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The sunny side of the Tweet

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Whitman-feature

District 13 Councillor (Hammonds Plains-St. Margarets) Matt Whitman is wearing a button that says “Yes” in five languages. As I walk into the Train Station Bike & Bean coffee shop, a favourite local café, he’s Tweeting a photo.

An avid social media user (about 9,000 Facebook friends and approaching the 10,000 tweet mark), Whitman takes an unabashedly upbeat approach to life online—lots of tweets that end in multiple exclamation marks, and exhortations to be grateful and look on the bright side. “I’m on Twitter because I enjoy it, so I want to make sure the dealings I have on there are enjoyable,” Whitman says.

Whitman-tweets

Paradoxically though, the focus on positivity has turned out to be somewhat divisive. Until recently, Whitman’s Twitter bio boasted, “I block negativity.” And that’s an attitude that has raised concerns, because part of the job description for city councillor would seem to be dealing with issues that upset people.

“It’s okay to be engaged and to talk about issues, but there’s a way we can solve these problems positively,” Whitman says. He argues he’s not trying to shut down debate, and makes a distinction between dealing with issues (he brings up potholes a lot) and being negative.

“I’m not blocking problems or people, I’m just trying to do things in a positive way,” he says. “Blocking negativity is different from blocking issues like potholes and litter. Those are issues, but the solutions to those issues can be positive.”

But blocking people (which prevents them from seeing what you post on Twitter) is precisely what first drew attention to his social-media style. He seemed to relish blocking those he found negative, including local journalists. When constituent Jenny Gammon raised concerns, Whitman tweeted that she was “not blocked yet…Looking forward to some worthwhile tweets from you, then we will see.” Then he blocked her.

Looking back, Gammon says, “I think Matt’s intentions may be really great, but I think in this case he’s using striving towards positivity as a way to shut down conversation… It is kind of upsetting. Basically from that point on I felt like I don’t really have a Councillor.”

Even though Whitman later apologized (on Twitter), Gammon says the damage lingers. “I saw him at a fundraiser a few weeks ago, and he knew who I was, but it was really awkward,” she says. “As a constituent, I don’t feel like it’s been resolved.”

Whitman has previously said that nobody is blocked from contacting him: they can email or call and he’ll respond. Twitter, he says, is not mandatory for Councillors, so he can use it any way he wants. “We don’t have to be on [social media]” Whitman says. “We have to answer our phones and we have to respond to email… Anything above and beyond that is not mandatory.”

Anita Hovey is a social-media expert who runs Twirp Communications, and who lives just down the street from Whitman. She says it’s a bad idea to redirect constituents trying to connect with you to your phone or email. “If you have a business and your customers are on Twitter talking about your products or services, you need to be there to talk to them,” Hovey says. “It’s the same for a city Councillor. If their constituents are there talking about the issues, they need to be there. It’s really no different.”

Whitman acknowledges that he still doesn’t “have very thick skin. That’s something I’m working on. I’m probably getting a little better at taking criticism now. I’ve learned that just by someone being critical or giving advice you may not want to hear, that’s not being negative.”

And there’s no more crowing about blocking. “It’s a very short list of who is blocked nowadays,” he says. “Very short. It’s something I don’t try to do. I haven’t blocked anyone in a long time.”

While Whitman continues to focus on the sunny side (even urging followers to TGIM—the M being “Monday”), he seems to be dialling it back. Soon after speaking with me for this story, he changed his Twitter bio so it no longer referred to blocking negativity. He also mused about dropping the word “positive” altogether because “it’s been beaten to death.”

But he still has a troubling habit of referring to “negative people,” at one point in our conversation saying, “People who think there is no solution to our problems and keep threatening to move out West—those people are negative.”

I ask him if he understands how characterizing people as negative could be alienating. “Yes,” he says. Then he adds that he’s just being true to who he is online, and “who I am is a positive person. If the negative people can’t handle that, then it’s going to be tough.”

  • MacDonald

    Sounds like he’s got some negative thoughts to work through. People who move out west are negative? What does that mean? Many people who are moving out west see no options, no opportunities here and thus feel hopeless and uncertain here. Not negative. Perhaps negativity is a symptom of the grander issues we have in NS and the east coast but it doesn’t mean it isn’t valid or should be ignored.

    There is something to be said for trying to understand someone’s position and how and why the feel the way they do. There is a reaction for every action. Every type of attitude is contagious and how we decide to treat one another and their messages is important. Especially in a leadership role.

  • Josh Furlong

    I used to converse with Mr. Whitman on Facebook. It was awesome to be able to communicate with your Councillor so easily. It’s hard for anyone to be engaged in the issues and to be able to communicate your concerns in between work and raising a family; social media has made it much easier to be engaged.

    Anyhow, I disagreed with him on one particular issue and attempted to explain my perspective. He didn’t make much effort to understand my point and apparently it was too negative for him because I’ve been blocked.

    It would’ve been cool to be given an explanation that this was happening and how to reach him otherwise. But that wasn’t case. Just suddenly was no longer able to communicate with him via that medium.

    I figure I caught him on a bad day because he had generally been receptive; it’s just a little too easy to block people when you don’t like what they’re saying, which seems like a rather negative reaction to me.

  • Ryan Van Horne

    What Coun. Whitman fails to understand, based on the comments attributed to him in this article, is that elected officials are judged on all of their actions. Just because Twitter is not “mandatory” for councillors does not mean that people or constituents raise an eyebrow when he fails to grasp the concept of social media. He also seems a tad delusional in that he assumes that anyone who is in disagreement with him is “negative.”

  • Philip Moscovitch

    To be fair, it was pretty clear in his interview with me that Councillor Whitman doesn’t think disagreeing with him is in and of itself negative. He says he wants to find positive solutions.

  • Ryan Van Horne

    That could also be just empty rhetoric and I’m more concerned about the comments he makes in the final paragraph. He brands himself as a “positive” person with an underlying assumption that if you have a problem with him or disagree with him, you are a “negative” person. However, perhaps he’s learned his lesson and we should give him the benefit of the doubt and let his constituents judge him. It certainly will make an interesting case study on how politicians approach social media.

  • Troy Blades

    I don’t think he says that people that move out west are negative. It’s the people that keep “threatening” to move because something isn’t going their way here.

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