Social media apps defy government skeptics

Social-media proponents, on the defensive for so long, have reason to believe they are swaying the skeptics at federal agencies.

Now, perhaps, a case might be made that social media is more than a passing fad.

Granted, a year ago — even just six months ago — it seemed that feds spent more time talking about social networking than actually doing it. Social-media applications such as Facebook, Twitter and GovLoop were popping up all over the place, but the social-media champions were greatly outnumbered by the skeptics, who raised the usual objections:

“Social networking is nothing but a time suck.”

“Facebook is fine for connecting with friends but has no place at the office.”

“The security risks far outweigh the benefits.”

Now numerous agencies have discovered the wonders of viral networking when it comes to public outreach, such as the Army, which has made Facebook a centerpiece of its recruiting strategy, and NASA and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, which regularly share news through Twitter.

Unfortunately, in most agencies, the day-to-day work was left unchanged. If there was a social-media revolution going on, most feds were not in on it. This is often for a very good reason: Some of the agencies making the most hay with social networking in the public sphere still blocked access in their own offices. The skeptics held sway.

But social-media proponents, on the defensive for so long, have reason to believe they might win the day.

Here is the evidence they might cite.

Exhibit A: The Army

Last month, Army officials ordered U.S. bases to stop blocking soldiers’ access to some of the most popular social-networking sites.

As reported on Wired.com, the order states: “The intent of senior Army leaders to leverage social media as a medium to allow soldiers to ‘tell the Army story’ and to facilitate the dissemination of strategic, unclassified information, the social-media sites available from the Army homepage will be made accessible from all campus area networks."

According to the order, soldiers should have access to Facebook, del,icio.us, Flickr, Twitter and Vimeo via the Unclassified but Sensitive IP Router Network. The order also instructs network managers to block several Web sites, including Photobucket, MySpace and Live365.

An Army official said the decision “wasn’t really a reversal of policy” as much as an effort to address inconsistent and often arbitrary decisions that had been made from base to base.

Wired’s Noah Shachtman notes that “it’s almost certain some Army posts that still block the now-approved Web 2.0 networks. Still, it’s a click in the right direction for the armed service, which seems to be making a slow but steady recovery from its lingering hostility towards social media.”

Mitch Wagner, executive editor for community at InformationWeek, was puzzled by the specifics of the order. “So why is Facebook allowed, but MySpace blocked? Why is video-sharing site Vimeo allowed, but YouTube blocked? Why is photo-sharing site Flickr allowed, but Photobucket blocked? Why block Pandora?”

Exhibit B: NASA

NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center took a different approach, one that embraces social media but acknowledges the arguments of hard-nosed skeptics.

Convinced that Facebook introduced too many unknown security risks, the space center opted for a homegrown social-networking application, called Spacebook.

The application, which went live earlier this month, offers user profiles, group collaboration tools, social bookmarking and other features, all available through NASA’s intranet.

Linda Cureton, Goddard’s chief information officer, announced the launch — appropriately enough — on her blog.

But NASA officials learned that despite all the hype, they still must sell employees on the benefits of the technology, according to Socialfeds blogger Sara Cope, reporting on a speech in April by Spacebook project manager Emma Antunes.

“Even if your audience is a bunch of 20-somethings, you still need to train them,” Antunes said. “’We may like technology, but we hate extra work. Show me how I can use your product to make my job easier’.”

Exhibit C: Iran

This might be a bit of a stretch, as far as feds are concerned, but the real buzz last week was news that protesters in Iran were using Twitter, YouTube and other social-networking sites to organize their rallies.

“Forget CNN or any of the major American 'news' networks,” writes Ari Berman on a blog at The Nation. “If you want to get the latest on the opposition protests in Iran, you should be reading blogs, watching YouTube or following Twitter updates from Tehran, minute-by-minute.”

But Joel Schectman, writing for Business Week, offers a slightly different perspective.

“Iran experts and social-networking activists say that while Iranian election protesters have certainly used social-media tools, no particular technology has been instrumental to organizers' ability to get people on the street,” he writes. “Indeed, most of the organizing has occurred through far more mundane means: SMS text messages and word of mouth.”

On that point, anyway, the jury is still out. But all in all, the case for social media is getting stronger.

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