The Internet and social-media sites such as Facebook and Twitter have given local governments and community groups unfettered access to deliver their message directly to constituents.
The only problem is, most people don’t seem to care and they aren’t listening.
Local governments have been able to attract only small audiences, ranging from a few dozen people to a few hundred.
But officials responsible for the social-media creations said the effort is worthwhile to provide the information across multiple platforms.
For example, Fort Wayne Community Schools had 141 people following it on Twitter and 679 on Facebook as of Wednesday. The district serves more than 30,000 students.
Allen County government had 418 followers on Twitter and 159 on Facebook despite serving a population of more than 340,000 people.
The Journal Gazette had 439 followers on Twitter and 516 on Facebook.
Mike Green, public information director for the county commissioners, launched the county’s sites in February as another way to get information to the public.
He said he didn’t expect the county to get a huge following, but the sites allow people interested in the government to get information quickly.
We didn’t enter this with any grand expectations, he said. It’s going to be a slow progression.
Twitter allows people to post 140-character status updates that typically can be viewed by anyone who visits Twitter.com. People who sign up for accounts can follow others by having those posts – called tweets – displayed on their home page.
Facebook.com also allows people to post status updates but also includes video, pictures and provides the opportunity for people to respond directly to those posts.
One of the reasons it is difficult for local governments to attract large audiences is because of the intense competition for a person’s time when visiting social-media sites, according to Anthony Juliano, account supervisor with Asher Agency.
He said Twitter and Facebook are not always the best online-networking options for businesses and governments because people at the sites are there to socialize, not work.
For example, an update on the county commissioners’ public meeting schedule would compete with photos of a friend’s party, jokes from a co-worker and even playing games with others online.
So many things compete for the user’s attention, Juliano said. Something kind of mundane – and government can be – gets lost in the shuffle.
For an extreme example, 2.6 million people follow basketball superstar Shaquille O’Neal on Twitter.
Andy Downs, director of the Mike Downs Center for Indiana Politics at Indiana University-Purdue University Fort Wayne, said government can be boring to people who typically don’t seek out its information unless something exciting happens.
We elect people to run the government, he said. We don’t want to have to run it ourselves.
Downs, who does not use social-networking sites, said people are typically more interested in politics and elections because there is a goal to be excited about. But actual governing is typically less interesting.
Juliano, with Asher, said the local following of governments is fairly respectable given the material they offer. But, he added, there are other ways to reach those people.
For example, he helped create a discussion board for Ivy Tech Community College-Northeast that allows students to ask questions and get answers.
Social-networking sites are probably best used as tools to direct people to the government’s own Web sites, Juliano said.
Although numerous groups have made efforts to use Facebook and Twitter – including the airport, library and election board – one key local government is notably absent: the city of Fort Wayne.
Rachel Blakeman, city public information officer, said that didn’t happen by accident. She said the city talked about using sites such as Facebook but determined they really only reach niche markets.
She said the city wants to reach the most people it can with its messages, and the limited staff time can’t be dedicated to social media.
It’s best invested in traditional media, she said.
Blakeman said the city does post all its news releases on its Web site (www.cityoffortwayne.com) to give interested people a way to get the information directly.
Green, county commissioners’ spokesman, said the time required to update or post to social-networking sites is minimal. He said he is glad there is any response to the effort, as it gives people who want the information a way to get it directly.
With Facebook, Green said, people can also directly respond to the county as well, although no one has done that since Oct. 1.
Reaching the niche
Allen County Recorder John McGauley said he doesn’t expect the general populace to want to follow his moves on a social-media Web site, but there are some targeted groups interested in his office.
Because he handles deeds and other real estate documents, McGauley said numerous real estate agents, title agencies and other groups follow him on Facebook.
It just seems like a very effective way to talk to people, he said.
Many of the people following government through social networking are government workers, other governments and people who follow anyone who follows them.
McGauley has only one account, where he posts both personal and work-related information. He said about two-thirds of his 399 followers are work-related but creating a site just for his office is unlikely because it wouldn’t have the same appeal.
This means that McGauley’s followers get pictures of his daughter along with information on the county’s housing market.
Dan O’Connell, president of the Fort Wayne/Allen County Convention and Visitors Bureau, said studies have shown that 75 percent of travelers get their information from the Internet.
He said the networking sites are big with groups interested in specific information. For example, he said groups want to know all about genealogy or stamps, and it is increasing the need for his staff to be specialists in different areas.
The visitors bureau has 1,091 followers on Twitter and 240 on Facebook.
O’Connell said those numbers might not be huge, but nobody would have guessed 10 years ago that the bureau’s Web site would get 300,000 unique viewers annually.
Where Facebook and Twitter goes, nobody knows, he said. We need to be on it.
Betsy Perry Patton, communications manager for the bureau, said the sites also allow her to listen to what visitors are saying so they can respond to complaints or provide help.
Frequent updates are a key for anyone using social media, Juliano said. Although the sites are free, resources must be used to get the most out of them.
If you don’t post frequently, people will stop paying attention and maybe stop following altogether, he said.