Commentary

The New Community Organizer

  • by , March 22, 2009

Facebook is being used to corral parents in my hometown to a school board meeting this week. An incident at the local middle school has the fires of controversy burning hot, and the lack of communication coming from the school has spurned a fury of communication among parents and community members on the popular social networking site.

Six hours had not passed before the first parents (not students, but parents) had updated their status messages, reflecting their concern over the school incident. Not more than an hour later, other parents began commenting on those status updates, and then a cycle started (heck, I even added to the conversation).

The conversations – the insinuations, allegations, frustrations and declarations – that may have once taken place in private phone calls from parent to parent or in line at the grocery store have moved to the very public world of online social networking. And it is the public aspect of this “happening” that should have school officials (both locally, and those in authority everywhere) keeping close tabs on the internet.

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They will need to learn quick that perception is reality, and the longer that they remain silent on an issue (and on the web, a day is an eternity), the more the perception is created for them. This incident took place on a Thursday, and the weekend has not been kind to those in authority. What officials may have once called “private matters” are simply not private anymore. Social networking is providing a forum for nearly everything to be shared.

Not only is social networking being used to “shape” the events and share feelings and reactions, it is being used to organize the community to take action. Already the date and time for the next school board meeting has been posted, and status messages are urging concerned individuals to attend. This is where the real power of social networking lays – its ability to organize people to act. The political ramifications of such a tool are only beginning to be understood, and I have a feeling that the school administration may be well behind the eight ball on this issue.

It does raise an interesting question of interaction. Should the school officials be online, sharing their side of the story, refuting rumor, helping the community understand their decisions, accepting feedback and criticism, and allowing the community to help develop policy? Or are these private issues related only to “school personnel,” individual students and their parents?

I’m not sure the school principal needs to use his personal Facebook profile to engage serious educational issues, but an authentic attempt on the school’s part to foster online, instantaneous dialogue and open communication would be beneficial.

A narrative has been articulated through online social networking that places school officials in the antagonist role and community members and parents in the protagonist role. If the first rule of marketing is to go to your audience, then school officials had better get online before controversy consumes them. This is a new day in technology, communication and education. The group that uses these components most effectively will have engaged a tool that can be used (and gained political capital that can be spent) in several ways, not the least of which is in a school board election.

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