It took just over 600 people to push an experienced communications firm to the brink and make the city of Hamilton reconsider how it represents itself on social media.

And they did it all on Twitter.

A firestorm of controversy erupted Jan. 8 around Dialogue Partners and its engagement strategy with the city, dubbed Our Voice, Our Hamilton. In the wake of a single tweet that some say showed the company was out of touch with the community, over 400 people contributed comments to the #TellOHEverything hashtag on Twitter within a matter of hours.

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(Tweetreach.com)

Even more staggering is the fact that tweets under the #TellOHEverything hashtag reached 143,909 Twitter accounts alone on Jan. 8, and just over 207,000 accounts from Jan. 9 to 15.

All told, 607 people contributed to the conversation with 2,898 tweets.

According to acting Staff Sgt. Michael Spencer, a group of 600 people would certainly make Hamilton Police stand up and take notice if they were marching at city hall. In fact, it's almost double the number of protesters seen at recent rallies by Hamilton teachers or at Idle No More blockades.

Despite the numbers involved, the social media response in the Dialogue Partners debate is stirring controversy in terms of whether it's a legitimate avenue for civic discourse in Hamilton.

Some see the city's burgeoning Twitter community as an organic and non-linear way to share ideas and push for change. Others see it as a free-for-all in which a pack mentality perpetuated by a select few people can quickly escalate into bullying or even libel.

But the opponents and proponents both agree on one thing: it's all about control.

The story

After an errant tweet from Dialogue Partner's @ourhamilton Twitter account earlier this month, people slammed the company contracted to provide an avenue for Hamiltonians to speak up about city services.

In a Twitter exchange, an employee of the communications company asked what HSR stood for (it's the acronym for Hamilton's transit system). Twitter users leapt on the exchange saying it showed the company was out of touch with the community it was being paid to engage.

The furor escalated after it was discovered that the company's Pinterest board featured a photo from Hamilton, Ohio. Further investigation revealed malicious code had been placed on the new website, which the company blamed on a hacker.

Hamilton Twitter users had a field day, using the #TellOHEverything hashtag to heap scorn upon the company.

Here's a quick look at how it unfolded:

  • At 8:41 p.m. on Jan 7, Twitter user Eric Gillis told the @OurHamilton Twitter account that the continuation of voluntary pay for the disabled on the HSR was an important city service.
  • At 8:55, @OurHamilton responded "what is "HSR" just so we can accurately capture your comment."
  • That tweet was retweeted by 20 people — some with thousands of followers.
  • Between 6 and 7 a.m. alone on Jan 8., 75 people tweeted with the #TellOHEverything hashtag.
  • From noon onwards, hundreds of people contributed to the conversation with that hastag — peaking at 2 p.m. with almost 200 tweets. Over a period of 18 hours, 404 people contributed 1,395 tweets to the conversation. Those tweets reached 143,909 Twitter accounts.
  • As the debate raged over the next week, hundreds more tweets were contributed to the discussion. 207,104 accounts were reached from Jan. 9 to Jan 15. You can read the entire traffic report (and look for your tweets) here.

Because of the public outcry, the future of Dialogue Partners' $376,000 contract with the city has been called into question. Its fate will likely be decided at city hall on Jan. 23.

Leading the charge

"This was a community self-organizing in an organic way to push for change," said Ryan McGreal, the editor of Hamilton community blog Raise the Hammer.

Raise the Hammer, along with local journalist Joey Coleman, were among the top contributors to the online discussion, according to Twitter data CBC Hamilton obtained from TweetReach, a company that provides in-depth analytics on Twitter campaigns.

McGreal says the way this debate unfolded online is indicative of a "traditional hacker ethos" — not being malicious, but in the "traditional MIT sense" of a person who is curious, irreverent, and doesn't like to follow rules.

"It's a community that doesn't like to be controlled — and governments are always terrified of that," McGreal said.

'It didn't become a debate about the state of the issue — it was a public lynching.'—Brad Clark, councilor

Others say some control is necessary — mainly self-control. They're wary that the immediacy of social media can trigger knee-jerk reactions, rather than fostering reasoned debate. If you look at some of the Tweets CBC Hamilton collected under the #TellOHEverything hashtag, it's obvious that some fall into that first category.

Ward 9 Coun. Brad Clark told CBC Hamilton that he prefers online discussion to take place through a blog or personal website, "because they can be controlled very carefully."

"Communication between humans can't always be done in short derivatives," he said, adding that Twitter is not his preferred vehicle for civic discourse.

"On social media sites, I don't see a buffer," he said. "It's great for saying 'Oh, I went to the concert tonight,' but that's about it."

Clark adds that anonymity can be dangerous for governments because of the legal implications when an "anonymous person" posts something that could be considered libelous. He also says he thinks the "over the top" language connected with the #TellOHEverything campaign didn't help generate any kind of positive discourse.

"It didn't become a debate about the state of the issue — it was a public lynching," he said.

To that end, Clark says that blogs like Raise The Hammer can sometimes get "out of control."

"If you allow your blog to get hijacked in an attempt to be open to free speech, you're missing out on responsible civic discourse," he said.

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(Tweetreach.com)

Putting a face to a name

McMaster University communications expert Alex Sevigny told CBC Hamilton the reason citizens reacted with outrage during the Our Hamilton controversy is Dialogue Partners created an impersonal campaign — something that rings especially hollow on social media.

He said having a trusted spokesperson as the figurehead of this sort of project would do a lot of good, especially since he thinks those he calls the community's "influencers" felt like they weren't solicited or taken into account.

"Attacking a person you know in real life is much more difficult," said Sevigny, the director of the Master of Communications Management program at McMaster. "No one likes taking shots at someone they see at Starbucks. There's no honour in that."

"But this was a blank face to the population."

And because it was a blank face, there was no reason for users to feel any empathy. But some people still don't feel this was an excuse for the way the community behaved.

Former Hamilton mayoral candidate Mahesh Butani watched the entire thing unfold online — and says the reaction was indicative of the fact that the Hamilton Twitter community is "hardly nurturing and supportive of diversity of views."

"There is little tolerance for thoughts that do not meet the narrow range of themes usually being brought forward or discussed," Butani said.

He adds that the press did even greater damage in taking what was brewing on twitter and "amplifying it verbatim without objective filters.

"Our politicians saw and read the amplification of this in the press and TV, and reacted the way they did," Butani said. "Them misconstruing this to be 'actual community feedback' and acting upon it is what is dangerous."

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(Tweetreach.com)

Thinking twice

But Twitter user Evelyn Myrie told CBC Hamilton she thinks Twitter is a great tool to "engage and strengthen our democracy."

"There were legit concerns raised about process that needed to be answered," she said. "The robust dialogue on Twitter facilitated that."

Her one caveat? Myrie says the medium could have been used "more responsibly."

"I was about to get involved in the conversation, but then gave it a second thought," said Myrie, the executive director of the Hamilton Centre for Civic Inclusion. But that second thought worked to her advantage, considering that some of the things posted online about the Our Hamilton campaign ended up being incorrect.

There was the question about the origin of a photo used on the main page of the Our Voice, Our Hamilton site, for example. Many users and media outlets said the picture had been taken in Ottawa — but it had in fact been shot in Hamilton, and featured the mayor riding one of the bikes.

Speed is an advantage with public discourse, Myrie says, "But let's check the facts a bit and do a little homework, first."

Looking forward

So where does all this put a city that still doesn't have a defined social media strategy in 2013? Has this controversy created a precedent at city hall that means similar cases spun out of social media could follow?

McGreal thinks so.

"City hall has gotten to the point where they realize they can't ignore this," he said.

But there's sure to be a battle between what social media users want and the city wants, he adds.

'It's a political reality, so rather than complaining about it, we need to adapt to it.'—Alex Sevigny, McMaster University communications expert

Ward 4 Coun. Sam Merulla said that the Our Hamilton ordeal has just illustrated the fact that the city has to change how it views social media.

"We have to formalize it and have in-service training for council and staff," Merulla said. "It's inevitable."

But that could take some time.

"Bureaucracy really is the key to all standstills," he said. "But it also provides a pause to get it right, as well."

Municipalities always want a "top-down" hierarchy in which they can tightly control their message, McGreal says. "But social media is all about creating things from the bottom," he said. "It's a very basic human thing."

And so governments and users end up battling for control of an increasingly lucrative medium. "But regardless, the days of politics being done behind closed doors are going away," McGreal said.

"As the barrier to political process drops, more people will want to get involved."

Sevigny says council has no choice whether or not to pay attention to social media. "It's a political reality, so rather than complaining about it, we need to adapt to it," he said.

"Politicians — or at the very least their staff — should be on the cutting edge of this stuff. They have a responsibility to pay attention to communication in their community."