After a hesitant beginning, the federal government has begun to embrace social media in a big way. Here are a few of the most creative forays.
A few years ago, perhaps, simply ramping up an agency Twitter account or Facebook presence could qualify as innovative. These days, however, it takes a bit more. Here are six examples from this year – some carefully planned, others truly viral – that put federal agencies and officials on the social-media map:
The President's Google+ Hangout
The Monday after the 2012 State of the Union address, President Barack Obama jumped into Google's social network for the White House's first real-time online interview. A Google representative moderated the group video chat, which included four Google-picked participants and a group of tie-clad high school students.
The president fielded questions from the live participants and YouTube submissions on a range of issues such as drone use in the Middle East, rising costs of higher education, and how to talk to children about the economy. Live participant Jennifer Wedel took the president to task over the continued use of H-1B visas while her husband, an engineer, was struggling to find a new job after a layoff. The president asked Wedel to forward her husband's resume so he could help find him work. Another live participant, Christine Wolf, waved her kids into the screen so they could meet the president.
According to the White House, more than 227,000 people participated by either submitting or voting on questions and the YouTube video of the Hangout has been viewed over 710,000 times. The White House has hosted other Google+ Hangouts since, but none featuring the president.
CDC's zombie post rises from the dead
When Centers for Disease Control and Prevention posted "Preparedness 101: Zombie Apocalypse" on its Public Health Matters Blog in May 2011, the agency had no idea it would rise again. The popular post shared what to include in
emergency kits and how to create evacuation plans for any disaster, not just those caused by the undead. The high traffic crashed CDC's blog for a few hours and "zombie apocalypse" cracked Twitter's trending topics.
In 2012 CDC revisited its zombie theme, sharing preparedness tips that would have helped out AMC's "The Walking Dead" characters and anniversary posts about zombie-themed preparedness drills. The agency message was spreading: Be prepared for all types of emergencies. Zombies made emergency planning more fun … until June. A strange wave of crimes with flesh-eating and cannibalism made national headlines. Google searches for "zombie apocalypse" increased. A CDC spokesman clarified the agency did not know of any viruses that reanimate the dead in an email to the Huffington Post, a response widely reported throughout the media and made a segment on "The Colbert Report." The Public Health Matters blog has been – perhaps coincidentally – zombie-free since.
Texts From Hillary
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton became the queen of microblogging platform Tumblr when images of her checking a smart phone and sporting sunglasses on board a plane to Tripoli got the LOLcats-style caption treatment. Texts From Hillary paired Clinton with the fellow politicians and celebrities, but Madame Secretary always had the last – or best – word. "Who runs the world?" a photo of Rachel Maddow asks. "Girls," Clinton fictionally responds
Clinton's Tumblr takeover wasn't a State Department plan, just a joke between Buzzfeed Senior Editor Stacy Lambe and Public Campaign Action Fund Director Adam Smith that took off. It was a strange meme: It simply celebrated Clinton doing her job and doing it well. Clinton herself got in on the fun and submitted an image of her texting with Lambe and Smith.
After one week, 32 posts and several news stories, Texts From Hillary pulled the plug, boasting in its final post that it had more than 45,000 Tumblr followers, 8,400 Twitter followers and 83,000 Facebook shares.
NASA's Mars Curiosity landing
NASA makes going viral on social media look easy, but then again, that agency lands rovers on Mars.
The Mars Curiosity entry, descent and landing on Aug. 6 had all the making of great television: a $2.5 billion price tag, the possibility of spectacular failure and the nickname "the seven minutes of terror." More than 3.2 million viewers, however, turned to Ustream's live streaming site instead of watching the landing on TV. At its peak, 500,000 people were concurrently watching the landing across NASA HDTV, NASA JPL and NASA JPL 2 streams, which beat the audience numbers for major TV networks except for Fox, according to a Ustream spokesperson. The Ustream platform also integrates Facebook, Twitter and other social networks, allowing for real-time messaging. According to Ustream, more than 109,000 social messages were sent Aug. 6.
The Mars Curiosity landing also launched a new Internet celebrity: #MohawkGuy. As the mission unfolded, people fixated on flight director Bobak Ferdowsi's red-tipped, star-embellished mohawk. Ferdowsi became the face of the mission as fans created dedicated Tumblrs and bumped his Twitter account follower count from around 200 before Aug. 6 to more than 53,000.
NASA employees like Ferdowsi and others in the mission control room are free to share and chat with the public about their experiences on Twitter, though the agency also has official accounts. @NASAJPL officially live-tweeted the journey to Mars and @MarsCuriosity continues to share mission details in a witty, pop-culture savvy first-person voice, both on its Twitter account with over 1.5 million followers and on its Facebook page, which has been liked over 355,000 times.
When NASA transferred its famous space shuttles to museums, the agency's low-altitude flyovers sent the #SpotTheShuttle hashtag soaring into Twitter's worldwide trending topics. NASA and the Smithsonian made the most of the moment by publicizing planned flight routes, live-tweeting the events and encouraging anyone watching to share using preselected hashtags.
On the morning of April 17, the Discovery shuttle flew through the Washington, D.C. area attached to the back of a 747. Area shutterbugs went into a frenzy trying to snap shots of the piggybacked shuttle as it passed by the White House, Washington Monument, and when no landmark was nearby, regular old office windows. Twitter turned into a scrapbooking stream as users shared their shots on Flickr and Instagram. The Discovery's last flight merited 81,000 social media mentions, according to Salesforce.com's Radian6 blog.
Each time the agency transfers a shuttle, NASA repeats its efforts, sharing flight patterns and hashtags. On April 27, the space shuttle Enterprise flew around the New York metropolitan area on its way to its new home at the Intrepid Sea, Air and Space Museum. On Sept. 21, the Endeavor is scheduled for a four-and-half hour flyby over northern California and the Los Angeles basin. As each shuttle makes it final flight, it performs one last important act: getting people to talk about the space program.
Barack Obama's AMA on Reddit
Barack Obama wasn't the first politician to brave Reddit's Ask Me Anything forum but he made the biggest headlines. He also stressed the 60 additional dedicated servers Reddit added in anticipation of the traffic spike.
The lead up to the president's Reddit forum on Aug. 29 was short. He announced it on Twitter about 20 minutes before he started taking questions. Reddit users initially doubted it was really the president but questions flooded in, ranging from fluffy ones about favorite basketball teams to "What was the most difficult decision that you had to make during this term?". The president answered 10 questions. In one hour, Reddit reports it received 10,000 comments.
Other than the president participating in a Reddit AMA, the only notable news to come out the forum was confirmation the White House would release its beer recipes. But news wasn't the point: It was access to the president. Reddit reported the president's AMA received more than 30 percent of the site's traffic at its peak (the home page only get 15 to 20 percent), with nearly 2.9 million pageviews the day of the event and more than 5.2 million pageviews by Aug. 31.
Have a favorite government social media moment? Please share in the comments.