AUGUSTA — The city of Augusta cautiously dipped a big toe into the social media swimming pool by creating an official Facebook page.

The city joined a growing number of municipalities communicating with their residents and the rest of the online world through social media outlets.

But unlike many users’ pages, where about anybody with an Internet connection and a Facebook profile can post just about whatever they want, Augusta’s page will be a one-way street on the information superhighway, not a two-way communications avenue.

There is no way for the public to leave comments on the site.

“The beauty of a thing like Facebook is anybody can put up anything and that’s immediately public,” said Fred Kahl, director of the city’s information technology department. “The problem with it is anybody can put up anything and that’s immediately public. It needs to be controlled. It is a very quick and easy way to get information out.”

The page, at www.facebook.com/CityOfAugusta, went up a week ago, Oct. 15.

Kahl first proposed city councilors and department heads have administrative rights, which would give them the ability to post information to the site, but city councilors expressed enough concern about improper materials being posted that all information will instead go through City Manager William Bridgeo’s office before it can be posted.

“I support the idea of Augusta having a Facebook page; I think it’s a powerful tool,” said City Councilor Darek Grant. “But I’m concerned with (too many people having) administrative rights on being able to post. What someone puts up and finds to be humor might not be funny to someone else. There have to be controls.”

Officials at the Maine Municipal Association say they have gotten fairly frequent requests from municipalities for guidance. The association has addressed the potential benefits and pitfalls of using social media as a communications tool at annual conferences and also makes the guidelines it uses for its own pages available to members for them to use as the basis for their own polices, according to Eric Conrad, director of communication and educational services for the Maine Municipal Association.

Conrad said starting about two years ago, an increasing number of towns and cities started using social media, such as Facebook and Twitter. He estimated several dozen Maine municipalities have such pages.

“We view it as one more way of communication, of getting word out to people,” Conrad said.

The Maine Municipal Association’s Facebook page, like Augusta’s, doesn’t allow members of the public to leave comments. And only a handful of staffers — the executive director, communications staff and legislative staff — have the ability to directly post information to the site.

Conrad said MMA’s municipal members vary with some allowing the public to comment on their pages, others not.

In Richmond, where Economic and Community Development Director Victoria Boundy oversees the town’s Facebook page, which she started in November of last year, members of the public can post items for discussion.

“I had been hearing people wanted to have different avenues to get information about what the town is doing, and I thought this would be a good two-way communications avenue,” Boundy said. “It’s like a virtual town hall forum, in a way. One more way to share what the town is doing, and get feedback.”

Boundy checks on the page a couple times a day. She said she’s never had to take down an inappropriate post, but said the town is aware it needs to constantly be on guard against the potential for misuse of the page.

Richmond’s Facebook page has gotten 244 “likes,” which means those users automatically receive posts made to the town’s page on their own pages.

“We’re cautious in that we’re trying to keep up to speed on any potential ramifications of using it,” Boundy said. “So far, it has been a positive way to get information out.”

Conrad said MMA’s members have indicated the most valuable uses of Facebook and Twitter for them have been in public safety and public works. He said he knew of municipalities in Maine where missing accused criminals were located by someone who saw their sketches or photos posted on Facebook.

And public works departments can use the pages to alert citizens to road construction and parking bans.

Bridgeo said for Augusta to allow the public to post on the city’s site, there would have to be somebody assigned to watching it.

“We’re so skinny in staff, there’s no communications office, there’s no public relations department,” Bridgeo said. “I can’t think of one person in the city, or on the school side of things, who you could say, ‘You’re now the gatekeeper of the Facebook page.’ We know we’re probably behind the times on this. It’s a matter of resources.”

Keith Edwards — 621-5647

[email protected]

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