What's missing from the Vancouver Police Twitter feed?

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Last week, the Vancouver Police Department launched their Twitter presence with a day-long marathon of tweeting the calls that came into the force. It was a success, rocketing them from zero to well over 1,800 followers that afternoon.

I got to comment on it for CTV News (here are the national and the local stories). While a lot of folks were critical of how long the VPD have taken to arrive on Twitter, I'm a little more forgiving; it can be a little hard for strongly hierarchical organizations to make the leap to the world of real-time online public conversation.

They're in the thick of it now: from suggestions that they open up their crime maps and databases, to media questions about major incidents, tocomplaints about their antiquated web site, to gratuitous verbal abuse.

It's been an interesting experiment, although it's not quite clear yet where @VancouverPD is headed. When the reporter asked what I'd recommend for the future, I said they needed to become a lot more conversational... but now that I've had a little more time to read both their Twitter stream and the reaction to it, I'd answer differently. Yes, I'd like to see conversation (and that's picked up admirably in recent days) – but more than that, I'd like to see compassion.

Because reading the discussion around their tweets, I see a lot of people ridiculing the mentally ill and people in distress - or at least riffing off their behaviour to tweak their friends. The @VancouverPD's tweets about a woman dancing naked in the street or a man yelling at passers-by  quickly become fodder for jokes.

And why wouldn't they? In a context-free tweet, the stark facts of the situation are funny. Once you remember that these are people who may well be facing overwhelming difficulty or pain, though, the jokes start to fall flat... but you get a better, fuller idea of what's really happening.

The first day's tweets were supposed to give us a picture of the daily life of the Vancouver Police Force. Compassion is part of that picture, and so far it's been missing - not because their feed has been deliberately callous, but because their approach to date hasn't made room for it. Even a few tweets reminding people that these are real people facing real struggles could provide some crucial context.

(Postscript: Justin Long shared the same concerns in a post a few days ago, framing it in the context of a similar initiative in Manchester.)


Anonymous says

December 14, 2010 - 12:10pm

This tweet highlights the main concern I have with how the VPD is using Twitter:


Tweets tend to appear rather flippant due to the 140 character limitations anyway, so context to their tweets is critical. But, equally critical is consumate professionalism in the tweets. There is no place for the social media officer to editorialize on the police calls they are tweeting. It's inappropriate and dehumanizing of the people who are the subjects of those tweets. A casual tone of writing also has no place when dealing with this type of subject matter.

I've seen a lot of police forces using social media and so far the most common criticism of their Twitter or Facebook profiles that I've seen is when they are too casual in the tone of their posts or they only broadcast only rather than engage. The VPD account has stopped the broadcast-only mode of operations (granted it was meant to just be an exercise in showcasing the number and type of calls they receive in one day) which is a huge improvement.

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