Social media: Farmington area’s new town square

Last fall, posts on a popular Farmington area Facebook page ignited a public conversation about the fate of four Queen Anne houses on Grand River.

On Monday, dozens of local residents and vendors crowded into Farmington city council chambers, after social media posts encouraged them to speak out in support of the Farmington Farmers and Artisans Market.

In both cases, some city officials have seemed more than a little irritated by the social sharing of information they’ve called inaccurate or incomplete. But flying rumors are nothing new to Farmington – or any small town, for that matter.

People have gone from whispers over the fence, to party-line phone calls, to circulating petitions, to group emails, to comments on social media and news websites. As always, it makes sense for officials to be concerned that people have the facts straight. That concern runs off the rails, I think, when they criticize the medium, and lose sight of the message.

Social media is the new “town square,” the new gathering space where people share ideas and opinions, and not every piece of information is going to be absolutely accurate. That doesn’t make it any less valuable to anyone willing to “listen” with an open mind.

Comment threads allow officials to pinpoint where their communications efforts break down and how gaps lead to misunderstandings. Yes, people have more access than ever to local government information. They simply don’t have time to dig through it all. Posting links to meeting videos, minutes, and other resources on the city’s Facebook page could help bridge that gap.

Farmington city manager David Murphy said Monday that city staff has taken a “hands off” approach, and I’m not recommending that officials jump into the fray. That just doesn’t seem productive.

But what might happen, I wonder, if city officials simply shifted their point of view, and looked at residents who have large and active social media followings as committed community leaders? How might officials speak to and about those folks, and engage them for the betterment of our community?

With a nod to author Stephen Covey, what if everyone involved in these challenging and robust community conversations sought first to understand, and then be understood? Imagine the possibilities.

— Joni Hubred-Golden