County considers joining world of social media

by Paul Rignell

Contributing writer

With some commissioners sounding more eager than others to click with the county’s mouse, Sherburne County Board members on Oct. 5 discussed whether the county should enter the world of social media that includes Facebook, Twitter and other portals.

Facebook user and Sherburne County Commissioner Felix Schmiesing shares an impromptu tutorial with fellow Commissioner Rachel Leonard on how he can access email and other websites in addition to calling friends and family from his handheld smartphone. Schmiesing, Leonard, other commissioners and county staff had just finished a discussion on social media and how Sherburne County might make use of it, during a board work session Oct. 5.

Of three of the county commissioners who noted during the monthly work session that they have not set up personal Facebook accounts, board chairman Ewald Petersen was the only one to question whether the county needs to promote anything beyond the county website as a source for official news.

“I’m not into this type of activity,” Petersen said of the Internet and its related features, adding that heavy use seems like a waste of time. “I think it’s abused as much as it’s used. … I’ve got some grandchildren who prove it to me every day.”

Among staff members who were in on the Oct. 5 talk, Sherburne County Attorney Kathleen Heaney acknowledged there can be some problems with social media, calling it a “double-edged sword,” but with conviction, she added: “The next generation of citizens is coming up, and they view social media as an integral part of their life.”

Commissioner Larry Farber, one of two board members with Facebook accounts, concurred with Heaney.

“My kids, they don’t read newspapers, they get on the Internet,” Farber said. “Like it or not, it’s there, and I think we need to use it.

“I haven’t had any problems, and it’s a lot more fun than you would think that it would be,” Farber said of his own Facebook use.

“I’m on it by accident,” said Commissioner Felix Schmiesing, explaining that he was directed to Facebook’s registration page one day while searching for a story from the Politics in Minnesota website. “Next thing I know, I’ve got a Facebook account, and I still don’t have (that) article.

“You can put as much on (a Facebook page) or as little on there as you’d like,” Schmiesing said of the options to share personal news and photos. “On mine, you’d find nothing.”

Petersen guessed 75 percent of the county’s Facebook users wouldn’t care to receive county news or contact their officials through that site or any other online medium. “I don’t think it’s going to be email or Facebook with me,” he said.

“Probably not, but I think some (residents) may like to,” said Information Services Director Brian Kamman during a report to the board on how other counties and agencies are using social media.

Registration on Facebook is free. The site is funded through paid advertising to which its users are exposed. Kamman shared Facebook statistics that 800 million people worldwide are registered users with more than half of them logging on at least once daily. “By population, (Facebook) would be the third largest country,” Kamman said.

Farber said that he follows news on the site from Northstar Commuter Rail and from Elk River’s city parks department and Economic Development Authority. “It has been a great success (for them),” he said.

Heaney, Kamman and other county staff shared that cities and counties are using Facebook and Twitter (a medium through which users can send quick updates using no more than 140 key characters) to inform residents of street closures, snow emergencies and community events.

Kamman shared Northstar keeps its riders and other residents informed through an online blog, as does Stearns County for its residents. That county also keeps an account on the digital photo site Flickr where residents have posted shots that might entice other people to move to St. Cloud or greater Stearns County.

“You haven’t converted me,” Petersen said toward the end of the discussion. “I think it’ll be a long time a-comin’ before that happens.”

Commissioner Rachel Leonard said she would be interested in joining further discussions of how the county should enter social media, but she cautioned that all pros and cons should be considered.

“I think we need to be knowledgeable of all the pitfalls that are out there,” she said.

After the work session, the board’s Facebook users Farber and Schmiesing shared more with Star News.

“We’re a progressive county,” said Farber. “We have to look at the future. Facebook, Twitter and blogging are part of the future. We have to look at how we’re going to use them.”

“We’re going to wade in to this social media, not dive in,” said Schmiesing. “Everything we do, there’s liability. We’re going to be very careful.”

A Sherburne County technology steering committee that meets the second Tuesday each month would discuss any potential actions before the board would consider them for approval.