Governments need appropriate pace with social media

Editor Guy Bertrand discusses pros and cons of ever-growing social media platforms.

As someone on the greying side of mid-life, I’ll admit I often look at today’s social media boom with some reservation.

And as a newspaper man and a father of a child throughout the emergence of the social media revolution, I have witnessed the good, bad and ugly that it offers.

Unfortunately many people in my age demographic are somewhat reluctant to embrace the trend. However, the reality is “get on board or get left behind.” Social media has grown to the point where it is no longer a novelty but a necessity and inevitable part of our lives.

It has permeated our society to the point where it seems after every election, there are voices pondering the question, “Is it time to go to online voting?”

We even had a provincial candidate in our riding that was advocating a system where people use their computer to weigh in on issues and help determine our riding’s collective voice.

On Friday, our provincial government is offering a “Twitter Town Hall Meeting,” for small businesses. I guess if you’re the government, speaking to people in 140 characters or less is the best way to cut off any long-winded questions and provide quick, press release-type answers rather than any in-depth explanation.

Forgive me if I sound pessimistic about this idea but I don’t believe a gas station owner in Fort St. James will have the same enthusiasm for a Twitter Town Hall Meeting as perhaps a restaurant owner in downtown Vancouver. The irony is B.C. Premier Christy Clark is heading out on a North American tour so she can have “face-to-face” talks with the business elite to pitch the benefits of B.C.’s Liquified Natural Gas programs. I guess that can’t be summed up in 140 characters.

I should be applauding the government for trying to reach out to as many businesses as possible in a cost-effective, efficient way.

But is that the criteria that will rule everything now? And will some be left out because of that push?

The City of Trail announced this week that it will gauge public opinion on the issue of backyard chickens with an online survey. It’s an admirable task considering the cost of sending out questionnaires to each residence and rarely getting a 25 per cent reply rate.

Although the survey is not binding and simply to get a sense of the public’s mood on backyard chickens, it is a trend worth watching.

Will more online surveys start popping up? Would a council solely make a decision based on an online survey? Sounds ridiculous now but remember that Twitter didn’t exist a decade ago and now the provincial government is using it to engage its citizens.

If talk is already emerging about deciding our country’s leaders with online voting, how long would it be before everything is decided online?

To Trail’s credit, the city plans on offering hard copies of the backyard chicken survey at a couple of locations in town for those without Internet access but want their opinions considered.

The City of Trail decision makers have a responsibility to be fiscally prudent so when it comes to surveying the public perhaps an online poll is the best way to go. But the city has a responsibility to make sure no citizens are left behind simply because they don’t embrace or have access to the latest technology.

B.C. Hydro and Fortis are dealing with those similar issues in a sense with its smart meter rollout. Unfortunately, those companies want to force people to adapt or pay for not wanting to accept its technological changes.

Many local Shaw subscribers may also notice that you’ve lost some channels unless you purchase or rent a digital box. There’s no rebate for those lost channels but a surcharge to get them back. Go figure.

Working at a newspaper in a small community we get to see citizens from all walks of life. We come into contact with everyone from politicians and corporate executives to retirees and tireless volunteers. And the one thing that always resonates with me is that not everyone is “plugged in” as many would like to believe.

Being in the media it is vital that we embrace the digital age and expand our reach through social media. Getting the news out to more people is our goal. But our core product remains the newspaper.

We sometimes read complaints on our Facebook page that the stories online should be free to anyone, whether they have a subscription or not. Those few complaints pale under the resounding dissatisfaction from subscribers when their paper is not at their doorstep on a regular basis. So there is still a big desire for a time-tested version of communication.

I smile at the recent Rogers commercial where the woman complains that with its competitor she has to go through automated call-answering to get a solution. Meanwhile, Rogers boasts of “live” people at the other end of the phone to answer your questions.

Oddly enough about a decade ago companies en masse switched to automated answering to save money and be more efficient. Now the reverse is actually a selling point and something that sets companies above the competition.

Companies have the option of doing what they choose. At the end of the day they only have to answer to shareholders.

Governments, on the other hand, should remember to take small steps in the social media world. At the end of the day they have to answer to everyone, whether they have a Twitter account or not.

Guy Bertrand is the managing editor of the Trail Times.