@ThisIsVt, Vermonters taking their turns on Twitter
By JESS BIDGOOD
THE NEW YORK TIMES | July 30,2012
The Twitter page for Vermont Tourism is shown last week. Copying Sweden, Vermont’s tourism department has launched a new social media campaign that relies on its residents to tweet about why Vermont is a great place to live, work and visit. The first tweeter, Ken Millman, who lives in Alburgh and works in Burlington, has tweeted about fishing, his commute and visiting his mother in Quebec.
When Sweden handed the keys to its national Twitter account, @Sweden, to private citizens late last year, it accumulated tens of thousands of followers from around the globe who read — and occasionally wince — as one uncensored Swede after another tweets about his or her daily life for a week.
The Vermont tourism department was watching, too. And at a brainstorming session this month, its employees wondered if Vermont could follow Sweden’s lead, creating a Twitter account to be used each week by a different Vermonter. “At first I was like, ‘What are we going to do here, this sounds like a train wreck!’” said Jen Butson, the director of communications for the state’s Department of Tourism and Marketing. “That’s the communications mind.”
Still, Butson said, the project could offer this rural state — where the population has the second-oldest median age in the nation, according to the 2010 census — a chance to present a contemporary, humanized narrative as it works to attract more tourists and young residents.
“It’s neat that we can introduce a Vermont that is Web- and tech-savvy to people who wouldn’t assume that’s part of what Vermont is,” Butson said. “We’re kind of hip. We like to have a good time, we like to share our stories.”
So last week, less than three weeks after that first meeting, the department launched a feed called 2ThisIsVt, as well as a website where Vermonters can nominate one another (or themselves) to be the state’s Twitterati. Within four days, the feed had more than 560 followers, according to a metric provided to Butson by tweetreach.com, and messages from the feed have showed up on people’s Twitter feeds more than 430,000 times.
A local advertiser, Ken Millman, is the first at the helm.
“I thought about it for, like, one second, and said, ‘Yeah, that’ll be a blast,’” said Millman, 53, who once used his personal Twitter account to start writing a novel, one burst at a time.
Millman is not being paid by the state to post messages this week, although his company, Spike Advertising, has worked with the state’s tourism department.
Some of Millman’s Twitter messages have been wryly — if predictably — bucolic. “I don’t care how cliched, I love cows. Love ‘em,” Millman wrote, posting a picture of himself lying on a hammock in front of several cows during a shoot for a TV spot..
Another took a morose turn.
“Home of a neighbor hermit who was a picker, collector, inventor of things,” wrote Millman, with a picture of a modest aluminum-roofed house. “He died under his tractor this past winter.”
Millman said he has heeded lessons from @Sweden’s experiment — as when Sonja Abrahamsson, who was designated to message in mid-June, generated controversy with a string of questions about Jews’ place in historical discourse. “Sonja’s kind of famous — it was pretty obvious what not to do, from a common-sensical point of view,” Millman said.
The tourism department is taking its own steps to ensure the feed stays clean. They are asking prospective users for their occupations, “so they’ve got some stake in Vermont,” said Butson.
And they have a few words of advice.
“Don’t say anything that you wouldn’t say to your 12-year-old neighbor or your grandmother,” Butson said. “But that’s the strictest parameter we’ve been having.”
It’s an edgier-than-usual approach to social media for a state agency. Although some politicians have colorful, busy feeds — Mayor Cory Booker of Newark, N.J., comes to mind — many government feeds typically read like canned communications copy.
“It’s the first time here in the States where they’ve actually turned the account over to citizens, but it’s not surprising,” said Andrew Rasiej, the founder of Personal Democracy Media, which tracks the intersection of technology and government. “There’s more integration going on between the way citizens use technology and the way governments use technology.”
By Thursday, more than 80 Vermonters had been nominated to tweet in future weeks. A bookbinder named Elissa Campbell had been selected to follow Millman, who says he looks forward to returning to anonymity. He had been spending two hours a day on @ThisIsVt, sharing his thoughts and conversing with the feed’s followers.
“My wife this morning said, ‘OK, to get a good morning kiss, do I need to send you a tweet?’” Millman said.