There’s no question that social media has changed the way the world communicates. Why converse when you can tweet, "like" something or comment?
Facebook has more than 500 million active users who spend more than 700 billion minutes a month on the site, according to Social2B. More than 200 million active users access Facebook through mobile devices. As for Twitter, there are 200 million Twitter users and 95 million tweets are written each day.
President Barack Obama, Gov. Mark Dayton and many other politicians use social networking sites to keep their constituents in the loop. Many departments from the State of Minnesota use social media to inform residents of road closures, accidents and other pertinent information.
“The citizens are well engaged and sort of hip to the social media landscape that we live in. The institutions of Northfield government, as well as nonprofit institutions, are generally lagging behind.”
Lending a Hand with the Click of a Mouse
In 2011, technology is at the forefront of community building in Northfield.
When the Haslett-Marroquin family was by a house fire on Thanksgiving Eve, family friend Gabby Frenstad created a Facebook group to mobilize the community and organize relief efforts.
“It’s a really great way to connect with a lot of people,” Frenstad, a 17-year-old student, told Northfield Patch.
Within 12 hours, more than 150 people had joined the group. At present, it has more than 400 members and has been used as a forum to coordinate food, clothing and money donations and to organize a cleanup crew, a benefit concert and bake sales for the family.
Frenstad’s efforts demonstrate Facebook’s potential as a one-stop shop for community engagement. It's a trend that hasn't gone unnoticed in other social circles and is one that has deeper roots in Northfield than most small communities.
A Vocal Residency
Northfield’s relationship with social media is one that spans two decades of spirited online discussion.
“It really became a conversation space that defined what we did through the '90s,” said Wigley, referencing Northfield’s early relationship with the Internet.
In the years that followed, Wigley and Co. established Northfield Citizens Online, a bulletin board turned web café turned discussion platform, which hosted community forums with other local news outlets. In 2003, the site switched formats to a blogging platform and began offering blogs to residents and elected officials alike.
Wigley left northfield.org in 2004 to focus on his radio show, Locally Grown, which he co-hosted with Tracy Davis and Ross Currier. Wigley, Davis and Currier developed Locally Grown Northfield, a blog mostly about local issues, in 2006. It's still going strong today with lively debate among its users and with Wigley alone at the helm.
Although Northfield’s residency has demonstrated interest and skill in using social media as a means to mobilize and unite the community, local government has yet to follow suit, at least in what some would consider an effective way.
“The citizens are well engaged and sort of hip to the social media landscape that we live in,” said Wigley. “The institutions of Northfield government, as well as nonprofit institutions, are generally lagging behind.”
Northfield City Councilor Betsey Buckheit would like to see the city better use social media.
She writes a blog about city issues and uses Facebook and began blogging in 2004 at the urging of Wigley and is currently the only Northfield councilor who writes a blog.
An advocate of social media in government, Buckheit said she would like to see Northfield use the Internet to make city information, such as financial records, more accessible. She also discussed the possibility of using social media to relay practical information, such as flooding and road closure, to local residents.
“The access that we could provide to city business is almost limitless,” said Buckheit.
At present, the city’s use of social media is practically nonexistent. On the city website, the only department to so much as link to a social media account is the Department of Public Works, whose page briefly mentions its Twitter account. The account has posted three times since July, the last of which came in November about the .
Brian Erickson, assistant public works director and city engineer, recently created a Facebook page for the department.
“Some people listen to the radio a lot. Some people read the newspaper or check the web. Other people, as we know, they check Facebook a lot or Twitter,” he said. “It’s just another venue to try to help people get the information.”
Since its creation in mid-November, very little information has been shared. The department has updated its Facebook status twice in the past month.
The , however, has a fairly active Facebook page and has more than 330 fans. The library staff uses the page to update residents on programs and uploads photos from events.
The city is making some effort with a planned update to its website next year. Councilor Erica Zweifel has expressed interest in using the city website as a bulletin board platform, much like CommonPlace, a website with which Burnsville has an account.
Nevertheless, Zweifel is hesitant about government use of social media.
“We have to walk before we can run,” said Zweifel.
The city’s recent technological projects have been very basic compared to the addition of departmental social media accounts. Past technological endeavors have included installing Wi-Fi in council chambers and upgrading government computers so that all city employees are using the same version of Microsoft Word.
“I wouldn’t say I’m 100 percent sold,” said Zweifel about government involvement in social media. “It’s a lot for an elected official to have to bear, I feel, having every minutia out there.”
For Wigley, this hesitation is a source of frustration.
“They’re pretty resistant. Pretty fearful. Pretty unskilled."
Commerce in the 21st Century
Many Northfield businesses were similarly intimidated by the world of social media, according the Machelle Kendrick, social media strategist for several downtown businesses.
Kendrick, who currently manages social media accounts for and the , saw the significance of Facebook as soon as she registered for an account in 2009.
“It’s helping businesses to engage in real time with their customers and potential customers,” said Kendrick.
Kendrick said Northfielders have a real zeal for the interesting topics and social connection Facebook provides. She said that Foursquare, a location-based social network for phones that rewards people for "checking into" businesses, has also been successful in Northfield, likely due to the town's large population of college students, but that Twitter is significantly less popular.
“I think Northfield grasps the concept of a cocktail party and Facebook is really like going to a cocktail party,” said Kendrick.
And, whether city government officials and local businesses like it or not, it seems the party won’t be winding down any time soon for Northfield’s online residency.
You can find more articles from this ongoing series, “Dispatches: The Changing Amerian Dream” from across the country at The Huffington Post.