This is the third in a series of posts about social media and Lowell. The first two are here and here. We aren’t covering a chronological recap of the final session of the Social Media Conference, but rather have organized thoughts by theme. Dick Howe moderated the final portion of the conference, and he opened it up with what may be its theme:
The more likely people feel connected to the place, the more likely they are to act… and I think only good things can come from that… No doubt there is crime going on. But I think because we don’t routinely talk to neighbors or people on our street, we kind of feel a sense of isolation. And that feeds on this anxiety of life in the city.
Mr. Howe argued that therefore, we should ask how social media can bring people together and build community.
The Echo Chamber of Social Media
One of the largest themes was that Lowell’s current social media scene is an “echo chamber.” Not only do new people not necessarily see information, but the plugged-in group of people see information again and again. An audience member revealed republicans and libertarians are afraid to talk in online groups filled with more progressive ideologies because they’re afraid of being attacked. I tend to agree that the Lowell social media sphere I’ve participated in is much like other online forums: quickly dismissive of alternate viewpoints and insular. But it’s also important to remember: People generally enjoy being with people of similar viewpoints, and they will form communities, whether online or “in real life.” Also, I argue there are social media commons where culture, dining, or other interest groups may be formed. (For examples, the UML reddit and Meetup.com meetups near Lowell.)
On the other hand, places for apolitical discussion won’t necessarily increase civic participation. One approach Learning Lowell takes is having broad subject matter. Although the topic remains tightly focused on Lowell, we explore many sides of Lowell: political, cultural, and historical. Hopefully, those visiting to read about one topic will have their interest piqued in a different topic. Our audience is similarly broad: We write for other newcomers who want an easy entry into the world of Lowell. We write for folks who regularly visit Lowell blogs, but might appreciate a fresh take on familiar subjects. Finally, we write for friends and family outside of Lowell who might want to know more about what this unique (and alive and inspiring) city is like. Each of those groups may come for something different, but be inspired by the other posts.
Blogs and Facebook: Competing or Cooperating Roles?
This leads into another topic: Lynne and Mimi from Left in Lowell discussed why they post less. It’s no secret blogging is time consuming, and this contributes to burnout. More intriguing was that Facebook changed the social media landscape. Where once, discussion happened in the comments section of a blog post, now it happens in Facebook. Mr. Howe even said that he prefers readers comment on Facebook so that comments are tied to commenters, not his blog. Soben Pin, publisher of Khmer Post USA , suggested that commenting on Facebook appeals to some because one can “think out loud” and not feel obligated to have a final, fully-baked comment. An audience member suggested that blogs may do quick recaps of Facebook threads to pull out notable comments.
Despite Facebook’s utility, Ms. Pin highlighted the important place of blogs aside it and traditional media:
I would commend those of you who write blogs. Continue to write blogs. Don’t give credit to people who would print anything to Facebook as more credible than you are. The reason why is that there is ethics of journalism that owns up to people who write blogs. You have to quote sources, you have first-hand information, and you own up to that information. There’s strong ethics in that.
She argued that Facebook is an excellent tool for engagement and sharing, but the additional research bloggers do “to find out more” is just as important a function. The mention of “blogging ethics” intrigued me. There is no one code of ethics for bloggers similar to the code journalists recognize, and I personally do not believe amateurs such as myself can take the place of professional journalists. Nevertheless, there is something about blog post’s permanence that demands a high standard of ethics. I did admittedly little research before starting blogging, but I have found an interesting post about weblog ethics compared to journalistic standards (incidentally, the first hit when one googles “blog ethics”).
Engaging a Broader Audience
Ms. Pin also highlighted that the reason for Khmer Post USA’s success is relevance and convenience.  How can we make media convenient for those who aren’t plugged into the “blogosphere?” One audience member recalled NewsHour 6, a local cable news program in the 90s, and suggested a similar, neutral news program produced with help from LTC may create interest in local issues. A smaller step may be to encourage folks who follow sites like richardhowe.com to share weekly news updates or other items of interest with their Lowellian friends.
Fru Nkimbeng, a local Cameroonian-American activist who hosts “African Hour” on LTC, voiced an opinion that for “the mainstream bloggers, it might also be a good idea, when you’re going on a journey… to look back and hold the hands of those who are slow.” He suggested African communities are slow to follow the blog community, and that bloggers should reach out to them. I hope to talk to him about how we as a community could do this. He also reminded the audience that immigrants from Africa come from many distinct countries and form distinct communities. The African Cultural Association strives to be an umbrella organization for these distinct communities.
Moving from Social Media to “Social”
Bill Samaras, former Lowell High School headmaster and future City Councillor, stressed the importance of myriad avenues of discussion in the work he did to reach out to communities. Morning, afternoon, and night meetings, meetings at churches. Getting into the community and utilizing all devices, including social media, is integral. The audience discussed strategies to engage Lowellians and grow a feeling of connectedness. Suggestions included potlucks, welcome wagon visits or packets to new residents, and a free citizens’ civic engagement academy. One idea that generated some discussion involved a single-location platform or aggregator for announcements and information. I’ve found this oddly difficult for cities of a certain size, as arts and culture filter to magazines like Howl, official city news comes on city websites, and nonprofit announcements end up on community calendars. There’s definitely cross-posting, but never agreement on a one-stop calendar.
The event ended with an audience brainstorm of future conference topics. One was other forms of social media used by young people such as snapchat and other mobile apps (Aurora mentions 2 others: Reddit and Tumblr). Another was creating social media objectives and developing measurable metrics/quantitative indicators. Mr. Howe asked for those with thoughts to contact him, and encouraged everyone interested to continue the discussion both online and over coffee or beer.
My personal thoughts revolve around target audiences. Many were discussed: immigrant populations, politically disengaged, young people, and renters, to name a few. I would like to add another audience: UML and MCC students do not seem to me to engage with Lowell, and they are fairly unimpressed with the city. It isn’t necessary to cater to all students (in every college town I’ve lived in, the students haven’t liked the college town as much as “back home” in NYC/Boston/Chicago), but Lowell’s strengths may appeal to a certain subset of students. I believe we should determine what the community’s objectives are for each of those targets, what the population of each of those targets are, and how engaged that population already is. Then we can ask how those targets engage with media, and how we can showcase the strengths of Lowell that they would care about.
1. Soben Pin is a publisher of a free Khmer Post USA, a free Khmer-language biweekly Newspaper with a circulation of 10,000 (5,000 in Lowell). It covers topics relevant to the local and regional Cambodian community. The website has an archive of current and previous issues, and some articles are in English. I recommend folks who speak English as a first language check it out and see what a large portion of Lowell’s population reads and finds relevant.↩
2. I was surprised by the response from Ms. Pin to a question how many local election candidates reached out to Khmer Post USA. She revealed that while several reached out, several others Khmer Post had to reach out to. Mr. Howe noted that many candidates bought ads in the Khmer Post. Notably, Ms. Pin credited Derek Mitchell specifically for reaching out multiple times and “presenting himself very well in the editorial meeting.”↩