Monday, November 4, 2013

Do planners need social media?

Oh, Facebook.  After six years of being part of the beast, I sometimes get tired of looking at all the faces and consider getting rid of the whole kit and caboodle. But, aside from the fact that I like seeing the designs everyone has carved into their pumpkins, I have a little devil that appears on my shoulder and whispers Carolyn, think about your career!

 Wait! you say. Urban planners don't putz around on social media. They, you know, draw maps and plan things other stuff.

But this funny thing happens in jobs I have, where I become a communications lady-planner hybrid. I manage facebook pages, and when I do I like it. Also, people like me! Over and over again. Creating pithy transit-related sound bites isn't the worst job in the world, and when your followers count sours into the several-hundreds, you feel kind of warm and fuzzy inside. It's a strange thing, really.

In my econ class lately we talk about the commodification of everything, and it made me think about I participating in the commodification of transit planning? The system, the planning process, the public engagement, are all products that we have to market to the ambivalent internet crowd.

Please ignore the awkward Windows ad placement...

But that's the way it has to be, right? Because we live in this culture and we have to play into it to get anything done. I'm a practical person, and I generally think working within the system is the right way to go - a real write-letters-to-your-Senator kind of gal.

That said, when using social media I'm going to ask two things: is it actually working, and who am I actually reaching?

A long time ago, people used to have communities and stuff. And they learned things and were inspired and gained meaning through those communities (this is what they tell me anyway, it being way before my time). But that still exists in some form, right? Do you learn the things you care most about through facebook? Or through your friends who tell you about it and get you all pumped? Likes and follows are cheap as spit. Sure, you should probably do it anyway, just to cover your bases and spread the word. But it can be minimal, you know. We don't need to build a digital empire. In the end it all turns to dust. The relationships last.

It's a car. Cars are related to transit, okay?
And that's not even the most important part. The most important part is that the people equity planners are supposed to concentrate on serving, the poor and the elderly and the illiterate and the children and all that, are the least likely to be taking their hints from twitter. It's exactly like a bus route: sure, you move people most efficiently if all your routes are in the dense, bustling downtown. But if you care about reaching the people who need you, you may need to venture into the boonies to pick up the old cat ladies going to Kroger. Planners and organizers may get the the most efficient outreach results racking up likes, but it might be worth the extra oomph to go talk to the cat ladies, too.

This cat prefers in-person outreach
Doing this in-person outreach to populations who aren't so easy to reach - that is another story. It requires actual people skills, and hearing people tell you that you're wrong, and feeling really awkward, and not speaking the right language, and being too young or too old, and wearing the wrong clothes, and forgetting your spiel, and laughing uncomfortably, and talking above crying babies. You also don't get points for cool pithy statements, usually. You do get points for depth and clarity, and accountability.

None of which are currently on the market.

Technology monster NOM NOM NOM

Or maybe it's just that my age-old hatred of everything computer-related is resurfacing. You decide.

1 comment:

  1. Social media can be powerful, but Facebook's just one tool among many, and if we don't use the others, like old-fashioned human interaction, it's hard to build real power. Like you say, it also reaches a disproportionately youthful set.

    An interesting Detroit-area example is the case of Father Charles Coughlin, who came to prominence using the new media of the 1930s, radio. Despite his massive radio audience, however, Coughlin was unable to build his fame into an effective political organization, since he lacked people-to-people organization at the grassroots. See Alan Brinkley's book "Voices of Protest" for the full story.