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Scarborough hopes to bridge the social media divide

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Scarborough hopes to bridge the social media divide

SCARBOROUGH — As people everywhere continue to use social media as a means for getting information, Town Manager Tom Hall believes the town needs to join the movement in a professional capacity.

"It's been a fairly recurring theme, but for one reason or the other we just haven't made significant progress," Hall said Monday.

Working to advance the town's presence on social media is one of Hall's goals for 2015, in part because town councilors have expressed an interest in making it happen.

"That interest has propelled me to really make progress in this regard," Hall said this week. 

Speaking as a parent of 20- and 17-year-olds, Hall said, "Their consumption of information is entirely from the smartphone. That percentage of our population is ever increasing, and so that if we're not engaged on that platform, we're not getting to them. They aren't picking up the paper, they're not going to our website, they're not going to our meetings."

Time is also an issue, Town Council Chairwoman Jessica Holbrook said. "Many families are both-parent-working households; time and ease of access are important."

Some don't even have the option of watching meetings on public access channels, simply because many households have cut back on expenses such as cable TV in favor of Internet capability, Holbrook said.

Towns and cities can't expect citizens to get all the information they need from council and board meetings, Hall said, because "this is a sophisticated organization that's fairly complicated. You can't expect the average resident to know everything they need to know to make an educated decision."

Not only that, but Hall and fellow councilors have received many comments from the public in the last year criticizing and requesting more government transparency.

These two components "bring (the social media issue) to the forefront this year," he said. 

To bridge the disconnect, and the fact that Hall doesn't consider himself a "techy person," he has assembled a committee to help map the town's path in the social media landscape.

The committee is working first toward setting up a town Facebook page. Following in the footsteps of other departments and municipalities that are present on social media, the committee is "researching good policies that are already in place out there," Hall said. 

A point of importance is recognizing how to use a digital platform for specific purposes, Hall said. For example, the Scarborough Police Department's Facebook page, which has nearly 12,000 likes, is used largely to post information, rather than to engage community conversation.

For the town's purposes, the committee will likely take a multi-pronged approach that involves making information available quickly, but also "facilitating civic engagement," Hall said. That could eventually mean establishing some sort of additional community conversation Facebook page. 

Hall also expressed a wary interest in starting a Twitter account. "I know some colleagues that use it report that it's fairly effective," he said. 

One of those colleagues is South Portland City Manager Jim Gailey, who has had a Twitter account since 2013.

Gailey, whose can be followed at @sopomanager, said Twitter is the best avenue for him because it allows him to push a lot of information out quickly. 

He also recognizes the need to reach a younger audience on the screens of their devices. Gailey, with 184 followers, keeps track of the demographics: "About 50 to 60 percent of those are in the 20-45 age range," he said. 

It's important to tailor information to all demographics, Gailey said, but he and Hall agree that citizens should still actively seek to stay informed. 

"I should say none of this relieves residents' responsibility to pay attention and get involved," Hall said. "I think we need to take reasonable efforts to reach out, but I think people still have an obligation to get involved."

For all of the advantages to a social media presence, there are plenty of reasons to be hesitant about it, Hall said. 

"When you open the floodgates, you could get a lot of other stuff, too," he said. "But those aren't reasons not to do it.

"For me it's a realization that there's an ever-increasing population that that consumes their information (through social media)," he added, "and if we're not engaged, then we're not reaching them."

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or aacquisto@theforecaster.net. Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA.