Try to add up all the places where Minneapolis’ elected officials are sharing their thoughts online and it can get confusing, fast.
There are council members with multiple Facebook pages: one for their campaign, one for “fans,” one for friends — on which some, but not all, information is public. Some also dabble in Twitter and Tumblr, maintain blogs and send out more traditional e-newsletters. A few stick mostly to city business, while others pepper their pages with pet photos, cute kid stories and selfies with fellow politicians.
Increasingly, social media platforms have become the spot (or spots) where officials attempt to simultaneously share critical information, prove they are relatable and, like most people, keep in touch with relatives and long-lost high school classmates by sporadically commenting on wedding and vacation photos.
Minneapolis officials are rushing into a new and uncertain era of social media sharing. Their sometimes constant social media presence can make them seemed deeply plugged in on city issues, but misfires and oversharing can damage their reputations.
Heather LaMarre, an assistant professor of strategic communication at Temple University, who researches politicians’ use of social media, said showing some personality is fine. But she said elected officials’ followers don’t want to see the endless stream of cat pictures, family updates and snarky shouting matches they might find elsewhere in their networks.
“They might find it funny and enjoyable and pass it along, but they expect higher levels of public discourse out of their officials than that,” she said.
Many of the officials who moved in to City Hall last year are embracing social media more than their predecessors, though some say it is a constant learning experience. Time spent on Facebook can help a politician build a devoted following. But it can also quickly go awry, as in a recent online spat over a demolition project that involved a council member, the mayor, a reality television star and a loud and sometimes profane crowd of comment-section observers.
Mayor Betsy Hodges, who begins each morning by posting a quote on Twitter and rarely misses a day without a Facebook post, said it is tough to imagine doing her job without social media.
“It’s like the town square during a festival; you talk to a lot of people for a little bit, and a lot of people are there,” she said. “Everybody gets to check in a little bit and you go home. But that’s happening all day, every day. It’s an important and powerful tool.”
While most officials launched their campaign social media accounts with a targeted strategy — and often with staff or volunteer help — the postelection updates are not quite as planned. The mayor and most council members primarily handle their Facebook and Twitter accounts on their own, posting when they have time or feel like sharing.
Council Member Blong Yang said he joined Facebook before he was elected, and had a small network of “friends” who were, generally, his actual friends. But after he won a seat representing north Minneapolis, the friend requests from strangers started pouring in. For a while, he tried to keep up multiple pages. Eventually, he gave up, closed his new accounts and opened up his personal page to everyone.
Yang now has more than 1,300 friends, most of whom he doesn’t know. He generally dedicates his updates to council and neighborhood business, but also tries to include news for fellow Hmong-Americans, which he says can turn “awkward” when other people want to share comments. He said it appears there’s no clear path to building a big following, pointing to fellow Council Member Abdi Warsame, whose multiple Facebook pages are often filled with frequent updates targeted toward the Somali-American community.
Warsame has 4,985 friends on his personal page and another 3,231 “likes” on a fan page. He also has a “group” page with 2,413 members.
“Abdi has this following that is ridiculous,” Yang said. “But he’s not edgy, he’s not any of that stuff — some of his stuff is just kind of like: ‘I met with this prime minister,’ and then there’s 2 billion people who ‘like’ it. It’s a different feel. All of us have a different approach to it.”
Council Member Jacob Frey, who has more than 3,900 Facebook friends, regularly posts updates about development projects and other news in the downtown-area neighborhoods he represents. He also strikes a more personal tone than some council members. One recent post detailed an “awesomely weird interaction with some guy across the street.” (The guy yelled to Frey that he was “sick of you and your fake superman curl.” Frey yelled back that the curl was “not fake.”)
Frey said he sees social media as a useful tool, but not a place to govern.
“You don’t want it to detract from the real work that takes place … public engagement is wonderful, but at the end of the day, you need to bring the bacon home,” he said. “Throwing up a post on Facebook doesn’t do it.”
LaMarre, from Temple University, said officials have to strike a very specific balance to make their online posts work. Too often, she said, officials use social media as a dumping ground of important information that is mostly only seen by a small group of political insiders and the media — not a broad collection of citizens.
LaMarre said its important to have a concerted strategy key, particularly when election season is over.
Council Member Andrew Johnson, who has just short of 1,500 Facebook friends, said he deliberately limits his posts, in part because he’s aware of how much information his south Minneapolis constituents have to sort through every day.
Johnson said he also tries to steer clear of online debates or people looking for a fight.
“In general, I think there’s less respect online and it’s not as productive of a form of communication, through social media, when it comes to some of those issues,” he said.