Coming to terms with FaceSpace

The defining question for any CIO today is whether they allow their employees to access the latest, greatest hits of Web 2.0.

Chris Bronk is a research fellow at Rice University’s Baker Institute for Public Policy and an adjunct instructor of computer science at Rice. He previously served as a Foreign Service Officer and was assigned to the State Department’s Office of eDiplomacy.

The question I am hearing again and again from chief information officers inside and outside government lately is, “Do we need to do this anymore?”

One of the more vexing issues that the emergence of cloud computing and social media created is understanding how they will replace traditional information technologies that have been around for a decade or more. For instance: Is it time to switch to virtual storage? Can we let someone else host e-mail? The list goes on and on.

These can be hard questions, but they center on whether agencies can shut off some servers on their premises and flip on others somewhere else. But what of the opposite — bringing services out of the cloud and inside the organization? While the dust is still settling at the Pentagon about whether military personnel can access Facebook, send tweets via Twitter or watch YouTube videos at work, the defining question for any CIO today is whether to allow employees to access the latest, greatest hits of Web 2.0 from work computers. Some deny access and some don’t.

The prohibitions probably won’t last. Enlightened organizations have already embraced internal- and external-facing blogs, wikis and other participatory Web technologies. At the Homeland Security Department, Secretary Janet Napolitano has her subalterns posting on The Blog@Homeland Security and participating in dialogue about border issues on ning.com. DHS has evolved from doing public relations to full-blown civic engagement. Ideas are flowing in and out of the agency. This is exactly the sort of thing that federal CIO Vivek Kundra has been asking for: a window into government for citizens.

But what about the “F” word — Facebook? DHS isn’t on it, but the FBI, Navy and State Department have posted official fan pages. Many employees throughout government have personal pages on Facebook, including more than half of the members of my State Department A-100 orientation course. Facebook does what it does — connect people — very well. But the content belongs to Facebook, not its users or the U.S. government, and that makes people nervous. So government agencies are left to wonder whether to construct in-house social networks. The discussions on how to build them are almost as funny as watching Liz Lemon and Jack Donaghy trying to make sense of YouFace on "30 Rock."

Just tromping out and building an internal social media site for every agency isn’t a good bet — and it’s wasteful. Why? The technology of social networking is evolving at frightening speed. Awkward proof: the intelligence community’s unacknowledged social media tool holds the painfully retro title A-Space. Question: Is anybody still logging on to MySpace? Although social networking for the intell people needs to be bunkered away in the classified domain, what about everybody else? Does every agency need to build its own FaceSpace?

My answer is: probably not. But if you do, you’d better have a reason slightly better than "it seems like a good idea." More convincing is to merge the concepts of social networking with existing agency portals. That is what NASA has done with Spacebook, an employee intranet that features user profiles, group collaboration spaces and social bookmarking. With it, NASA has created a portal that connects people, ideas, documents and, thanks to a Craigslist-like component, perhaps the coolest unwanted clutter to be found this side of the universe.

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