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Art, Courts and Social Media

In 2012, the Pew Internet & American Life Project conducted a survey of over 1,200 arts organizations to “understand how arts organizations are using the internet, social media, and other digital technologies to connect with the public.” The study found that enhanced public awareness, sharing and debate brought about by use of social media and other digital technologies are clear drivers of engagement with arts organizations and with art itself. Would a comparable survey of Canadian court use of digital technologies and social media disclose a similar effect on public engagement with the law and the Canadian justice system?

Yes.

While the Canadian judicial firmament may not currently post such striking headline statistics as American arts organizations (99% with a website, 97% with social media presence, 94% posting photos about the organizations and their works), most would agree that we are heading in that direction.

More to the point, we are heading in that direction for the very purpose of increasing engagement, awareness and understanding. Rare (and I would suggest, ill-fated) is the think-piece or discussion paper about a justice initiative that doesn’t include a recommendation to incorporate web publication and engagement tools as a part of the implementation plan.

1.0 to 2.0 to 3.0

Varying quality notwithstanding, all Canadian provincial, territorial, superior and appellate courts have a web presence. All carry some variation of a message explaining the role of the courts in the administration of justice. And all provide a significant amount of additional information such as judgments (directly or as CanLII links), practice notes, and links to educational material and relevant related resources.

Whether you would describe this as meeting a minimum threshold of public engagement or providing a strong foundation for moving to the next stage may depend on your point of view about the obligations of courts as public institutions. From my perspective, and to borrow a line from Patrick Cormier offered at the Modern Courts conference, the courts have exhausted the potential of Web 1.0 (publishing) and, individually if not collectively, judges others in the system are pushing to move forward to 2.0 (interactivity) or even 3.0 (personalization and seamless online/offline integration).

Using digital technologies to achieve internal efficiencies is a major focus on the courts, and as the Modern Courts conference offered significant insight into gaps and challenges, objectives and best practices for implementation, I won’t dwell on this area. My focus will be on the lessons of the Pew study in matters concerning public access, participation and engagement by means of social media.

Engaging content

Facebook pages or blog posts with pictures of judges at courthouse staff parties may not be the next logical step (and, indeed, might never be), but some element that moves the courts beyond mere one-way publishing is definitely in order.

It is already happening in the periphery through things like the Nova Scotia courts twitter account (though still used solely as a broadcast medium) and through court-adjacent organizations like the libraries. In addition, court administrative services departments across the country are actively seeking to enhance their ability to distribute information and to more effectively manage interactions with the legal community and public at large.

The Pew report [HTML, PDF, YouTube clip] describes in great detail the various ways arts organizations use digital technologies and the various objectives to which these technologies are put. Several uses and benefits of social media were identified, but most had some connection back to engaging an audience with the organization by way of its content.

Clearly, arts organizations like opera houses, art galleries, Shakespeare festivals and the like do not offer direct parallels to the courts in all circumstances. For example, “increasing live audience” probably does not appear among the strategic objectives of the courts. Moreover, while they have the potential and occasionally deliver in grand style, the courts are not there to entertain.

However, like arts organizations, courts are in a “content” business. It just so happens that the “content” of the courts’ activities is not so much “performed” or “displayed” as it is “discovered” and “issued”. So, irrespective of its solemn provenance and purpose, court information such as judgments, practice notes and other informational and educational materials is the basis upon which courts can reach out and engage the communities they serve.

Lessons from the arts

Over nine in ten respondents agreed that “social media is worth the time our organization spends on it” (58%-very true; 33%-somewhat true). Positive outcomes of these efforts included:

  • Increased public awareness of the organization
  • Clarity in public understanding of the organization’s mission and how the public can assist/support
  • Connection with “patrons” and other key stakeholders
  • Facilitating connections between and among stakeholders to spread beneficial information

The most common negative outcome was exposure to and amplification of “unfiltered” negative feedback about the organization or its activities. As the flipside of negative feedback is the opportunity to learn, even this negative outcome can spark some positive action.

Digging deeper into the study, respondents offered the following as the main means and purposes for using social media to engage with audiences:

  • 90% of the arts groups in this survey allow patrons to share their content via email, Facebook, or Twitter
  • 82% use social media to engage with audience members before, during, and after events
  • 77% of these organizations also use social networks as a barometer to monitor what patrons and the public are saying about their organizations
  • 65% use social networks to learn more about their patrons through more direct communications, as well as online surveys and polls
  • 52% use social media to crowdsource an idea, from possible programming decisions to the best times for sessions or seminars
  • 35% of these groups use location services such as Yelp, Google Latitude or Foursquare to interact with patrons
  • 28% host discussion groups or threaded conversations

It may be too much to ask to have a court crowdsource a decision and it may be highly improper to for the court to engage with litigants “before, during and after” trials, but it seems quite reasonable to expect a court to make extensive efforts to ensure its publicly accessible material can (subject to concerns about personal information) be easily accessed and widely shared. And while we probably wouldn’t like the idea of courts using Foursquare to track the whereabouts of the lawyers who appear before them, we likely hope that courts already monitor twitter and blogs to improve their appreciation of the experience of their stakeholders.

Some distance is warranted, but separation is not

While I would personally enjoy following tweets from Lord Denning, Alberta’s legendary Master Funduk or Ontario’s Justice D.M. Brown, I can appreciate the impropriety of a sitting judge riffing on the activities of their court 140 characters at a time.

It is also probably best that we be left to simply imagine the possibilities of a blogging, comment or twitter flame war between a Supreme Court justice and a mouthy internet troll. But I see no reason why it would be inappropriate for court administrative staff, as a departmental initiative, to embrace social media tools to advance the objectives of the court and to promote awareness and understanding of the courts’ activities.

Social media is a sufficiently novel development that we are all still learning the ever-changing etiquette and best practices. But to the extent there is a generally-accepted truth of what constitutes effective use it is that authentic participation in the medium is greatly preferred to sterile broadcasts or flagrant self-promotion. So to the first brave souls that venture beyond the relative safety of the court website to walk among the people in the social media world, I offer this advice:

Bring your content, bring your messages, but please bring your ears, some personality and a thick skin as well. You will find among your “followers” many who appreciate the effort and will readily share what you bring to the conversation, and like the arts organizations in the Pew study, you too may find greater success in advancing your primary objectives.

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