For the last decade or so, lots of smart people have debated the purpose and value of social media. Do we really need to take pictures of our half-eaten food? How many duck-faced selfies does one person need? Are 280 characters all that's required to express complex thoughts? And if I work in local government, how do I use this tool to tell our story without alienating or angering the people, families and businesses that call our community home?

Getting social media right in any environment is hard, but local government — which is, as a result of painful experience, risk-averse — presents unique challenges. Even the most well-intended tweet or status update can easily descend into a rage-filled comment section. Just try posting something on Facebook about an upcoming City Council meeting where a proposal to allow apartment buildings in a single-family neighborhood will be discussed. Seriously. Go ahead. Try it.

You will regret it.

The result of this (very justifiable) caution is a hesitancy to use social media for one of its most effective purposes. Since its inception, social media has been an incredibly effective tool for community building. It doesn't matter whether that community exists around Kylie Jenner's makeup tips or a shared interest in video games. Either way, those communities are real, and they matter to the people who belong to them.

But community building isn't just the domain of social media influencers and gamers.

Successful community building is also the difference between a city that attracts and retains a talented workforce and a city that watches its labor pool (and any chance at a vibrant local economy) disappear before its eyes. Simply put, social media illustrates some basic facts about humanity: We all want to belong to something. We all want to feel like we are a part of something bigger than ourselves. And, we all want to live somewhere that feels like home.

Unfortunately, most local governments use social media only to push information toward residents rather than to engage them.

Need an example? Every year on the third Monday of January, the nation honors Martin Luther King Jr. How do most local governments recognize the importance of Dr. King's contributions?

For the most part, local governments:

  1. Post a meme or a photo featuring one of King's quotes (looking at you, Portland, Maine).
  2. Or inform residents of government office closures (looking at you, Phoenix).

There isn't a city in the United States that would intentionally disrespect King's legacy. Phoenix, Portland and the thousands of other cities that treated that day the same way weren't guilty of dishonoring one of history's most important Americans. What were they guilty of? Failing to capitalize in a meaningful, authentic way to use social media to strengthen their communities.

So what should they have done?

Rather than use their social media feeds solely to push a message toward their audience, local governments should use it to elevate the people and organizations working hard to create better cities, counties, regions and states. Martin Luther King Jr. Day represents a fantastic opportunity to do that. Instead of merely reminding residents that offices will be closed or posting the same meme as a thousand other cities, why not also feature residents who best embody the spirit of MLK?

Digital community-building doesn't begin and end with the sender delivering a message people want to hear. At the civic level, community-building occurs when local governments recognize and elevate the important role residents play.

Most local governments have a decent-sized social media following. Twitter and Facebook are excellent ways to learn more about road closures and upcoming events, but those kinds of feeds receive remarkably little engagement.

That Jan. 20 tweet from the city of Phoenix informing residents that municipal offices would be closed? It received two likes and eight retweets — in other words, .00029 percent of the city's 34,300 Twitter followers engaged with the post. Typically, a good Twitter engagement rate ranges between .2 and .9 percent. While that latter number might be attainable for Kylie Jenner, it's probably unrealistic for a routine announcement of municipal business, but there is no reason social media should be limited to routine announcements. Clearly there is a lot of room for improvement for local governments that understand the mostly untapped power of social media.

Of course, the real objective of approaching social media as a tool for community-building is far more important than the number of likes. A social media strategy centered around community-building can be an important step toward attracting and retaining the workforce, businesses and people that make a city special.