Government’s Embrace of Social Networking

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PBS’ MediaShift has an interesting post by Mark Drapeau where he makes a compelling argument for how government could and should use social media tools to transform how it engages and relates with the public. Couldn’t agree more with Mark about the need of government to embrace the spirit of creativity and trial-and-error characteristics of the social software community. Mark writes:

“Social software has numerous government applications, including information-sharing within and between agencies; collaborating with outside partners like humanitarian workers; public outreach and crowdsourcing; and empowering people with inexpensive, simple, mobile technology. In addition, as hostile entities become more adept at using social media for propaganda, it is imperative that governments familiarize themselves with social technologies.”

He links to an insightful memo produced last month by the Federal Web Managers Council that looks at the perceived and real barriers within the federal government regarding the use of social media tools. The memo also proposes solutions to the barriers. Interestingly enough, the memo’s authors write that social media in government has become the number one topic of discussion within their government Web manager community over the past year. This memo and the promises for use of technology  from the incoming Obama Administration give me renewed hope that the federal government will finally get it.

As Mark writes, government’s adoption of social technology “can make networking and engagement with the public simple and powerful, make research faster, identify influencers in useful micro-niches, provide mechanisms for combating negative publicity, and measure public sentiment to help inform public policy.” All levels of government, whether it’s on Capitol Hill or in state houses, from court house squares to city halls, would benefit greatly once they start using these invaluable social networking tools and the “indirect, intimate influence it propagates.”

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  • In embracing social media, the federal government has to create its own path, avoiding the constant and sophisticated commercial data collection, profiling, and targeting of users we have today on most sites. Indeed, the Obama Administration should first quickly move to address online privacy and consumer protection on social networks and most other commercial online services (search engines, video networks, etc.). Citizens and other members of the public should not be forced to access US government related services and give-up their privacy. Nor should we permit these commercial sites to collect, analyze, store and use information gathered when the public accesses federal services (all of which will likely go into to targeting profile). The Federal Web Managers Council memo is wrong-headed in a number of areas–including its proposal that the government “rescind” its current prohibition on using “persistent” data-collection analysis cookies. The same memo also urges the new Administration to accept whatever privacy policies each commercial site has, regardless of their implications to personal autonomy and security. It also endorses having federal information alongside commercial advertising online, in essence permitting government services to act as a shill for mortgage loans, credit cards, health remedies, etc.

    The Obama Administration should be advocating engaging in social networking and other new forms of digital expression in a responsible manner. It will have to address the privacy and consumer protection problems which are at the real core of our digital experience. Yes, we are on the eve of a major change in how the public and the government communicate. But it should be created in a unique way to empower citizens and the public–not merely exist in the shadow of the online marketing industry.