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.
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.”