind.”
Arguably, the most interesting perspective was provided by Andrew Knack (who, as I write this, is at City Hall announcing his intent to run for councillor in Ward 1). Andrew came on my radar after he announced on Twitter that ChangeCamp Edmonton had helped to solidify in his mind that he should run for election in 2010.
“When politicians walk in, there’s an aura and perception that they are a little different than the rest. The best thing that I heard were the opinions and ideas that were not my own. I think it’s important to see how ideas can fit within your values. If you’re willing to listen to other people, then the value of an event like ChangeCamp is large. I took a lot away from the event,” explained Andrew. “A lot of the group discussion went back to citizen involvement and getting community leagues involved in the process.”
Personally, I understand why people in government may be afraid of getting into a dialogue about meaningful topics with everyday citizens in an unscripted format. That still doesn’t remove the point that it’s a shame to miss such a terrific opportunity. ChangeCamp Edmonton is just one positive manifestation of citizen engagement… an interesting format that many believe we need to build on.
Folks at all levels of government should realize that despite their fears, citizen influence through the use of social media is growing. Online influence is the new currency and wallets within government will remain empty until politicians and policy-makers engage with the rest of us. √

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