By Steve Kelman

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Social media rules!

Social Media Tree

When I opened my Wednesday morning New York Times over breakfast (yes, I still read this in hard copy!), I saw on the front page a headline, "After shooting, hashtag fuels a campaign." The story was about a hashtag called #IfTheyGunnedMeDown, which had spread virally on Twitter (168,000 mentions when the Times article was written) after the killing of a black teenager in Missouri. The article noted that 40 percent of blacks aged 18-29 use Twitter, compared with 28 percent of whites, and that "Black Twitter" had become a powerful grassroots communication tool.

A few minutes later I turned to check headlines on the inside sections of the paper, and saw on the first page of the Arts section an article called, "On Twitter, mourning is collective." This one was about reactions to the death of Robin Williams. In the minutes after his death was announced, there were 63,000 tweets a minute about Williams. "When beloved celebrities died in an earlier era, we rushed home and gathered around our television sets," the reporter wrote. "Now we stare at our smartphones. ...In the age of social media, everyone is an obituary writer."

Actually, I had noticed about a week earlier a story distributed by the Jewish News Service called "Israeli students wage social media battle over Jewish state's image," that discussed the mobilization by the Israeli government of 400 student volunteers working from a university's computer room to give Israel's version of the Gaza war. A student-run Facebook page showed the harbor in Sydney, Australia, in flames, with the tag line: "How would they act?"

"We really believe that today the real war takes place on the Internet," an Israeli student leader stated. Warring hashtags, such as #GazaUnderAttack and #IsraelUnderFire, have lit up the Twittersphere.

Taken together, these three stories dramatically illustrate just how important social media have become in our public lives. Yet I am guessing that most government agencies have only haltingly and tentatively adapted to this new reality.

This change of course has been building for some time. The Obama campaign, young and hip, made extensive use of social media in its 2008 campaign (Twitter, founded in 2006, was just beginning to take off), but the influence of social media on that campaign was restricted mostly to younger voters. Social media played crucial roles in organizing and publicizing protests during the Arab Spring in 2012, but that was in non-democratic countries with few other forms of political protest available. What we are seeing now is how much social media are becoming central for mainstream communication about public life.

Government of course is not completely absent from this world -- the General Services Administration, for example, has been actively training and encouraging other agencies to take full advantage of social media. And of course there are also big limits to how government organizations can be engaged -- from hard rules of engagement at some agencies to a general reluctance to get involved in the kind of loud disputes that often mark social media dialogue.

But I feel certain that, in most agencies, government is profoundly underinvested in social media presence. There is a large legacy infrastructure for press releases, press conferences, press briefings and the like. In most places, social media seems more of an afterthought, not a strategic engagement.

But getting on social media is free, one reason they have been a good tool for disadvantaged groups and individuals without a lot of cash to spend. Social media also gives government a chance to communicate in an unmediated way -- clearly there is an important role for journalist-mediated communication, but also one for unmediated interactions. Government needs to think creatively about how to adapt social media presence to the constraints of its environment. And senior leadership needs to give this big change in the environment in which government operates the attention it deserves.

Posted on Aug 14, 2014 at 12:43 PM


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