When a housewife in a working-class district of Mexico City gets fed up with the lack of working lights in her local park, she logs on to Twitter and complains directly to the city’s mayor.
In an age of incessant digital chatter — and in a city of 22 million — this might seem futile. But the mayor, who has more than 600,000 Twitter followers, replies to her complaint within hours. He orders the city’s public works department to take action. Several weeks later, he posts photos of new lights being installed in the park and thanks the woman for bringing the problem to his attention.
In fact, the mayor’s Twitter feed reads like a gritty chronicle of life in a megacity. Potholes, of course, but also complaints and announcements about garbage collection, crime, traffic lights, construction delays, power outages, water supplies, bike lanes, flooded sewers, corruption, air quality, and the proverbial rude bureaucrat.
The governments of virtually all large Latin American cities now use social media to engage with citizens, and smaller cities are quickly following suit. The Inter-American Development Bank recently found that social media is used by governments in 70 percent of the region´s 140 “emerging cities” (those having 100,000 to 2 million residents and above-average economic growth rates).
Although the press has focused on Latin American presidents who have embraced social media as a potent new channel for old-fashioned political communications, something very different is happening at the municipal level.