How Cities can Leverage Social Media

It’s time to bring cities into the world of 21st century communication.


The road to the future is paved with social media. Not gold, not silver, and definitely not bit-coins, but with tweets and vines and hashtags. The new currency of the world is attention, and there’s no faster way to get it then filming your cat doing something inane, then uploading it to every social network you know of and praying to the ghost of keyboard cat that it goes viral.

Yet despite the rest of America — and most of the world — joining hands and skipping together down the lane of twitter and FB while jauntily humming “follow the yellow brick road”, our governing bodies are, as usual, stuck a mile or so behind, still trying to figure out how exactly one “internets” or sends a “twitter”. Now, and forgive us for siding with the enemy here, but you can’t really blame them for being a bit slow on the uptake. Moving a gargantuan series of people, policies and standards even a step forward must be unimaginable chaos. At the same time, though, it’s very possible that social media could help our government, or more specifically our cities, become less of a tangled many tentacled semi-blind monstrosity. This article is mainly going to focus on the infrastructure of cities, and how social media can (and in some cases already has) help the many, many processes it takes to run one a little bit smoother.

The most important way cities can use social media is as a tool for communication (that thing that social media was created to do) with citizens. Some of you might be saying “But a city’s job isn’t to communicate — it’s to run”. To which we would agree. However, a city that is running well is efficient, clean, and meeting the needs of it’s citizens. How can a city please the public if they have no way of knowing what the public expects and requires?

Let’s look at a recent example of a city’s failure to communicate (among other things). A good chunk of Boston’s public transportation system shut down for a month this winter. It’s not as if a twitter presence could have kept the snow from falling, but it could have at least kept citizens aware of what exactly was happening; what was shut down, how long it would be shut down for, possible other methods to get into the city etc. Many of the articles written when the shutdowns were first announced decried the lack of information available. The Boston Globe, one of the biggest papers in Boston, couldn’t even find any specifics about the MBTA shut downs.

I’m sure Charlie on the MBTA would have a few interesting things to tweet about.

Clearly there has been a failure of communication — dare we say it — multiple failures of communication here. Not only should Boston’s citizens have been better informed, but also the workers within Boston’s public transportation system, everyone from those working maintenance on the train to the general manager Beverly Scott. Someone action should have been taken long before the winter of 2015 to improve the MBTA. And let’s face it, the lack of improvements couldn’t have been from a lack of people noticing the problems. We firmly believe that if the citizens of Boston had a better outlet to voice complaints about the public transportation system, the problems may have been addressed earlier. Maybe some of the shut downs could have been avoided entirely.

Several studies have been done on how engaging in social media has helped cities. The Fels Institute of government repeatedly stressed the value in Government institutions sharing their own news, rather relying on local news centers that focused mainly on bad news and sensationalism. Speaking in the study, Philadelphia’s Assistant Managing Director Jeff Friedman, stated: “The value to us is being able to reach so many people at one time for zero cost.” — Yeah, that’s the other great thing about social media. It’s free. The guide created by the Fels Institute based on their studies also explained several of the anxieties around social media that might keep government from engaging, such as issues of legality, increased work load, and public criticism, but also offers several solutions to mitigate and control risk. You can read more about it here. Another great article on the ways social media can benefit cities written by Aliza Sherman for Mashable that focuses more on stimulating local businesses can be found here.

This is what we assume the government thinks it means to send a tweet

According to the Fels institute, even the cities most engaged in social media (San Francisco and New York, in case you were wondering) have a great deal more they can do. The benefits of government utilizing social media have been grossly under-explored, but the possibilities are exciting. We’ve got a long way to go, for sure, but steps in the right direction are being made. Maybe with a little help from our tweets and hashtags, we can finally push cities to communicate a little better.

One clap, two clap, three clap, forty?

By clapping more or less, you can signal to us which stories really stand out.