Social media in public works 101 - Blogging
Blogs, like many of the other social media tools, are often misunderstood and sometimes thought of as a negative form of communication. Yet by the end of 2011, NM Incite
, a Nielsen/McKinsey Company, reported tracking at least 173 million blogs worldwide and almost 20 million bloggers publishing to these sites. So despite the misgivings, it seems blogging has been adopted as a popular channel for providing information and opinions and offering a platform for discussion of issues. But what does all this blogging mean for the public works industry?
First, let’s get some background on blogs. Typically a blog is presented somewhat differently from a traditional website:
- Information on a blog is usually written in first person, making the blog a more personal form of communication
- The content is often listed in chronological order with the most recent information appearing first
- There is usually an opportunity for others to comment on articles
- Many times there is a “word cloud” or a list of categories indicating topics discussed on that site
- There is usually an archive of past posts
- There are also other “gadgets” and “widgets” located on the page
- Many blog sites list links to other blogs that discuss related topics
Next, let’s see who is behind all this blogging. According to NM Incite:
- The majority of bloggers are 18-34 years old
- Most are women
- 52% are parents with kids under 18
- 7 out of 10 have gone to college
For some of us in public works, our first encounter with a blog was as the target of a post criticizing or commenting on our operations. Over the years I’ve heard some public works professionals express concern over the impact blogs have had on their department. Many shared that one blog post seen by an elected official can result in them having to shift all activity to address a blogger’s comments. While the initial reaction might be to blame blogs for this, is it any different from what used to happen when everything would have to come to a screeching halt because of one person’s complaint to city hall? Sure, no one likes to be the subject of negative attention, but criticism of government is never going to go away. And how your department handles it offline can be extended to how you handle it online. For those who are still disrupting their entire day because one person complained to an elected official, perhaps the emergence of blogs can encourage a more constructive management of criticism. Because disrupting normal operations for anything other than an emergency is more of a management issue than a problem with a form of communication.
Another difficulty in understanding blogs is that the format itself seems to cause quite a bit of discomfort with people who are not used to reading them. Perhaps this is because many of us are programmed to expect things we read, other than fictional material, to be factual. This was the case with newspapers, non-fiction books, and magazines. Now along comes another form of publication that doesn’t follow the traditional presentation of information. In newspapers and magazines, opinion pieces were normally well marked as such. This is not always the case with a blog - posts can range from primarily opinion-based material to serious, factual content. And in some cases, there is a mix of both in one post. It is up for the reader to discern what is fact and what is opinion. And if it is opinion and the reader does not agree, there is always the comment section where people can express their own thoughts and ideas. But there is no guarantee you will be allowed to share your own opinion on that site. The blogger owns and controls that site and can choose to not allow any comments or to not post your specific comment.
So like many others you might be wondering why would I want to visit such a chaotic site with the potential for unbridled criticism and opinion? One important reason is that blogs are increasingly becoming a primary method of offering information related to our industry. Out of the 173+ million blogs there are many offering useful and serious ideas, best practices, experiences, and information related to public works. The key is to learn to identify blogs offering value. A good place to start is by searching for blogs written by government agencies and people working in public works. We’ll start you out by suggesting a few to visit.
Public Works Blogs
If your interest is transportation and bridges, the Washington State Department of Transportation blog is for you. This agency has been blogging since 2006 and is one of the best sources for blog posts about construction projects and transportation operations in the State of Washington. The site is also a great example of how to setup and manage a blog for a public agency.
Dana Probert, PE, has been hosting the BIM on the Rocks blog since 2009. Her site regularly offers valuable information and tips related to CAD, GIS, and civil engineering.
One of the best places to get information about ADA compliance and PROWAG is on the Public Works Magazine ADA Corner blog written by Michele Ohmes. And of course, Public Works Magazine hosts this blog-The Works.
Other blogs regularly posting industry information are Planetizen and The Transportationist. A few industry organizations now have their own blog sites such as ASCE, AWWA, and APWA.
Grabbing a feed
Once you find a blog you really like, you might wish there was an easy way to find out when your favorite blogger has added a new post. Fortunately there is. Rather than have to remember to check the site all the time, you can just subscribe to the blog by “grabbing a feed.”
To do this, when you are on your favorite blog site, look for and click the word “Subscribe” or “RSS.” Depending on the site, you might have one of several things happen. You could be taken to a new web page with text that does not look reader friendly at all. This is what happens if you click the subscribe button on this blog. The page you are taken to is actually the feed. To get it in a format that is easy to read and access, copy the URL in the browser window at the top by highlighting it then hitting the control button + “c” (you can also right click your mouse in this space and when the pop-up box shows up, click “copy”).
Now we are going to open up Google and sign into our account. Then navigate to the following URL: https://www.google.com/reader. Once there you are going to see a “Subscribe” button. Click that and a box will pop up. We need to paste the feed URL we copied above into this box. To do that click inside the box and hit the control button + “v” (you can also right click your mouse in this space and when the pop-up box shows up, click “paste”). Then click the “Add” button in this little box. You should now be subscribed to the blog with your reader looking similar to the screen shown below. In the future you can check all blogs you subscribe to by just visiting this reader and clicking on the new titles that show up.
Sometimes when you click a subscribe button a small box will come up offering different choices for subscribing. Almost always, Google Reader will be one of the choices. So just click that. It will take you to a page where you are asked to choose if you want to subscribe using Google Reader or “Add to Google.” For now, I recommend sticking with the Google Reader choice. Clicking that automatically adds the blog feed to your Google Reader.
Commenting on and managing a blog
After you’ve spent some time reading blogs, you might even start to think about commenting on some sites or even starting your own blog. When you get to that point, make sure to check out the articles we’ve already published to get you started: Public works blogging 101 and Public works blogging 102. And keep checking back, or better yet, subscribe, because we’ll continue to post articles with additional tips about blogging in the future.