So-called social media sites on the Internet have proliferated in recent years, and such venues as Facebook are hugely popular with the under-40 crowd as well as many who are over that age. But such sites have their risks, too, as the city of Camden found out recently when it shut down its Facebook page after a number of people had posted comments -- some of them inappropriate -- criticizing the city’s efforts to reach a joint accord with the Columbia YMCA for a new facility in Camden.
Unlike traditional media, sites such as Facebook offer few “filters” for their operators to observe or control comments. This newspaper, for instance, does not print letters to the editor unless they are signed. While allowing readers to fully express their opinion, it doesn’t allow foul language and tries to avoid accusatory statements from readers. It’s difficult to do things like that on Facebook, and we understand the city’s distress over some things that were posted. Some people were apparently creating fake profiles and posting comments under their new false identities.
But city staff members -- it was City Manager Kevin Bronson’s decision to shut down the page -- didn’t handle the situation too smoothly. Taking the page down in the midst of a controversy left many with the feeling that the city was trying to stifle discussion. And indeed, the proposed YMCA project is not without controversy. Many people like the idea of a modern Y facility operating here, but there are also those who are dubious about the city’s becoming involved in a venture they see as competing with private businesses. So it’s vital that a vigorous public discourse be allowed.
In taking down the Facebook page, the city made it appear to some as if it won’t tolerate such an exchange. Some city council members expressed doubts about whether Facebook is a proper vehicle for the city to communicate, given the unpredictable nature of social media. That’s a valid point, and we certainly would have no quarrel with the city’s coming to that decision. But that’s something that could have been considered by staff upon first pondering Facebook, before establishing it and subsequently squashing the site in the face of heated comment, which left many with a bad taste in their mouths.
In short, what works for bar-hopping 20-somethings isn’t necessarily good for municipalities. The city might not have been trying to zip dissent with its decision to take down the page, but it came across that way to many. A little prior homework might have prevented such a situation.