Millions of people are using online social networking sites like Twitter and Facebook to keep in touch with friends. But for people like Minneapolis Mayor R.T. Rybak, acquiring and maintaining online relationships has become part of their jobs.
Rybak is talking to a lot of people. More than 4,000 Twitter users follow him. And Rybak has accumulated 5,000 Facebook friends, which is the limit. Rybak says he's tried to get that number extended, but to no avail. He says it's important to be able to reach as many constituents as possible.
"In these jobs you can get pretty walled-off," he said. "And I've really always made an effort to try to keep the connections before I was mayor, while I'm mayor. And Facebook and Twitter have really helped me do that alot."
Unlike some Twitter and Facebook users, Rybak does not constantly send updates about where he's going or what he's eating. A Twitter follower or Facebook friend of the mayor's may read that Rybak has just been to the Pride parade, or seen a wild turkey while walking around the lake.
The mayor also posts more policy-related items such as the city's falling crime numbers. For non-Twitter or Facebook users, the mayor also keeps a blog and has a YouTube channel.
Rybak says he uses his private phone and computer for personal messaging, and is emphatic that he does not have staff members writing posts for him.
"This is me. When people see Facebook or Twitter, that's me talking to them."
But the online world is not always a friendly place. A few Facebook pages are devoted to criticism of some of the mayor's policies, such as his proposal to dissolve part of the city's civil rights department. There's also a page called "10,000 Citizens Against Mayor RT Rybak."
As of Wednesday, the group had 83 members.
Regardless of how people feel about the mayor's policies, few would dispute Rybak's role as an early adapter of networking technology.
Jim Farstad, president of a Minneapolis-based consulting firm called rClient, is one of the thousands of Twitter users following the mayor. He gives the city high marks for expanding the ways it reaches out to citizens.
"We're not leading the pack in all of those areas," he said. "But we're certainly a strong user of those kinds of technologies."
Farstad is working with cities interested in getting federal stimulus money to help them build broadband networks. He uses a smart phone to access email, internet search engines, Twitter and Facebook to make connections with people in other parts of the country doing the same kind of work.
There are advantages to immediate communication and feedback. But there are pitfalls. Farstad says Facebook messages and tweets are, for the most part, permanent.
"And so, you want to be careful. This is not the kind of thing you want to put out at two in the morning after you've had 15 cocktails."
There are other drawbacks to blending business and personal network use. Bridget Cusick, communications director for the Matt Entenza gubernatorial campaign, also follows Rybak on Twitter. She uses online networking sites as a part of her job, and sometimes that can make the work day longer.
Cusick adds she constantly checks her email, Twitter and Facebook accounts because she never wants to be the last one to find out about things -- especially whatever the press and others are saying about her boss.
"Yes, I'm off the clock roughly between the hours of midnight and 7:30 a.m. or something like that," she said. "But, I am somewhat addicted to my handheld device."