An increasing number of cities and other government agencies across the country are using Twitter to help communicate -and with very positive results. Twitter has been “a great way to reach people,” in the words of Jessica Brodersen, Web Specialist in the Office of Public Information & Communications for Mesa, Arizona – even though she admits that Mesa is still in the beginning stages of using Twitter to its full capacity.

Twitter, officially defined as “a real-time short messaging system that works over multiple networks and devices,” provides a quick and easy platform to spread the word – about pretty much anything and everything.

For cities, it can run the gamut from spreading the word about an upcoming city council meeting to announcing a road closure or change in garbage collection schedule – or to invite feedback on a special topic of local interest.

It’s a bandwagon that’s hard not to climb aboard …

Twitter appears to be everywhere – and growing!

“As the use of Twitter is being popularized in the mainstream media, our followers are increasing,” says Liz Rainey, webmaster for the City of Killeen, Texas, which currently has over 450 followers.

One of several technologies falling under the “web 2.0” classification, Twitter came onto the scene in March 2006 with a bang, and has been experiencing staggering growth ever since. According to Pew Internet & American Life Project, as of December 2008, 11 percent of online American adults said they use a service like Twitter to share updates about themselves or follow updates of others. Between February 2008 and February 2009, Twitter reports an increase of 1,841 percent in the number of new accounts created.

Twitter’s popularity can be attributed to its many advantages:

  • Twitter is one of the easiest technologies for new users to learn.
  • Because “tweets” (or posts) are limited to 140 characters, messages are kept simple and straight to the point. Twitter provides an efficient way to “follow” and “be followed.”
  • Its interactive component allows followers to reply to “tweets.”

Is there a downside?

Some are cautious about using a social networking tool like Twitter for fear of vulnerability to negative situations or offensive content. But none of the cities we contacted had experienced any negative ramifications to date.

“Generally speaking, the people who take the time to follow you seem to be the people who are really interested in what is happening in the City, and not the people who want to be a negative voice, says Mesa’s Jessica Brodersen. We welcome comments and feedback from the public, and feel that those who follow (Mesa’s tweets) are people who want to provide constructive thoughts.”

Bruce Edwards says that, to this point, Dublin, Ohio has not experienced any negative situations either. In fact, he points out yet another advantage of the networking tool. “Since (Twitter) is an open forum, it allows us to be part of the conversation instead of sitting on the sidelines watching what people say about the City of Dublin,” he says.

Other concerns include the “digital divide,” where those with Internet access could be at an advantage over those without, and what we coin the “age divide,” describing the intimidation factor associated with networking sites, particularly among baby boomers. As both gaps narrow, we believe the trepidation will give way to an even increased use of Twitter.

Strategic decisions govern content

Using Twitter as an effective communication tool relies on following some basic common sense principles, including the old toothpaste analogy: once you squirt it out of the tube, you can’t squeeze it back.

Once a tweet has been posted, it is possible for the author to delete it, but once it’s been put out there, you never know who may have seen it, copied it, etc. Tweets should be considered with the same care and scrutiny as any other public communications released by an official source.

And, as with all good things, moderation is key. Over saturating followers with too many posts can cause “tune-out” … and if it gets really bad, can lead to “turn-OFF”!

When it comes to deciding what types of content to post, Twitter appears to have developed a niche as a powerful vehicle for keeping residents and other interested parties abreast of local news, happenings and events. Alternate formats such as blogs and social networking sites, are probably a better option for other purposes.

“The city of Mesa is probably not alone in its attempt to figure out a strategic use for different social media tools,” ventures Jessica Brodersen, who says that Twitter is an easy vehicle for providing quick updates and posting news feeds.

“Before we create any new social media account, we walk through the goals of what the person, department or division is trying to accomplish – and who they might be trying to reach. Through this discussion, we can determine which tool is most appropriate to use.”

Twitter Terminology

Twitter: a real-time short messaging system that works over multiple networks and devices

Tweet: message, post or status update on Twitter, limited to 140 characters or less

Web 2.0: newer technologies that allow greater interaction or networking, including news/messaging tools, blogs, wikis, and social networking sites (like Facebook, Linked In, etc.)

Followers: registered Twitter users that have signed up to follow your updates

Following: other Twitter users (people or organizations) whose updates you want to receive