The writing on the wall

The nine most terrifying words in the English language, Ronald Reagan always liked to say, are: “I’m from the government and I’m here to help.”

I think we can now get that down to seven: “[Agency acronym here] would like to be your friend.”

How scary is that? Depends on your point of view, I suppose. In any event, it won’t be long before agencies of all stripes begin crossing the wide social-media frontier known as Facebook. And it won’t be long after that that a goodly number of Facebook’s 275 million worldwide users will be friending the State Department, NASA, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, and — heaven help us here — the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS).

Staff writer Doug Beizer reports this week that the General Services Administration has just concluded an agreement with Facebook, clearing the way for individual departments and agencies in the federal government to create their own Facebook pages, fan pages and groups. GSA previously worked out deals over terms of service language with YouTube and Flickr.

It’s still too early to know where this will ultimately lead U.S. citizens and their government — a CIA Fans Meetup? — but this much is clear: Very few people on either side of the equation have any clue about what to do with it right now. A few agencies are experimenting with Facebook pages and YouTube sites — the Library of Congress has put its huge database of public domain historical photographs on Flickr — and more are sure to follow in the months and years to come.

One of the more adventurous pioneers in this space is Linda Cureton, chief information officer at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center. Indeed, she’s quickly earned a reputation in her field as a fearless exponent of anything called Web 2.0. But as she writes in a guest column this week, she has experienced the same phobias as most of us digital newbies when broaching the social-media borderlands. Her advice: Hold your breath and jump in.

Our other guest columnists, Richard Pople and Mark Drapeau, also caution against those incipient practices that merely transport old-fashioned agency footprints into this new terrain. New media requires new thinking, they urge.

The GSA/Facebook story also provoked a lively discussion among visitors to Clearly, many government employees are made very anxious by Facebook’s tell-all spirit and culture.

We’ll never know how the Gipper would have responded to the Facebook phenomenon, though I somehow doubt he’d have hesitated to make anyone his Great American friend.

About the Author

David Rapp is editor-in-chief of Federal Computer Week and VP of content for 1105 Government Information Group.

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