England & Wales

Talking Twitter

Our friends at Conservative home are hosting a lively debate on whether councillors should be twittering – views range from ‘yes of course’ to ‘ABSOLUTELY NOT’ (their capitals not mine) I think the use of the word ‘should’ is a little heavy handed. I’m not sure we need a party line on twitter. But I do think councillors ought to make an effort to communicate with their constituents and Twitter is one of a whole range of tools that can help them do this. If councillors want to use it that’s fine, if they prefer some other method that’s OK too. That’s not to say though that Twitter doesn’t raise some interesting issues. Here’s three:

Passing fad or here to stay? Neither. Six months ago hardly anyone used Twitter, in six months time perhaps no-one will anymore. Social networking tools come and go quickly (anyone remember friends re-united?) but we will have to get used to this. The speed of change means that there’s no point waiting for it all to settle down and a dominant form of communication to emerge. It’s not going to happen so we’re all going to have to get better at picking up (and dropping) different tools.

Private or public? One feature of twitter (and social networking in general) is that it tends to blur the boundaries between personal and professional life. I quite like knowing where my councillor is going on holiday or what my boss is watching on TV. It makes these relationships more human and I think that’s important in a world that is increasingly post hierarchical and collaborative. But it also raises some difficult issues and will make a lot of people uncomfortable. Will we see a return to privacy as people start to build digital walls?

Digital exclusion? Web based communications have a lot of advantages, low cost, quick, interactive, waste free. But before we get carried away we should remember that 35 % of households in the UK are not online. Charities like Citizens Online are doing a great job to bridge this digital divide, but councils are going to have to engage with this agenda much more seriously.

We’d love to hear more from people on this last point. There’s a lot that councils can (and do) do to extend digital participation: free PCs in community centres, adult education courses, out of hours use of facilities in schools and council offices, voluntary schemes (laptops on wheels anyone?). What are your favourite examples? Which councils are leading the way on this?