Learning Lowell Anniversary Totally Terrific Top Ten Countdown

As Aurora pointed out in Learning Lowell’s anniversary post, it’s been a year since we’ve been blogging in Lowell! She talked about why she (and I) started blogging and the benefits we’ve gotten from it. I thought I would take a look back on some of our posts and a look forward on what we hope to do. I thought reflecting on our little corner of the internet would be very timely, as the Lowell Social Media Conference is coming up tomorrow, December 6.

Our blog is hosted on wordpress.com, a free (ad-supported) service with some great tools. One of those tools lets us see how many people are reading our blog and which posts get more clicks. We reached 2,000 views a month when we first started, but we’ve settled into about 1,000 views a month. This is way more than we ever thought: we figured our families might read an occasional post and that would be it! I thought it might be fun to review our top five posts, then talk about a few we wished had hit bigger.

Top Five Posts

5. An Engaged City Manager Recruitment Process

citymanagerposition-01-01Almost a year ago, the Lowell City Council began the process of selecting a new City Manager to replace departing Bernie Lynch. We reviewed guides made by groups such as the International City/County Managers Association, who recommended allowing 60 days for candidates to apply, and 30 days to interview candidates. During those 60 days, they recommended sending letters to qualified candidates identified knowledgeable sources inviting them to apply.

It’s interesting to compare this to the timetable the council ultimately used to solicit and screen candidates. They allowed a bit over a month for applications, and I believe they only advertised in a few publications and websites. The interviews focused quite a bit on the council’s hot topics: safety/security and economic development.

4. A Historic Preservation Story Unfolding: Bowers House, Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust, and the City of Lowell

Updated Concept Perspective Drawing

Around the same time, another surprisingly controversial issue was unfolding: a proposed razing of the Jerathmell Bowers House. The issue prompted us to write a series of posts, culminating in the blog’s longest-named and fourth-most-popular post. We talked about how, in 2010, the Lowell Parks and Conservation Trust worked unsuccessfully to find a new owner but brought a lot of attention to the oldest house in Lowell. Then, in 2013, Kazanjian Enterprises bought the property and proposed a commercial structure to replace the house. The City of Lowell and Kaznjian worked to find a solution that retained the house and the structure.

As far as I know, this final proposal is the one moving forward, although a tenant still has not been found for the Bowers House. We suggested a themed restaurant, although I would expect that the house could service as offices for a real estate or insurance agent as well. If anyone has updates, let me know!

3. Quite a Task: Downtown Lowell Task Forces

Lot to Like PostcardFebruary, 2014, Councilor Belanger motioned to request that the Mayor appoint a downtown economic development task force. This prompted me to do a review of all the different groups who are active in downtown planning and all the different plans created for downtown. I still hope one day to do a follow-up on each plan, as some of them are very interesting historically and others still have great suggestions we could advance.

In April, that task force was formed, including councilor Corey Belanger; Deb Belanger, Executive Director of Greater Merrimack Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau; Danielle McFadden, President and CEO of the Greater Lowell Chamber of Commerce; Jim Cook, the Executive Director of the Lowell Plan; and Adam Baacke, Director of Campus Planning at UMass Lowell. Additionally, the council formed a Downtown Redevelopment Subcommittee at the request of Councilor Kennedy, which includes himself, Councilor Leahy, and Councilor Milinazzo. I wasn’t able to find any meeting minutes for the Task Force or Subcommittee, so if anyone has any updates, let me know!

2. Mill No. 5: Local scene blooms where once there were power looms

Mill #5 sign is hungI feel a bit proud that we were among the first talking about Mill No. 5, which has gained a lot of traction since last March, when we wrote about the history of the building, which was built to take advantage of Steam Power, about Jim Lichoulas III’s flexible plans that change based on feedback, and about the way Amelia Tucker recruited vendors for the monthly “Little Bazaar” marketplaces.

Since then, the Luna Theater and Coffee and Cotton have both opened, along with a number of smaller shops. Mill No. 5 has some exciting programming going on during December, including a Farm Market each Sunday, 10-2:30; Holiday Shopping Pop-Up shops every weekend; a 12/13 OtherWhere Market featuring fantasy and sci-fi goods; and the second annual Totally Bazaar tomorrow, 12/6, at noon!

1. Bicycle Lanes, Data-driven Decisions, and Community Visions

Truck in bicycle lane in Lowell, MassachusettsThe most popular post was something we had to write very quickly, as it was in response to a City Council motion we had learned only days before: removing the bicycle lanes on Father Morissette Boulevard. We showed some pictures of the lanes, looked at the goals as articulated in several city plans, and examined the design of the lanes in relation to National Association of City Transit Official (NACTO)’s comprehensive Urban Bikeway Guide. Our conclusion was that two lanes should be enough for the small amount of vehicular traffic on Father Morissette, that the bike lanes conformed to recommended design but could be improved (with more money), and that we constantly need to show our support for the plans we made together.

Councilor Mercier suggested she worded the motion in such a provocative way as to determine if there was support for the bicycle lanes and encourage cyclists to come to the meeting. The council passed an amended motion to “call for the city manager to review the configuration of the bike lanes and traffic lanes on Father Morissette Boulevard, and report back on ways to make the road safer for vehicles and cyclists.” The City’s former transportation engineer, Eric Eby, invited the community to a public meeting to discuss options, and I have heard the City finally settled on painting “Bicycles Only” in the lanes. There was discussion of forming a public Bicycle and Pedestrian Committee as well, but that has unfortunately not occurred, even as several pedestrians have been struck, with one fatality, in recent months. I hope to make a follow-up post on bicycle and pedestrian issues in Lowell in the coming weeks.

My Personal Top Five

I also wanted to highlight posts that I thought were especially important or interesting, but never got as many views as the more popular posts. I suppose this is my personal top five:

5. Lowell’s Buried Past: The Cemetery and Beyond

Dick Howe in front of Bonney Memorial

This was a short post that Aurora and I put together, but we felt that there was so much to say about Dick Howe’s cemetery tour beyond that it’s simply fun. We wanted to suggest that all of Lowell can be like the very-popular cemetery tours. It can surprise, educate, and make us reflect on ourselves in ways other cities simply can’t. I hoped to start a conversation on how we can bring that side of Lowell forward with the same strategy Mr. Howe uses, and I still hope that conversation starts.

4. The Buzz about UMass Lowell Fuzz

Community members and police officers speak at Coffee and a Cop event in Lowell MAWe didn’t see too many community members at the Coffee with a Cop event in October, but everyone there seemed to really have a great time. It felt as if it advanced the goal of creating community between police and residents, and we learned quite a bit behind the philosophy of the UMass Lowell Police. We were surprised that some officers were attracted to UML so that they could interact with people beyond the usual roles of “criminal” and “victim” and that officers feel that things have improved only in the last few years. We hoped to share some of those benefits with our post.

3. A Tale of Two Cities: Salem and Lowell

salem3Aurora made an amazing comparison of Lowell and Salem, which attracts thousands upon thousands of tourists. She noted that Lowell had similar advantages to Salem, including roughly the same distance from Boston and a walkable core, but didn’t capitalize them in quite the same way. As the city talks about marketing, I think the suggestions in this post are a great way to think about how to package Lowell as an immersive day experience for visitors and residents alike.

2. First Thursdays: Art Battles and Big Pictures

Live Art Battle in Lowell on First Thursday artists painting

Our post about Lowell’s First Thursdays wasn’t just a description of our experience at the fun summer event, it was also about how a single, key person was instrumental in bringing a great event to Lowell; about how a series of events might have to build over time; and about what goals we’re trying to meet and what audiences we’re trying to attract when we talk about “downtown revitalization.” I have thought about this post quite a bit when thinking about the own Lowell projects I’m helping organize.

1. What can Lowellians do about homelessness? LTLC Interview Part 2

ltlcI did an extensive interview with the former director of the Lowell Transitional Living Center, David McCloskey. Part 2 of that post and a follow-up about Living Waters didn’t receive the large number of views captured by Part 1. Mr. McCloskey discussed the difference between passive and aggressive panhandling, the discussions he had with former clients about panhandling, and his experience with Lowell’s cooperation with the center. Perhaps even more importantly, we discussed the problem with Massachusetts’s housing costs and how people can volunteer to help or even take political action. If I could ask everyone to read just one post, it might be this one.

What’s Ahead?

Writing this post, it makes me think of all the posts I still hope to write. We just released the first in a series about refugees, and more will be coming soon. Another series is also in the works: discussing Lowell High School’s location and the dilemma of moving or keeping it in-place. As I mentioned before, I hope to discuss traffic and transportation in Lowell: where the traffic is, how it can (or can’t) be addressed, and what is planned for Lowell. We also would like to talk about friends and family we’ve hosted and their impressions of Lowell.

We also go to a number of events and restaurants, and have a lot of photos and stories. We wonder how people like reading about them: should each event or restaurant be a very short post, should there be some sort of Lowell guide that we update each time we go out, or is there another good way to share our stories and photos? Please let us know in the comments! We try to respond to all requests as quickly as we can.


Happy Anniversary, Learning Lowell

Checking in on the blog last week I had a little orange notification from wordpress: Learning Lowell is one year old. Time flies when you’re blogging! I thought it’d be fun to reflect a little on how the blog came to be.

A year ago we had lived in Lowell for almost three months, but we were still struggling to get our bearings and to get connected to the city. We’d started reading a bunch of the local blogs to try get tapped in, and they were all hugely helpful in their own way. We owe a special debt to Richard Howe Jr., whom we met after he spoke as part of an innovation event at Merrimack Valley Sandbox (now Entrepreneurship for All). When we introduced ourselves and said how much we appreciated his website as we learned about the city, Dick immediately invited us out to lunch. This friendly gesture was a real kindness on his part, and it was the first of many times people in Lowell’s social media community made us feel welcomed and at home.

One of the reasons we were trying so hard to learn about our new home is that there was an election on the horizon, and we were finding it hard to get up to speed. We often found that the news and blogs assumed we knew everything that had ever happened in Lowell, and it could be hard to untangle what was really going on. We spent a lot of time going to candidate debates and reading up on the issues, and we started to think about other people like us who were new to the city but might not have the time or the encouragement we had to get so involved. We began to talk about making our own blog to share what we were learning.

It was around this time that I first heard the term “blow-in”, and learned that there can be surprising hostility in Lowell politics against people who haven’t lived here their whole lives. I say “surprising” because I’ve never encountered that attitude anywhere but a small town, and I’ve never encountered it in Lowell anywhere but in the midst of political rhetoric. Empty rhetoric or not, hearing that negativity really upset me. Here I was, trying hard to make a new home, and finding so much that I loved about the city. A big part of what attracted me to Lowell was its history of becoming a home for newcomers. To hear that there were people who didn’t want me to be a part of that, it was truly disheartening.

Part of the reason I got excited about the blog was because I wanted to show that a new Lowellian can care just as much about the city as a life-long resident, and to reflect that “new” can also mean respectful, passionate, and happy to learn and contribute. Best decision I think we’ve made while living here. Starting a blog about our journey to become knowledgeable and connected citizens became a self-fulfilling prophecy: the more we wrote about the city, the better we got to know it. Through the blog we’ve met so many dedicated, friendly, interesting neighbors, all contributing to the city in a million different ways.

It’s sometimes work to keep the blog going, to find new things to write about and to find the time to research and write. But it’s extremely rewarding, and the blog is an excellent motivation to get off the couch and go to the next event, meet a new person, and try a new restaurant or store. I’d urge anybody thinking about blogging to give it a shot, it’s really a lot of fun. Thank you to everyone who has encouraged us this year, especially the rest of the Lowell blogging community and anyone who took the time to help us with an interview or our research. And of course to you, dear Reader. It’s been a good year.

A Tale of Two Cities: Salem and Lowell

Paul Marion’s excellent post series about Salem a few weeks ago struck a chord with me (Read it here, here, and here). Last fall, I worked in Salem as a tour guide during their busy season, and I’ve spent a lot of time pondering Salem and Lowell, two cities with a lot to offer but a big difference in tourism volume. I have a couple of thoughts about what Salem does well, and how Lowell might think about playing to its own strengths in similar ways.

Connected Narratives

One thing that I think Salem does really well is sell a series of stories, a clear and connected set of narratives. A trip to any place is an immersive experience, and people want a trip to offer specific feelings. Salem has done an excellent job of simultaneously packaging itself as a place to:

  • Have fun while exploring wacky spooky history (the sillier shopping, the Witch Museum and other funky touristy “museums”),
  • Connect to the Colonial American past (The House of the Seven Gables, the Salem Maritime Historic Site, and the lovely cemeteries and historic neighborhoods), and
  • Experience a sophisticated cultural destination (the formidable Peabody Essex Museum, and the more upscale shopping and dining).
Visiting Salem is an immersive experience. Here, the red line leads you to the Witch museum with a B&B next door. (Google Maps)

Salem is an immersive experience. Here, a red line leads you from Witch Village to the Witch Museum and nearby B&B.

These three separate but overlapping narratives bring in a critical mass of visitors and give them a clear sense of Salem as a destination. Lowell has strong narratives too! I think this is one of Lowell’s greatest strengths, and when I say that, keep in mind that I visited as a tourist before I ever considered living here. I think Lowell is really lucky in that many of its biggest draws from a tourism perspective fit into a series of stories or ideas.

  • The most obvious is the industrial history story associated with the National Park here.
  • Overlapping with that is the theme of textiles generally, with the National Park, the Textile Museum, and the Quilt Museum.
  • Another strong motif is immigration and different ethnic and cultural groups, again told in the Park, and with our many unique ethnic neighborhoods and restaurants.
  • Finally, there’s an overarching story here about revitalization, about historic preservation and a cultural turnaround.

Although these narratives exist, they are not quite as smoothly packaged yet as Salem’s. It wouldn’t be too hard to put together brochures or walking guides along these lines: “Lowell will have you in stitches for your day of textile fun” or “Eat your way across the Acre.”

Museums could anchor a Lowell Textile Tour.

Museums could anchor a Lowell Textile Tour (Bing Maps).

Outreach to Boston

The day we visited Boston, we found 2 pamphlets for Salem but none for Merrimack Valley.

The day we visited Boston, we found two pamphlets for Salem but none for Merrimack Valley.

Interacting with the folks on tours in Salem made it clear to me that it has figured out how to sell itself as a day trip from Boston. Salem gets tons of non-regional visitors, especially during the Halloween season. People I chatted with were often visiting Salem for the day as part of a longer trip to Boston. Lowell is just about the same distance from Boston as Salem (theoretically half an hour by car, 30-45 minutes by train), but I think we’re not reaching this market as well as we might be.

salem3One explanation for this? Salem has amazing tourism outreach. Check out this example from Faneuil Hall. Here’s one of the big card displays offering the visiting tourist a million options. See Salem? It’s there twice, in Salem’s nice glossy booklet and in House of the Seven Gables. Where’s Lowell? Nowhere. Now, sometimes I see the Merrimack Valley Convention and Visitors Bureau booklet there, which is something, but that booklet is covering a huge area, and Lowell’s just part of it. I think the unprepared tourist, trying to decide what to do with their day, is unlikely to be led to Lowell.

Now why is Salem so much better at this? Some of it we can’t change. Lowell’s biggest draw is the National Park, and the National Park can’t spend money on advertising. Like literally, legally, they can’t. Salem’s National Park stuff is a smaller piece of the pie, proportionally. The mighty Peabody Essex, other historic sites, plus all those funky stores and touristy “museums” band together and spend a lot more money than Lowell can, at least right now. That doesn’t mean Lowell can’t apply its resources strategically, of course.

What can Lowell do?

Quilts on display at NEQM.

I think the biggest thing Lowell can do to try to copy the positive aspects of Salem is think about how to strengthen and play to the strong themes it has going. I get the impression Lowell does get “textile” theme tourists, for instance. How can we figure out how to make their day in Lowell a more immersive, memorable experience? I think a store that sold fabric or crafting supplies in the downtown might be a good fit there. Maybe we can figure out how to better wind in Lowell’s modern textile artists too. I notice that several of this years’ Parker Lectures are textile-themed, that’s probably a strong connection.

Mill Works, contemporary fiber art recently exhibited at ATHM.

Also key: more communication and collaboration between Lowell’s diverse forces, as suggested by the recent marketing meeting in June and the emergence of First Thursdays. If Lowell’s forces put their heads and their money together, they can present a stronger, more unified front.

On a smaller scale, there’s something everybody excited about Lowell can do to help it. Good internet reviews and buzz are a big part of how people make their travel decisions. This is an area where Salem is running laps around us: for example, the Peabody Essex Museum has 135 Yelp reviews. The American Textile History Museum has eight. Each of us can help Lowell by taking to our favorite social media and making sure that people know about what there is to do in Lowell. Consider taking a minute and dropping some positive Tripadvisor or Yelp reviews of restaurants, stores, and cultural destinations you like. Follow and Like the cultural organizations you enjoy, and Share their pictures and announcements with your friends. I’m not suggesting any level of phony boosterism. But these things do matter, and it requires such a teeny amount of effort to support the organizations in Lowell you want to see do well.

I’ve visited both Lowell and Salem as a tourist, and now I’ve guided tourists in both as well. Both are fun, vivid places, with lots to see and do (and eat). Lowell is every bit as interesting as Salem as a destination, and I often chat with tourists in Lowell who’ve had a wonderful experience visiting the city and have really felt a connection to its stories. I don’t want everything that Salem has for Lowell: some of its spooky tourism crosses the line from cheesy to downright disrespectful. Chatting with Salem locals, it was clear that too much tourism can be a curse as well as a blessing, and that sometimes the city could be a weird place to actually live. But I’m confident that Lowell could handle a little more tourism without losing its strong sense of itself.

Let us know in the comments if you have thoughts on other good strategies Lowell could adopt from Salem or other potential tourism role-models.


Your Learning Lowell Facebook Group Guide

I’ve learned that there are a great number of Lowell-related Facebook groups, but there’s also a great deal of confusion about what groups are. In an effort to clear up that confusion, we’re providing a short guide and a directory of Lowell Facebook groups. Any Facebook user can use groups to have conversations or listen in on event announcements, news, stories, and anecdotes.

To reach the directory, click here.

A Facebook group is a virtual “club” that is made by a Facebook user. When a member posts to a group, everyone else in that group sees it in their Facebook news feed and can comment upon it. It can be as simple as that.

However, groups have many additional features. First off, a user can search all the posts in a group by keyword, making it possible to archive conversations. Everyone can see who has seen a particular post—as long as the group stays below 250 members. Additionally, groups allow shared photo albums and shared documents. Finally, users can make one-question polls for members of the group to take.

Facebook screenshot

A Facebook group is analogous to a real-world club, and just like clubs, they can be relatively exclusive or open. Whoever created the group gets to approve new members. In addition, the creator of the group can choose among three levels of privacy:

  • Secret: Only group members to see a secret group and the posts within. This is often used for groups of friends, a project team, or some other private group.
  • Closed: Anyone can see the group and who is in it. However, only members see posts. This doesn’t mean the group is “closed” to newcomers, it just means that you can’t “lurk,” or read everyone’s posts without being in the group yourself. The moderator must approve requests to join.
  • Open: This type of group allows anyone to see the posts, whether or not they’re in the group.

Beware! If a group is larger than 250 members, you can’t make a group “less private.” With large groups, you can go from “open” to “closed” or “secret,” but not vice-versa.

Who can join a group? As long as a group isn’t “secret,” there’s a button on the group’s page to join. The moderator of the group must approve the “request” before you’re in. Members of a group can also invite others to join.

Who is “boss” of a group? Whoever starts the group “owns” it, and can change group settings. That person may also make other Facebook users “administrators.” Some groups are run by just one user, while others have a whole team of administrators.

What is the difference between a “page” and a “group?” Pages are often used for businesses and celebrities. A main difference between a page and a group is that anyone can join a page just by “liking” it, there’s no moderator approval. In addition, with a “page,” only the owner’s posts will appear in others’ news feeds; while with a “group,” all members’ posts will appear.

I’m a business or organization. Should I start a page or a group? It depends on what you want to do with the page or group. Here’s a good run-down on Mashable.

Sobering Moments

I was going to finish a short piece about split tax rate, but the news of the third violent gun incident in a week in Lowell has turned my attention.

Each incident happened in a different Lowell neighborhood, and one of the incidents was fatal.

I feel it is disingenuous not to take a moment to reflect on this side of Lowell. Certainly, Aurora and I both feel safe walking and living downtown. Police do not believe the first two incidents were random (they believe perpetrator and victim knew one another), and I imagine the same is true for the third, if the pattern holds. In addition, it is good that nobody seems desensitized to these type of incidents. When something like this happens, Lowellians are angry. They’re angry that stray gunfire could injure or kill innocent bystanders. They’re angry that this casts a city with award-winning nonprofits, a thriving entrepreneurial scene, and great restaurants in a negative light. Of course, they’re angry for the victims and their families.

Even so, I am very distressed that members of the community feel so desperate or choiceless that they become involved with gangs or other high-risk activities, and it is harrowing that this leads to violence and, occasionally, death. However, violence is not a surprise to me, and I do not see it as a particularly Lowellian problem. Rather, I see it as an American problem: it distresses me that these incidents happen in good cities across the nation.

At times, it almost feels frivolous to write about restaurant experiences when such troubling events occur. However, I remind myself sharing news about local businesses, cultural events, and building community is one piece of the puzzle to eliminating the environment that produces violence. For example, Aurora recently wrote about the Merrimack Valley Time Bank. The childcare that a time bank member might offer to a mother or father might have an immeasurable impact on that child and parent’s life. Not only the service is important, but also the support network that comes along with that service.

Restaurants as meeting places, the city’s efforts in economic development, the efforts of the police to increase patrols and disrupt gangs: these all may potentially impact Lowell’s health as a community. It’s why we want to keep focus on them. We welcome your comments below or in facebook.

The social media landscape of Lowell: Social Media Conference Part 3

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.

Lowell Social Media Conference audience

“Audience as Panel” was a success for the final session.

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 [1], 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

Soben Pin

Soben Pin of Khmer Post USA

Ms. Pin also highlighted that the reason for Khmer Post USA’s success is relevance and convenience. [2] 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.

Audience of social media conference

At a social media conference, using your smartphone is encouraged! Left: Fru Nkimbeng, Speaking: Paul Marion

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.”

Getting Social with Lowell Politics: Social Media Conference Part 2

This is the second post about the recent Lowell Social Media Conference. The first is here.

Dick Howe at tear sheet introducing 22,500 drop in voter turnout from 2012 to 2013.

Dick Howe illustrates the 22,500 drop in voter turnout from 2012 to 2013.

While the first half of the social media conference was composed of technical “how-to” sessions, the second half focused on “How can we use social media to effect social change?” Dick Howe introduced the session by crediting Howard Dean and Barack Obama’s success in politics partly to the “wise use of the internet.” After talking to a number of folks in Lowell, I believe that at least some thought social media could have a large effect on local politics, too. They were surprised when it didn’t seem to.

Derek Mitchell and Dan Rourke were kind enough to attend and discuss how they used social media. Kristin Ross-Sitcawich and Kim Scott, school committee members, were in attendance and also shared opinions and stories. Mr. Mitchell said he used social media to “build a brand and build a volunteer base.” Traditional media is unable to cover 22 candidates, so he needed another network to share his “narrative”. His specific strategy involved using Hootsuite to hit multiple social media platforms, specifically asking people to volunteer, getting them more invested in the campaign, ultimately encouraging them to talk to friends and family. Mr. Rourke thought Facebook was more important for this election, but Twitter has potential for its instant, brief messaging. Both speakers noted that Twitter users trend younger. The two school committee members generally agreed, although Ms. Ross-Sitcawich found the “permanence” of a website more effective than social media, which she uses to link to her website.

That said, all candidates agreed that nothing replaces canvassing, door knocking, and being on the road was most important. I’m reminded of a study about how door-to-door campaigns made a substantial increase on voter participation. Mt. Mitchell found more honest feedback about issues at doors than in public forums, and Mr. Rourke revealed he was out 2-3 hours a day after work, going to every house, not just those on the voter lists. However, those who rent and live in apartment buildings, are difficult to reach with these methods. (In my admittedly uninformed opinion, renters are a demographic overlooked by local candidates due to their low turnout.)

Derek Mitchell

Derek Mitchell

Danny Rourke

Danny Rourke

Mr. Mitchell drew laughs from one discovery: pictures, specifically those of his wife and him, drew the most hits. Later, an audience member mentioned Mr. Rourke’s use of family in his social media: “Rather than Danny the candidate, it was Danny the person.” Discussion focused on how including family to introduce and make candidates relatable was perhaps more important to a campaign than messaging about issues. However, Ms. Ross-Sitcawich reminded the audience about the privacy issues around using images of family in campaign materials. An entire book could be dedicated to what influences voter behavior (many have), but I think a study of nonpartisan, non-competitive elections such as Lowell’s would be very revealing. It strips away party affiliation and negative campaigning as factors in decision-making.

It also is undeniably local. Mr. Mitchell summarized: “There was a hope that social media would make local politics relevant.” I believe that he was talking about those who usually only vote in national elections: young and tech-savvy. The consensus is this didn’t work; traditional demographics (older, tied to traditional media) turned out. This leaves the burning question: can a society that values civic engagement at a local level impress local issues’ importance upon younger people, even those who are childless, work strange hours and/or who rent? This is an especially important question, as these are often the very people that people like Mr. Mitchell or Mr. Rourke can’t reach going door-to-door. The final part of the conference touched upon this, subject of a future post.

Find Part 3 here.