Thursday, February 01, 2007

Local politics meets social media

This following is an oped I wrote for the Newton TAB. You can find it there, if you like.

Blogs are changing city politics

During the 2004 presidential elections, the foundation of modern politics changed. Until then, candidates spoke to the electorate through major media players and the people acted mostly as consumers, taking in what they’d learned through newspaper, radio and TV, and then casting ballots. A few individuals were lucky enough to ask the candidates questions, but for the most part, reporters asked the questions, the public heard the answers.

But then bloggers came onto the scene. Individuals armed with nothing more than a computer, Internet access, a free site and some ideas found they could reach millions of readers. Even better, their readers could answer back, asking questions and helping drive the discussions. The people took control of the political process.

Candidates had no choice but to take note and take part in the conversation. Two years later, the bloggers played key roles in helping Ned Lamont win the Democratic nod in Connecticut and in helping Deval Patrick ride the grassroots wave to Beacon Hill.

But here in Newton, politics kept its traditional bent with a couple of major news sources acting as the primary way to reach the people.

That is, until the fight over Newton North.

The Yes supporters in last week’s ballot question election ran a traditional campaign with its political machine in full force. The list of big-name endorsers took up an entire page of a slick mailing sent to residents around the city. The printing, mailing, lawn signs and automated calls were all paid for with donations running close to $50,000.

On the other side were a group of residents fighting with just a few donated dollars, some lawn signs, postcards and their own convictions.

Yet they managed 41 percent of the final vote. How?

Like the national stage, Newton-based blogs are reshaping the local landscape. Until about a year ago, most of the local blogs were written by individuals about their daily lives. You could read about what happened in my house, or about local restaurants, or about any of a number of other local families and residents. Mostly these were fun diversions and ruminations on life.

But then Kristine Munroe and I launched Around the same time, the TAB launched its own blog and Sean Roche used his little corner of cyberspace to focus on the issues surrounding Newton’s Streets and Sidewalks. Paul Levy opened up the process behind the Newton Blue Ribbon Commission by blogging about meetings and asking for local input.

During the site plan debate, these blogs became important resources for people looking for information. Even more, they became a place where people looking to ask questions could have them answered. Members of the Board of Aldermen, including Amy Sangiolo, Ken Parker and Leslie Burg, took part, as did other people with stakes in the outcome. People asked questions, they argued, they engaged in a political discourse and, most importantly, they learned. Levy used his blog to give citizens a look at a draft of the Blue Ribbon Commission report well before the election, something that would not have been possible before.

The people of Newton discovered that they do, in fact, have a voice. They can drive the news coverage and ask questions. What’s more, they can do so in a way that fits into their busy lives. As a parent of three children, I know I don’t often have time to attend the various city meetings, but through the blogging world, I now have access to elected officials. I can ask them questions and get answers. Even better, others can join in the conversation and we can all learn together.

Would the No side have won on Jan. 23 with a little more money? Would the Yes side have won 80 percent of the vote if they’d been involved online? There is no way to know for sure, but I’m certain many based their decisions thanks to the information they learned while taking part.

This past week, Gov. Deval Patrick started his own podcast as a way to speak directly to the voters, bypassing the traditional go-between of the state’s media. He’s also talked of starting a blog where people can comment on various issues. When government converses directly with the people it can only get better.

During the Newton North debate, a few key voices remained silent: those of Newton North Now and of the mayor’s office. I understand that both of those groups actively decided not to participate in the blogs, and it’s a shame. Jeremy Solomon, the mayor’s director of policy and communications, tells me that city employees cannot participate in blogs and other social media by rule. It’s unfortunate, because that means the people cannot easily converse with those who make the decisions.

It’s an isolated fantastical attitude that will have a tough time surviving the new local reality.

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