I first met Mayor Gavin Newsom shortly after I moved to San Francisco in 2006. It was on the balcony off his office in City Hall where he was being interviewed about the city's green initiatives. While an ABC News crew set up, he made a beeline for my wife and me, asked where we lived in town, and immediately launched into all the sweeping changes we'd soon see there. Nice guy. Social guy, but you know, he's a politician.
Last month, however, our very own Gav, he of the Goodfellas hair and good-vibrations nightlife, was dubbed "America's Most Social Mayor" by social media thinktank Samepoint. Not only does the man stay active on Facebook, produce weekly update videos on YouTube, and make new media gestures like having his first public appearance after his most recent inauguration be in Second Life, but also he has the most followers on Twitter of any American mayor—1,372,231 at the time of writing. This number is staggering considering San Francisco's population stands at around 800,000; compare that to Mike Bloomberg in New York who's got a miserable 16,400.
Burly tech cred indeed for Gavin, and certainly a far sight better than the FDR-style weekly radio hour he used to do on Green 960.
I've been a fan of Newsom's YouTube updates since they started three months ago, and decided to see just how far our thoroughly wired young Mayor's cables extend. I wanted to hang out with our newly-declared candidate Lieutenant Gav. More precisely, I wanted him to come to my birthday party at Encore Karaoke Bar on California Street. And I was going to speak to Gavin in his native tongue, social media, to do it.
I started with that great social beast, Facebook. (Note: Mayor Newsom does, in fact, have a MySpace page, but it's not been updated since April 2009. There, I learned that his heroes include Bobby Kennedy and Malcolm Gladwell, and saw that he has posted a Vampire Weekend song.)
I had hoped to befriend Gavin, but it seemed that I could only become his fan, an early blow to my hopes of dueting to "Landslide" on my birthday. Nonetheless, I set to work searching for a way to send him a message. Of course, as a fan, not a friend, the best way to get to the man seemed to be to leave a comment.
Yet somehow, "Hey Mayor Newsom, I'd love you to come to my birthday party," seemed a rather pitiful response to "Gavin Newsom films a YouTube update from the 33rd Project Homeless Connect (PHC). Last year alone PHC helped more than 10,300 poor and homeless San Franciscans." Especially considering the reasoned and thoughtful comments left by my fellow citizens.
Plus, after reading more of his status updates, it became clear that though this is social media, there's little social interaction going on here. Facebook is a channel for Newsom—or one of his staff, a fact I later verified with his deputy communications director Brian Purchia—to keep us abreast of what he's doing, not to actually interact.
With Facebook something of a bust, I moved onto the sweet spot in the mayor's social media strategy: Twitter. Though he uses it to push out policy positions, announce city initiatives, and keep up the political patter, there are also numerous personal tweets that clearly can only have come from him. A self-professed iPhone addict, Gavin's best tweet (and the one that clearly marks him as a true-blue lifecasting San Franciscan) came upon the birth of his daughter. Minutes after the big moment, he wrote:
No chance of a robotweeter, here. This is clearly the place to reach out to the man, with the added bonus that he actually reads aloud and responds to a handful of tweets on each YouTube video. Not only might he actually come to my party, but he could read my tweet on camera.
Knowing the Mayor is a busy guy, and not wanting to catch him at the last minute, on March 1st I tweeted: "@gavinnewsom Come to my birthday party if you can. Encore Karaoke, 1550 California St. March 13th, we'll start at 8:00. Hope to see you."
Days passed. No reply. A YouTube update too, and nothing still.
To let the man know I meant business, I figured I'd dash off a quick email to email@example.com, if only to reinforce what my 140 characters had made so clear. Still nothing.
I tried a second note, this time hoping to outfox the Mayor by hitting up his handlers at firstname.lastname@example.org. I'm willing to allow that Gavin doesn't read every email that comes his way, but surely his scheduling folk do. It's their whole job, right?
This social media stuff is crap! My birthday was fast approaching and I was nowhere! Until I remembered the sage advice of my former boss and journalistic mentor, William Safire. "You want to talk to somebody, kid?" he once instructed, "Use the damned phone." Before I did, I checked out the Mayor's schedule for March 13th, it's always online at www.sfmayor.org/schedule, and saw he had nothing booked. The time to strike was nigh.
A quick ten digits, and just like that I was chatting with City Hall employee Nicole Wheaton. I told her that I'd sent emails, tweeted, been stymied by Facebook, and deemed MySpace not even worth trying. Techno-woes aside, I'd love it if the Mayor would come to my party. Figuring that having an actual human on the phone—from the next town over from where I grew up, I learned—I presumed I was golden. I'd be feeding Gavin cake before the week was out.
Wheaton started by asking if I was "a friend of the Mayor" then told me that he had a couple possible engagements on Saturday the 13th, but there was a chance he'd come. I countered with, "Sunday the 14th is my actual birthday, and I'm having a little lunch with my parents if he'd prefer that." She parried: "I cannot schedule the Mayor on a Sunday. That's private time."
Nothing definitive, but I felt I'd made headway. The scheduling office, and by extension the Mayor, knew about my party, knew he'd been invited, and just might show up. I was rather depressed that it took a totally analog phone call to get that far, but nonetheless, it was progress.
I figured I'd give Gav one last show at proving himself king of all social media by dropping him a final tweet, playing the one ace I had.
Nothing. Fucking, nothing.
Saturday the 13th rolled around, and nobody was talking to me. Not Wheaton, not Biz and Evan, not Facebook, not Gmail, not nobody. And most certainly not Gavin.
As I made my way through my first karaoke jam of the night I thought, maybe he'll show. As I rocked steady to my second, I thought, maybe he'll call. Then I looked at the legion of lovely, leggy, Polk Street babes shouting their lungs out to Soft Cell, Journey, and Nancy Sinatra and wondered how many had had the very same thoughts about the very same man. Oh Gavin, why won't you call? A text, even!
Not to ride Gavin too hard, since there are far more pressing issues facing him than getting to my birthday party, and unlike John McCain, for whom there is a 31% chance that he has learned how to send an email, clearly our mayor clearly gets new media—but if he's not reading and responding to my notes and tweets, what the hell is he doing?
The Gav's communications guy, Brian Purchia cleared things up. He told me what, when the mind isn't clouded by birthday-induced myopia, should have been clear. "The Mayor still does reply to specific people on Twitter," he told me. "But when you get over a million followers it becomes really hard to keep up."
He also noted that though Newsom doesn't read all tweets coming his way, his staff does. And they are able to pull out the most pressing issues of the week from all this raw, largely constituent-made data. Taken less as a way for the Mayor to make plans for after work drinks, but instead as a large scale, penetrating—and free—form of crowdsourcing, it suddenly becomes a very powerful tool. Not only does this help inform what issues he'll take up in his YouTube addresses, but keeps the Mayor on top of what's being said on one of America's most vibrant public forums.
Going further, Gavin quickly deduced that all those tweets asking him to fix a pothole on Sutter Street or complaining that the door to the ladies' room in Holly Park is locked, would be put to far better use if they went to the city's 311 service, than to him. Three months later San Francisco had America's first Twitter-linked public works line. Smart. Useful. Maybe he's better at this stuff than singing Springsteen.
So now I get it. I get why he's the Most Social Mayor, and I get that as the head of the nation's most tech-obsessed city it only makes sense that he'd be thinking about civic engagement in a similar way to the folk down the road in Silicon Valley. To be honest, I love that he's doing it, that he understand how Americans communicate, and that he's participating himself, and finding new ways to engage San Francisco. If only he'd now put that iPhone to it's true use. Mr. Mayor, I'm still accepting belated birthday wishes.