For some reason, I got very interested in the recent debate in Edmonton about closing the small municipal airport located just off downtown. I think this had something to do with the alternative plan being a very transit-oriented, anti-sprawl infill development, and the thought of that actually happening here might help reduce my general discomfort at moving to a province that largely acts as an environmental dinosaur.
The "keep it open" crowd was for the most part a fairly vocal, well-organized group of business owners in the area, and others who actually used the airport (a very small minority in Edmonton, since the flight services it offers are very restricted). Most people I think were fairly apathetic in the sense that it wouldn't affect them directly. Proponents of closing were motivated I think largely by ecological and environmental sensitivities, e.g. urban sprawl.
One of the nuances to the story is the role of social media in influencing the debate. Mack Male's review and lessons post is as good a starting point as any other to get a sense of how that played out.
It's always hard to quantify the effect that social media (in this case, blogs, Twitter and Facebook) may or may not have had. I think all of the following are open questions that are worth considering.
- It's clear that the "pro-closure" side got a bigger benefit from social media. Would that have been different were there a central, organized "old school" campaign for closure, as there was for the "keep it open" side? How might the dynamics have changed if such a campaign was present? Would that be the focus, with Twitter etc. in a supporting role? Would that be the place where people gathered to find up-to-date information, rather than searching on Twitter?
- The culture that has evolved around Twitter use is generally polite, respectful, values logical discussion, and encourages hearing out different viewpoints. You can see this for example in how a single "hash-tag" (#ecca) was used to discuss the issue, both for and against. This differs greatly from conventions in many other systems, where participants would choose to "support" one side or the other, where people might follow blogs only from a particular side (political blogs for example), or where people may only be interested in pushing their opinion (e.g. newspaper article comments). How much impact did this have in terms of positively engaging people in sincere discussions about a highly divisive issue? How might that have been different in the past?
- What impact did this really have? How many people got engaged in the debate because of social media? Did their engagement make any difference to the outcome? What was the actual reach of social media in this debate? What makes it different from a chamber of commerce meeting, Rotary meeting, or a bunch of old men talking about this at their local coffee shop? In either case, you've got a fairly small number of people involved in the discussion; how much impact do they carry outside their group?
- Why now? What changed (if anything) to make social media visible on this local issue and not so many others before? How much of it was the MSM's recent (yet perhaps fleeting?) infatuation with Twitter? How much of it was having a large enough critical mass of local users all on the same sites (Twitter, Facebook), a condition that perhaps wasn't there before? (Side note: BBS users in the 80's were more locally involved by necessity, because using far-away sites cost real long distance money. When people started adopting the internet, they could effectively be dispersed around the world, at no charge. Perhaps only now we're seeing enough local activity concentrated in a small number of local sites to have an impact).
- How do involved Twitter users differ from any other perhaps disproportionately vocal special-interest group when it comes to local events?
- As alluded to before, I think a fair number of people found out about the social media activity surrounding this issue because of several reports in the local mainstream media. Did this result in many new people coming to participate? How was social media perceived by people seeing this coverage? Was it just another "oh, the young'uns are doing their Internet thing about the airport.."?
- Is there anything in particular about Edmonton as a community that may have impacted the way social media was used or its effect? Things like the level of activism, willingness by different sides to engage in dialog (wait, this is Alberta right?)
I ask these things not so much because they're keeping me up at night, but because I really would like to tease out some of these dynamics. The breathless "social media changes everything" fanboy articles don't really do it for me. Thinking back on all the different collaboration technologies I've used, researched and developed over the years, I believe there is a definite benefit in having a deeper understanding of how the technologies are used in practice, and the factors that affect that practice.