All work and no play can make the Talk About Local team a dull lot, so we were very grateful for the chance to have some collective fun, play and stimulating conversation at LocalGovCamp in Birmingham last Saturday. There was a large crowd and it was great to catch up with old friends we’d not seen in the flesh for a while, as well as meet some new ones.
Talk About Local were one of LocalGovCamp’s many sponsors so in the lead-up to the event, we had a little think and chat about what we might be able to do whilst there – with the emphasis very much on the ‘doing’. The conversation quickly got around to the value of those in local government finding and taking an active part in local online conversations – be they on hyperlocal blogs, Facebook profiles/pages/groups, forums or elsewhere. We were trying to think of fun ways of highlighting this when William came up with the idea of a Social Media Safari – helping people hunt (geddit?) for local online spaces and discussions and joining in with them there and then. Karen practically emptied Birmingham Nature Centre’s gift shop of safari animal goodies so we looked the part.
I was reminded of a story illustrating the perils of not participating in local online conversation told to me by Sharon O’Dea at LocalGovCamp 2009, so prepared some slides around The Cautionary Tale of The Wizard with a Cat, His Fans and Their Council. The story ends with a question – how could what turned into a farcical situation for Sutton Council have been handled differently? – which was the basis for a small discussion session early on in the day. I loved the guy (whose name I sadly can’t remember) who surmised it was a Rage Against The Machine Christmas No. 1 moment in that local people were taking back control over something they felt disenfranchised from. Some really interesting points were raised, the main one being council officers’ need to feel confident and enabled to talk to people online the way they are employed to do offline, yet are too often discouraged from doing so and told those forms of communication are reserved for the PR & Communications teams.
I had an interesting conversation with Kate Sahota around this at the Social Media Safari table/menagerie later, who spoke of local authorities’ ‘fear of getting involved at this kind of level’ where communication is ‘there and it’s permanent’ and very quotable, resulting in an inclination to try and avoid the risks this presents rather than manage them.
Next to come to the table was Sharon O’Dea, who went on a Social Media Safari of her neighbourhood of Barnes, South West London with gusto. Barnes seems to be an area brimming with social capital, going by the many active online spaces for the area – websites such as http://www.barnescommunityassociation.org, the very polished http://www.barnesvillage.com and http://www.southwest13.co.uk/, campaigning sites such as http://www.savetheheartofwhitehartlane.co.uk/ and http://www.greeneruponthames.org/, an active Facebook group and Flickr group and one of the best school websites I’ve ever seen in http://www.barnesprimaryschool.org/. Sharon and I had a conversation after our hunt about our findings.
Simon Whitehouse’s hunt in Balsall Heath, Birmingham wasn’t quite so fruitful – there seemed to be very little online conversation in or around the area and its key places and groups. We were both quite surprised at this as Balsall Heath has quite a tight, supportive community and the skills are there – Podnosh have delivered several social media surgeries in the area. Despite that, we found very little besides an I Survived B12 group and Heavenly Desserts page on Facebook and a Friends of Moseley Road Baths website campaigning for the future of the Victorian swimming pool. Our post-hunt conversation pondered on why this might be, concluding quite simply that ‘it just hasn’t happened yet’.
Despite that, it was a fruitful day with some interesting conversations and questions emerging from the exercise, if not as much ‘doing’ as we might have hoped for. LocalGovCamp was as brilliant as always, with people leaving full of excitement, ideas and future plans such as LibraryCamp that are already starting taking shape. To catch up on thoughts, reflections, photos, videos from from the day go to the LocalGovCamp Posterous site.