Gilbert signed up for Facebook when membership was still restricted to college students. Social media was a key part of his campaign when he ran for mayor of his hometown in 2012 at the age of 25.
“I was able to put my message, things that had been trapped in my brain for a decade, on Facebook and have 500 people read it in an hour or two,” Gilbert said. “I think sometimes it wasn’t even what I was saying but how I tried to say it that made people think, ‘Maybe this kid could handle this.’”
Approximately one year into his term, Gilbert quietly deleted his personal Facebook page. His public profile has not been updated since his State of the City address in November.
Gilbert is now active on Twitter, where he has 162 followers. Most of his recent tweets have been pictures of the grocery store that is currently under construction downtown.
Last week, Gilbert unveiled a social media strategy for the city that will rely heavily on Facebook to reach residents with recovery updates. Still, he is not quite ready to embrace the 1.3 billion-user network again himself.
“On a personal level, I am very much out of touch with what Facebook has become. On a professional level, I absolutely respect what it can do,” he said.
The candidate who promised more open communication from city hall and to remain available while also holding down a full-time job got more than he bargained for once he found himself in the mayor’s seat.
Facebook blurred the line between Gilbert’s public and private life to an extent that was troubling to him.
At one time, he had at least a casual relationship with every person on his friends list.
After the election, he felt compelled to accept dozens of friend requests from strangers for fear that a rejection would insult them.
Seemingly overnight, Gilbert’s newsfeed transformed from family photos and updates on his favorite sports teams to memes of snarky cats and intimate details about people he had never met.
Facebook users frequently bypassed his public page and contacted him about city business through his personal profile instead.
“I want to be what I need to be as a mayor, but no one needs access to me at 1 a.m. to ask about a job. It showed me a boundary that I didn’t know needed to exist,” Gilbert said.
Simultaneously, Gilbert grew concerned that too many residents were substituting Facebook use for participation in their city government.
Attendance at bimonthly city council meetings did not increase as Gilbert had once hoped.
On several occasions, residents who had opted out of face-to-face dialogue with their elected representatives while a decision was pending voiced their complaints on the Internet after the vote was over.
Over time, Gilbert also became disenchanted with the negativity that he saw playing out on Facebook.
During the campaign, he pushed for the city to embrace social media to counteract the damage that had been done to Cordova’s image after the 2011 tornadoes. An ordinance that prohibited FEMA trailers from being brought into the city ignited a firestorm of controversy that became national and international news.
Without an established social media presence, city officials were unable to fight back.
“We had a huge black eye after the storm, and a lot of that wasn’t from facts. Our inability to share facts with people was a problem,” Gilbert said.
Although the city now has a website and multiple Facebook pages that are updated regularly, rumors persist thanks largely to misinformation being circulated on social media.
Several months ago, word spread that local grocer Mark Bozeman would not be operating the new Piggly Wiggly. The truth, Gilbert says, is that the city’s committment to him has never wavered.
Bozeman was a well-liked business owner in the city before the tornadoes, and residents and representatives of the city alike are eager to welcome him back when the new store opens at the end of the year.
“It was such a malicious attack,” Gilbert said. “That is not an attack on me or our administration. That kind of misinformation is an attack on the recovery of Cordova, Alabama.”
Gilbert freely admits that the new social media strategy is not intended to spawn more Facebook conversations but rather to drive traffic to the city’s website and ultimately city hall for more information.
“I want to make sure people understand what we are doing here. First, I want you to have the facts. Also, you may have a better idea than the one I just presented. So maybe you come to our next meeting and say, ‘I saw this update, and I think there is a better way,’” Gilbert said.