Beware the Social Media Police

Note: This blog entry was also published on my Reach the Public Blog where there are other entries on government-to-citizen communication, social media, and Web 2.0.

I was discussing online communication plans with one of our clients recently, and I heard something that surprised me.

“We’d like to use more social media, but we don’t want to do anything if we’re just going to be criticized for doing it wrong. Everyone is so opinionated about how blogs and Facebook pages should be used, and we don’t want to set off a bunch of bloggers criticizing our efforts.”

That’s right friends, there are many people out there who are reluctant to use blogs, Facebook, YouTube, Twitter, etc. And not because of their security and privacy concerns, but because they are afraid of being criticized by the Social Media Police.

I’ve seen a lot of this “policing” related to Twitter lately so I’m going to focus on that channel to illustrate Social Media Police behavior.

I have heard two prominent “Web 2.0 Experts” recently criticize agencies that setup Twitter feeds to stream news updates. The criticism came in two forms. One “expert” thinks everyone on Twitter should be a person. He says that the benefit of Twitter is to put a personal face on government. Another expert thinks that Twitter must be a two-way medium. If you aren’t going to engage others, he thinks you should not share your information at all.

My first caution to the “social media police”… if you want to be an expert in a medium as fluid as social media, I think you need to be careful about stating facts with too much confidence.

One fact I’m sure of: I like to get the official EPA updates from @usepagov in my Twitter feed (as do over 500 other people). The real power of Twitter, for me, is that I setup a stream of updates that are of interest to me, but I don’t have to monitor that stream like I have to monitor my inbox.

Tim O’Reilly has a really good blog post here regarding what he likes about Twitter. He stated his view on NPR’s Science Friday program that the power of Twitter, for him, is that it’s a stream of information running by his door that he can get in and out of as time allows.

For a lot of people, Twitter is a more social channel. They might find the @usepagov feed to be too “impersonal” and one way. Rather than criticize an agency trying to dive in and participate in a channel, I suggest that those who find a particular feed or approach annoying, just avoid it and let the collective wisdom of the crowd dictate how a channel can be used. The benefit of social media is that it’s easy to iterate based on user feedback and behavior so agencies don’t have to get things perfect the first time.

Different groups of stakeholders will gravitate to different approaches for different reasons. Social Media uses that don’t gain audience will eventually fade away, but not before providing a lot of useful learning to the agencies that tried them in the first place.

If your first instinct is to criticize an agency (or individual for that matter) for using a medium in a way you don’t appreciate, you might be having a chilling effect on agencies embracing these new channels that is not unlike the chilling effect from overzealous privacy & security experts.

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David Harrity

Love this post. I agree that the way to use social media does not have to be “personal” and “informal”. While I enjoy these posts, I also enjoy a quick 140-letters or less statement about a press release or a major funding initiative that is blogged much like an RSS feed and if the microblog cuts off the words, then so be it… most good press releases or statements often put the eye catching stuff up front.

Scott Burns

Thanks for the feedback. The great thing about these channels is we can all use them however we want. I strongly dislike my RSS reader as a way of managing a lot of updates, but Twitter is the perfect blend. Again, just me, but I guess I’m not the only one.

Scott Burns

Thanks for the comment. We’ve seen some very innovative uses of Twitter from different agencies including EPA, NASA, Business.gov, and local and state governments including St. Paul, MN and the Washington Dept. of Transportation. One of the most interesting write ups about this is from Chris Dorobek (former editor of Federal Computer Week and currently host of a great show on Fed News Radio) in his blog regarding FEMA’s “Twitter Press Conference” which seems similar to your Question Time idea.

The GovTwit directory of government Twitters allows you to see all kinds of examples of government entities, politicians, and contractors, like me twittering.

My point was that different agencies/groups/individuals may choose to try it out in different ways, and I think that should be encouraged as it’s too fluid of a medium for anyone to be sure of the “right” use just yet and we can learn a lot from experimentation and diving in.