Teachable moments from NASA's social media project

Spacebook uses 'connections' instead of 'friending' so everyone can see every profile

If your boss "friended" you on Facebook but then "unfriended" you, would that be considered a hostile employment action?

Officials at NASA concluded that it would and, consequently, they set up their internal “Spacebook” social media system to avoid that scenario, according to NASA social media expert Emma Antunes.

“We decided you cannot have [social medial] ‘friends’ at work. It has to be a win-win for everyone,” said Antunes, project manager for Spacebook and  Web manager for the Office of the Chief Information Officer at the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. In NASA’s Spacebook, no friending is allowed; everyone is connected to everyone, she said.

Antunes offered several other lessons learned from NASA’s Spacebook experience during the Virtual FOSE conference on July 21. NASA set up the internal social networking system to allow for collaboration among employees a year ago; it has been a much talked-about example of how federal agencies are using Web 2.0 technologies.

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Although Spacebook is a form of social media, it was designed as an internal system for the benefit of the organization, and that priority has continued to be foremost, Antunes said. That makes it different from Facebook and other social media services that are designed primarily for individual benefit.

“Having it on the intranet changes the focus,” Antunes said. “We are using the enterprise tools to benefit the organization.”

Creating the online system and inviting people to use it is not enough to ensure an active and creative system, Antunes said. Managers should expect to spend 50 percent of their time in outreach, encouraging and demonstrating use of the technology, she said.

Listening to users’ feedback--especially criticism in the early stages--is extremely important, Antunes added. Managers should be prepared to make changes to the system to respond to complaints, and by doing so they will foster more participation among employees. “When people feel heard, they are more likely to participate, “ she said.

Setting up metrics to measure success, as well as treating the social media experience as a project to be managed, also are helpful approaches.

Also, preparing to deal with spam and negative comments among members is best done in advance, she said. Forum moderators should be vigilant because conversations can happen quickly on social media systems, and if the moderators are absent at key times, that could be a major problem.

“People expect to hear something within hours or even minutes,” Antunes said.

At NASA, no major policy changes were needed to begin using the new system.

“At NASA, we don’t do social media because it is cool,” Antunes said. “We do it for a business goal.”


About the Author

Alice Lipowicz is a staff writer covering government 2.0, homeland security and other IT policies for Federal Computer Week.

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Reader comments

Tue, Jul 27, 2010 Emma Antunes

Thanks for the article! A clarification - while Spacebook doesn't use the term "friends," it does indeed have connections. On internet sites like Facebook and LinkedIn, only friends can see your profile. In Enterprise 2.0 apps such as Spacebook, everyone can see your profile. Everyone is entitled to see everyone else's profile, because this is an open, transparent work environment. Everyone has access to the agency phonebook, right? A connection acts like an address book, making it easier to keep up with what colleagues are doing and lets you share content with them. The reason behind not having "friends" at work is that you can't imply a special relationship - it's important that there be an even playing field where everyone has an equal chance to participate. What if the boss friended some people and not others, or decides later he's no longer your friend? That's where the "adverse personnel action" concern comes from. Lesson to agencies - work with your human resources folks and your lawyers - they work with these kinds of issues regularly, and can help guide you on your social media journey.

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