Twitter gives residents the ability to interact with their city officials easier than before. Unfortunately, there is a veil of secrecy that can still exist with Twitter accounts. It's certainly not the same as calling or actually visiting an official or department within a local government. But Twitter can provide another way for cities and residents to join in on conversations about what is happening within city limits. Given the limited characters in Twitter's platform, conversation between cities or officials and residents is normally informal and more approachable than conversation that might take place at a council meeting.
Some have even suggested that we may be able to use data from social media, specifically Twitter, to better plan our cities. Justin Hollander, director of Tufts University Urban Attitudes Lab, says that social media provides us "key words and sentiments about civic issues, in order to learn more about what people think about their cities, and how policy can respond."
Using the City of San Francisco's 311 department as an example, a blog from the World Bank website (written by Tanya Gupta and Dr. Abir Qasem) lists five reasons why Twitter has advantages over phone calls or written citizen inquiries:
- City services can become more transparent.
- Information is instant: You don't have to go to a website, you don't have to call, you don't have to wait in line; if you have a comment to make you can do it right away.
- Creation of virtual communities can improve governance.
- Transparency can lead to improved accountability of public officials and departments .
- Participation can improve governance; when you have a chance to be a participant in the governance process, it makes a difference in how you view the city.
I did an informal poll of the current top 50 most populous cities within the United States to see if each city has their own Twitter account, and to see the number of followers of each city. It was still surprising to see that some cities did not have dedicated Twitter accounts (Los Angeles, Chicago, Indianapolis, Memphis, Baltimore, Nashville, Denver, Portland and Omaha). But that doesn't mean each city without a dedicated city account does not have a social media presence. Cities have departmental accounts or city leaders with social media presence. Other cities also maintain and monitor separate 311 accounts (311 was developed by the Baltimore Police Department to handle non-emergency requests), which allow residents to voice concerns or complaints in their city.
As far as official city Twitter accounts rank, New York has the most followers at 226,449 followers (as of December 3, 2014), followed by Boston (82,689), Philadelphia (58,744), Atlanta (52,610), San Francisco (51,933), Austin (46,903) and Minneapolis (46,285). Boston has the greatest percentage of their total population as followers (13.39%), followed by Minneapolis (12.1%), Atlanta (11.86%), Tampa (8.9%), Miami (6.83%) and Kansas City (6.8%). It can also be assumed that a percentage of each city's followers are not residents, and simply have an affinity for that city, are former residents, or those (like myself) who are simply interested in what's happening in other cities.
There are some cities that have Twitter accounts dedicated to reporting the actions of city council. There are only 10 (New York City, Chicago, Columbus, Boston, Seattle, Washington, DC, Atlanta, Mesa, Cleveland and Tulsa) out of the top 50 cities that have these accounts. Oddly enough, Washington DC is the only city whose council Twitter account has more followers than the official city account.
While it may seem like many people follow cities using social media, we can be sure that a majority of each city's population is not using social media as a means of notification. This is why cities still send mail, post signs, and use traditional media to inform their citizens. Twitter is a great way to share information quickly, but it does not reach as broad of an audience in the spectrum of local governance.
This curiosity about cities and their Twitter accounts follows some of the research I did surrounding cities and their city councils earlier this year. I looked at city councils from the 50 most populous cities in the United States and compared population statistics, the number of council districts and council members, residents served by each council member or district, length of council terms, council member salaries, and cost of council members per resident in each city, among other statistics.
Here is the population, Twitter handle and number of followers for each of the 50 most populous United States cities. (I apologize for the formatting issues. I've had trouble preserving the Twitter account links in a chart format.)
|City||State||Total Population (2010 Census)||Official City Twitter Handle||Official City Twitter Handle Followers||Percentage of Residents Following on Twitter|
|New York City||New York||8,175,133||@nycgov||226,449||2.77%|
|Washington||District of Columbia||601,723||@DCGovWeb||3,606||0.60%|