Social media IS engaging in the political process

I have a voice. You have a voice. Everyone using the Internet to connect with people all over the world has a voice.

We deserve to be heard.

Social media is amplifying that voice, letting us reach people and institutions like never before. Smart companies and individuals have leveraged social media to connect with more people than ever before.

But this week I had a local politician tell me my voice didn’t matter. I didn’t show up for a public hearing, and thus what I have to say — while publicly — isn’t the same. But he wasn’t just talking to me. No, he was saying that anyone who engages him on his official Twitter and Facebook accounts isn’t really engaging in the political process.

I have to ask, why would you even be on social media then? The idea being social media is to engage people.

So, what was this hearing about and why wasn’t I there? For several years now, a small but vocal minority has been trying to get a pedestrian bridge built from a parking garage to a new library under construction in downtown Silver Spring. All pedetrian bridges were expressly forbidden by CBD Urban Renewal Plan and the proposal has been voted down before. But this vocal minority won’t rest, and thus we have more hearings.

The reason I — and almost everyone else who lives in Silver Spring — wasn’t at the meeting was that the meeting was in Rockville, Maryland, at least a 30 minute drive from the proposed spot of this bridge. Why would that be? Well, to officially engage in the official process one must travel to the official place of politics, which is Rockville, the county seat of Montgomery County, Maryland.

I don’t own a car, and many people who live in the area don’t either. Silver Spring has great public transportation and is increasingly becoming more walkable (that public transportation is much better to get between Silver Spring and DC, Arlington and Alexandria. Getting to Rockville isn’t quite as easy). This is one reason why so many people in the area are against a bridge that’s designed to serve car drivers from outside of the area at the expense of local residents.

You might understand then why I was a little bit upset when one of my local politicians wrote this:

“I agree that social media has its benefits but I don’t think it substitutes for actually engaging in the process.”

How is reaching out to an elected representative to personally — and publicly — engage in a dialogue about issues not engaging in the process? Why does showing up for “official hearings” the only way to engage in the process?

This is archaic and a great way to keep people disinterested in politics. Local politicians count on low turnout at “official” events to justify decisions. “If you were so against this bridge being built in your town, how come you didn’t show up to this other town while you were working to voice your opposition to it?” As polarscribe said on Twitter, “brilliant, nobody under 50 matters.”

It is true that the way politics are conducted — especially at the local level — the process is largely aimed at older constituents. There are formal hearings held at times that younger people are often working or trying to raise their families. The idea that social media isn’t a way to engage in the political process will only further keep younger voters disinterested in politics.

But social media is popular with older cohorts too. The Internet is popular with everyone. The only thing I see old about this is how many politicians act like it’s the 1980s still.

The Internet is a transformative technology. It’s one of the biggest inventions in human history. It has the power to make the political process more transparent, open and inviting.

Let it. Embrace the Internet. Embrace social media.

Social media can help liberate the Arab world, but it can’t help me reach my local politicians? Social media can’t help me explain to my politicians why I would be against a $1.5 million bridge to serve car drivers over those of us who live in the area, while the county has had to make huge cuts to close a $779 million budget gap? That’s ridiculous.

Before Silver Spring was redeveloped and given a walkable core, it was economically depressed. The urban renewal plan forbade pedestrian bridges (also know as skywalks) because they are precisely the kind of thing that leads to an urban area becoming blighted. These bridges are built to get people off the streets, which allows cars to move faster. These areas become opening hostile to people on foot and to ground-level business activity.

My hometown of Cleveland, Ohio has them and many depressed rust belt cities do too. These cities are hemoraging residents left and right because they are little more than places for suburban commuters to work in and watch sporting events in. To the immediate residents of downtown Silver Spring, building pedestrian bridges to serve commuters from elsewhere in the county is a great way to throw Silver Spring back into the economic depression it emerged from.

Bridge proponents are pushing for the bridge under the guise of accessibility for the disabled. The argument goes that disabled people that drive to the library can’t be expected to use crosswalks on the ground level, and thus we should build a pedestrian bridge to make it easier to cross. One person even suggested that this bridge needs to be built because this library houses materials for the visually impaired.

Obviously, this is a ruse, because no one wants to admit that they support this bridge because they don’t want to step foot on the sidewalks of Silver Spring. Yes, some disabled people do drive. I would submit that the visually impaired do not.

I have several disabled people in my condo building, and downtown Silver Spring has a lot of disabled people because it’s not car-dependent. There are ample sidewalks, ramps and curb cuts. Many of these people do not drive, but they are able to live full lives because they live in an area that makes it easy to get around without a car.

To recap: A local politician said that the only way to engage in the official political process about a bridge for the disabled in the city I live in was to somehow travel to another city to discuss it. And not being unable to make the meeting and instead sending him messages via social media does not count as engaging in the political process.

How accessible.

To every Montgomery County politician reading this blog, I am against the pedestrian bridge to the new Silver Spring library. The people who live in the immediate area largely agree. I’m going to send you tweets, Facebook messages, e-mails, phone calls.

This blog post is written in ink far more permanent than any faxed or mailed letter ever could be. It’s public and people have the power to share it and comment on it. If I wasn’t serious about this issue, I wouldn’t have written something so public, so permanent.

I may never make it to a hearing in Rockville, but that doesn’t mean I don’t have a voice. Or a vote.

We have a voice

We will be heard.