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Was social media the newsmaker of the year?

Flickr photo by Jhaymesivi photography

When the Vancouver Courier named “social media” the newsmaker of the year earlier this month, Courier editor Barry Link decried what he saw as a new “two solitudes” where a minority of movers and shakers are using social media to set the agenda for Vancouver while the rest of us are left out of the conversation. According to Link:

“[W]e have a civic subset, those actively engaged in social and political life in Vancouver, who are organizing and engaging through techno-social means. They are the people, from city hall to street protesters, who are making and influencing the decisions about life in this city. The rest of us? If we’re not on social media, we’re out of the conversation. Welcome to the new two solitudes of our time.”

I agree with Link in part. He’s right when he notes that for all the hoopla and buzz about Twitter, Facebook and other “Web 2.0” technologies, they are still only used by a minority of people. Facebook has 800 million users, Twitter 300 million (no figures on how many of these are active users). That's a lot of people, but not even close to a majority of the world's population. But I think Link is wrong when he implies that decisions about life in this city are being made through social media.

Yes, people tweeted and posted about the 2011 muncipal election, the Stanley Cup riots, Occupy Vancouver and the casino expansion last year. But did those tweets and those posts have any material influence on the outcomes of those events? Occupy Vancouver may have been initially organized through Twitter, but once it was actually in place, it stayed there through face-to-face communication. Some of the rioters may have been identified through social media, but the riot itself happened because of a volatile mix of alcohol, mob mentality and dashed expectations, not because of text messaging or tweets. The battle against the casino expansion was won the old-fashioned way -- through lobbying of council members, signing petitions and speaking at public meetings. Vision Vancouver won the election because they had a popular, competent mayor running against a weak opponent, not because their Facebook page had the most "Likes".

Yes, Twitter and Facebook (and Google+, Youtube, Digg, Tumblr and the rest) are used by politicians, developers, activists and others active in civic affairs. But a co-relationship is not necessarily a causal relationship. These people use social media and they have influence. But they don't have influence because they use social media.

I don’t think the real conversation about the issues that affect the city are taking place in social media. Neither Twitter’s 140-character limitation nor Facebook’s one-size-fits-all “friends” allow for serious dialogue. The real conversations still happen face-to-face.

I followed all the issues mentioned in the Courier article through Facebook and Twitter, and I don’t recall much substantive discussion in either of those channels. For example, Tweets during the election campaign were mostly line-by-line reports from all-candidate debates, or a list of which politicians showed up at which events. Election day tweets were mostly of the “I just voted. GET OUT AND VOTE!!!” variety.

Twitter and Facebook are useful tools -- for keeping in touch with people, for finding out new information and breaking information. But not for serious discussion. Social media the newsmaker of the year? Not this year.

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