Once in a while I have a discussion with a council officer about creating social networks.
Usually someone says “I’d like to create a social network. You know, a forum. Like a Facebook for [insert name of any service here]”.
When probed on why they’d like this, it’s because they know social networks are popular and they believe it’ll create a group of people who are willing recipients for messages about their particular service.
I’ve met people at events who have created their own social networks for councils, image sharing sites for councils etc. I’ve yet to meet anyone that’s created their own video sharing site though.
And what most of these sites that have been created in this way have in common is that they have very few users. Sometimes none at all.
Why is this?
Lots of reasons probably, but the key one is that just because you create a platform for a community doesn’t mean a community will form.
There are plenty of places where people congregate in online communities already – they range from mass networks to small, niche networks.
Creating a community of your own requires significant resource to set up and even more to keep going through community facilitation.
So instead of thinking about creating their own networks, councils need to focus on how they can use existing sites to best effect.
That’s where residents are engaging with each other already, so public sector organisations need to think of innovative and creative ways to engage with people there, rather than creating their own presences in the hope people will want to engage there too.
That could mean presences like pages on Facebook or channels on YouTube, but it could mean other things too. How can you widget-ise your organisation’s content to make it possible for other people to share it through their own networks? Is there a role for the public sector in enabling local social media activism to help develop online engagement with the public sector?
Sometimes I think public sector communicators become too concerned with doing everything themselves when there are people out in the community that are keen to get involved – the challenge for communicators is about learning to work with these people and giving up the perception of message control that still exists among many communicators.