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.
At first glance, it looks like a strange mix of unedited rants by aggravated citizens and upbeat public relations by an ambitious mayor. But a sustained look shows that a surprising number of these virtual conversations follow a cycle — citizen complains, mayor listens, city solves the problem — that until recently would have seemed utopian for an overpopulated and underfinanced metropolis in the developing world.
In Latin America, Mexico City is not unique. Use of social media is growing at a breathtaking pace across the region. When Facebook passed the 1 billion user mark in October, few people noticed that 19 percent of those users live in Latin America (which only accounts for 8 percent of the world's population). 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.
Mayors seem to be betting that by micromanaging urban issues via Twitter or Facebook, they will give voters concrete evidence of their effectiveness in office. This is a risky tactic, of course. Many local governments that find it easy to virtually "engage" with constituents may not have the budgets, the organization, or the staff to actually solve the problems that generate complaints. The result, in that case, could be a voter backlash amplified, ironically, over the same social media channels.
I suspect most mayors fully understand this risk, and that those who respond to complaints are making a good faith effort. We have no empirical evidence whether social media are leading to greater efficiency and responsiveness in the delivery of city public services. The question is of critical interest to the development community, which has struggled for decades to improve the delivery of social services, and to monitor the quality and sustainability of public investments in areas such as sanitation, schools and transportation.
Over the coming decade, hundreds of millions of city dwellers in emerging economies such as Mexico, Brazil, India and China are likely to rise from poverty. Much has been written about how their increasing expectations will pressure governments like never before to deliver tangible improvements that make urban life safer, healthier, and more egalitarian.
I predict that social media will have a highly disruptive but largely positive effect in this context. At a minimum, these technologies will give new vitality to the ancient ideals of participation and accountability. At best, they might shorten the wait for new lights in a darkened park. In either event, the next mayor of Mexico City, like others across the developing world, will not really have the option of ignoring social media. That's where people are choosing to speak, and where they expect to be heard.
This post originally appeared on The Atlantic.