In the wake of the devastating Woolworth Street fire, which destroyed a large chunk of Melbourne’s Northern suburbs, the City of Melbourne has begun a public inquiry into social media and the role it plays in shaping our lives. The inquiry will examine what happened and consider ways to make sure such a thing doesn’t happen again.

The focus of the initial stages of the inquiry has turned to the use of social media by public officials. Some government figures have spoken out against social media, claiming it has had a negative impact on their lives. One such critic is Victoria’s Police Commissioner Graham Ashton.

“I think the whole notion of social media is a mistake,” Ashton told 3AW radio. “I think it’s a fantastic way for people to connect with each other, but I don’t think it’s beneficial for public life, for police officers or anyone else.”

“If you’re going to use social media, then you need to be very careful about what you put out there because people can identify you, they can target you,” Ashton continued. “They can abuse you.”

The City of Melbourne will hold a public hearing into social media and its impact on policing and firefighting. This week, the City of Melbourne Council will examine how social media has changed the game for both firefighters and police, with or without the use of smartphones.

The inquiry comes at a time when social media is under increased scrutiny. In the lead-up to Christmas, the media has been filled with stories of accounts being compromised by hackers. Websites such as Twitter and Facebook are regularly the target of cyberattacks and everyday people’s personal data is at risk.

The City of Melbourne inquiry will also examine the issue of privacy and the impact of big data and fake news on our everyday lives.

Words With Friends

The issue of social media and policing was raised on Twitter last week when City of Melbourne councillor and former police officer Robert Pattinson suggested that politicians should take a leaf out of the book of popular social media game Words With Friends, which is played via smartphone apps.

“I think politicians should play Word with Friends instead of Scrabble,” Pattinson said. “It would be a lot more fun and a lot less stressful.”

It wasn’t quite clear what had prompted Pattinson’s comment, as he had been attempting to distance himself from associating himself with the word “scrabble” after it was revealed that he had acquired a personalised licence plate reading “SCRAB 1” during his time as a councillor.

Twitter user @dannywong_86 responded to the councillor, asking if he was suggesting that politicians should play the game to “learn how to think on their feet” in the same way that firefighters do after a major incident. Pattinson, again, was not necessarily suggesting that the game was a suitable learning tool for politicians, but that it helped him to formulate his thoughts during his time in office.

“I think the whole game is great. It forces you to think on your feet and engage with people you don’t usually interact with. I also find it really helpful to ward off journalists who want to talk to you about current affairs. It helps you to stay focused on the matters at hand,” Pattinson said. “It can also be quite stressful playing against people who are just out to get you. It’s good for your mental health to be able to detach from the distraction of the media and put your energy into solving problems.”

Council debates are often held in public and this was no different. After some back-and-forth between @dannywong_86 and Pattinson, other users began to chime in, with one user @benjamincannon suggesting that the game helped him to “visualise how a tweet could look in a newspaper”, while another user @matthewpapadakis questioned whether the game was suitable for public officials.

The final comment to emerge from the exchange was made by @dannywong_86, who said: “I don’t think [Words with Friends] is a game that should be reserved for politicians. It’s a game that should be available to everyone.”

Pattinson later clarified in a statement to the press: “I’m in favour of anyone, including politicians, being able to have a break from the daily grind and engage with their friends via a fun, light-hearted game. However, the game itself isn’t designed for those looking for a serious political engagement.”

Whether or not Pattinson is right about the game being suitable for non-serious use, there is no denying that it is a wildly popular app. In 2016 alone, Words With Friends saw an incredible 400 million downloads around the world.

The popularity of the game among the general population makes it an ideal tool for engaging with friends, family and others outside of work, which is why politicians should probably play it. There is also the option of customising the game to make it more suitable for use by those interested in government. For instance, you could set different word lengths for a Scrabble-type game or add images to make it a bit more aesthetic.

‘Scrabble’ Vs. ‘Words With Friends’

But does playing Word with Friends make a politician more capable of governing? It’s a question that has been asked of several high-profile politicians, including Barack Obama, who was photographed playing the game during his time in office. Is it possible that playing a word game helps to develop certain mental skills, such as vocabulary and quick thinking?

Words With Friends is, in many ways, complementary to Scrabble. While the Scrabble tiles are designed to be used in combination with stickers, the game itself is more of a conversation starter. “It’s a game you play with your family, your friends or whomever you’re lucky enough to have around you at the time,” Pattinson said. “It’s a game that forces you to engage with people you don’t usually interact with. And it’s a game that, at the end of the day, is all about having fun.”

While Scrabble is a classic and immensely popular, it is a very linear game that, in some ways, can be a little bit contrived. For those who play regularly, it is easy to become familiar with the patterns of play and the fixed words that appear most often. This familiarity, however, can breed contempt.

In the case of Obama, the former US president was seen playing Scrabble on a white board in his office, alongside the game’s editor, Chris Anderson. The game has been credited with helping Obama to better understand the complexities of the nation’s healthcare system. “To me, it’s like Scrabble but with the addition of graphics and a story line,” Obama said in 2010. “And who doesn’t love a story line?”

The question of whether or not playing Words With Friends makes a politician better at forming opinions and acting on them is an interesting one and one that may depend on the individual politician concerned. What is clear, however, is that all politicians need good mental skills to make governing easy. If playing Words With Friends helps to develop these skillsets, then it can only be a good thing.