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Congress Delivers Major Social Media Failure


It seemed like an event worth passing on. In fact, I’ve tried to pass on many of the government 2.0 conversations of late, but last week’s Congressional Tweeting during Obama’s speech last week was flat out disturbing. While Congressional tweeting from 50 elected officials highlighted how hot Twitter has become, it also demonstrated an irresponsible use of power and taxpayer-paid salaries, and one of the worst cases of Shiny Object Syndrome I’ve seen to date (image: Capitol Building by mbell).

In discussions on Twitter, several folks thought it was wrong to take issue with the elected officials. I thought the media’s criticism was dead on. See, it’s great that the Twitterati love to see their tool spread, but what the hell did the tweeting have to do with effectively legislating and governing this country? Especially during one of the most challenging times the nation has faced?

Just an example of some of the Tweets (as reported by the Post):

“One doesn’t want to sound snarky, but it is nice not to see Cheney up there,” Rep. Earl Blumenauer (D-Ore.) announced as Obama entered the chamber.
“I did big wooohoo for Justice Ginsberg,” Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) broadcast, misspelling the name of the ailing Supreme Court justice. McCaskill could be seen applauding with BlackBerry in one hand.

“Capt Sully is here — awesome!” announced Rep. John Culberson (R-Tex.), spotting the US Airways pilot in the gallery.

Then there was Rep. Joe Barton (R-Tex.), in whose name this text message was sent at about the time the president spoke of the need to pull the country together: “Aggie basketball game is about to start on espn2 for those of you that aren’t going to bother watching pelosi smirk for the next hour.” A few minutes later, another message came through: “Disregard that last Tweet from a staffer.”

Nice astroturfing, Barton! And what a wonderful discussion of the actual speech and issues from Obama. I’m so glad we’re paying these clowns six figure salaries to run dysfunction junction on the Hill and now ALSO Tweet. What a wonderful conversation they’re providing to the American taxpayer about the recession, environmental issues, international affairs, etc., etc.

Just because a social media tool is exciting and hot, does not mean it should be used, regardless if the digeratti love to see it happen. Social media is a two-way relational media form. It requires meaningful conversations. From an organization like Congress, clowning around during a major speech versus opening policy decisions with your constituents are two very different things.

Instead of broadcasting crap on Twitter, Congressmen and women should explore how to engage and involve their stakeholders — and no, not the lobbiests — but the people they represent in policy discussions. They should use Twitter to engage them on what they think about Obama’s speech and policies, on how they would like them to represent them as their Trusted Servants, not ridiculous observations worthy of the Real Shaq.

Congressmen and women have a serious job. Their demeanor on and offline during a speech of this nature, during a time like this should reflect that. Period.

Social media offers governments — federal, state and local — a fantastic opportunity to do better work, to change the way government works, and to offer a new level of transparency. There are great barriers to this, as the Obama administration is already finding out.

It doesn’t help when our public servants, our government rushes to be hip, slick and cool to be seen adapting conversational media without any strategic thinking. We’d be better served if our paid representatives put their nose to the grindstone and work on ending issues like pork barreling bills, and oh yeah, that economy thing. Social media can help, but only if government uses it to achieve it’s mission. Otherwise, it’s just going to be the same old, same old.

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Daniel Bennett

Although I am generally for experimenting with new technologies for communicating, I think the question of how to behave at a formal and serious meeting is separate. I have been at meetings where people take notes, chat through Twitter and other real time methods, but only when the meetings engendered that form of participation. Clearly a joint session of Congress with Cabinet and Supreme Court attending is the prime example of when protocol and proper decor should rule (and without the presiding officer having to use the gavel).

The question of whether to use Twitter by Members of Congress is different. The real problem with using Twitter is not the form, but the control. Congress has the means to provide the resources to allow microblogging hosting which is mainly what Twitter is. It would be easy for those micro/SMS posts to be syndicated to Twitter and other external networks. It would not stop experimentation, but would allow the rules of the House to be followed and give the chance for official archiving. Additionally, it avoids the appearance of accepting gifts (especially as Twitter and other networks begin to have tiered levels of service, free to individuals and paid for organizations). Publishing to YouTube is a prime example (plus the Section 508 implications with closed captioning requirements)

Similarly I think all organizations should publish locally first, if possible, using the content management and online communications tools that they control. Then they should be free to syndicate broadly. I wrote an article about non-profits use of Twitter at http://www.frogloop.com/care2blog/2009/2/27/tweet-locally-reach-broadly.html.

Walter Neary

What I see are elected officials opening up their minds to you. And then you make judgments, as any citizen should. I’m thrilled if they are being honest about what’s on their minds. Or should they be downloading snippets from news releases and letting you think that they think in terms of one-sentence soundbites of public policy?

We often ask our elected officials to do what we as humans cannot or will not do. To say “Social media … requires meaningful conversations” is to express perhaps an ambition, but certianly not the actual content of the vast majority of actual social media.

Or do we want to pretend elected officials think only about public policy? One can think or hope for that, I suppose, as long as you realize it’s pretend.


I agree. With any new technology, it takes awhile for people to figure out the etiquette. It took a few years after most people had gov’t agencies before I started seeing emails from up top describing what blackberry etiquette should look like. I think Twitter is the same way – last SMC-DC they were taking questions from Twitter – but forgot for a second to look if people had raised their hand first (which I did – I’m not shy).

Sandy Ressler

You must be joking! Do you actually think that REAL work get’s done in those large public gatherings? Careful legislation is done by staffers and congressional representatives in small groups, or in testimony in front of committees. In the large full sessions of congress you can see that most of the time is simply spent bloviating. It’s refreshing to see some in the congress tapping out (sometimes admittedly silly) their contemporaneous thoughts.

Geoff Livingston

Hey, guys perception is reality and congress looks like a bunch of twittering idiots. Maybe these guys will lose their jobs next time.

Walter Neary

Maybe these guys will lose their jobs next time.
Incumbents rarely do, and even incumbents who are openly corrupt and commit crimes can sometimes win re-election.

This is one reason I like social media as an elected official. It’s very clear to me that the people who read my blog posting the most carefully are political opponents. When I offer up more of me in a meaningful blog posting, I become a bigger and better target. So in that sense, opening up your mind and thought processes might be a bad idea for a politician. But .. maybe the goal is not to stay elected; maybe the goal is to be honest about who you are. The question might be whether “these guys’ opponents will have twittering that is so much more profound.

I’m not defending all the silliness, I just hate to see people too critical of elected officials because you *don’t* want the word getting out that being open with the public through social media is a bad idea.

Lisa Nelson

I had a similar experience with facebook. My Office Director wanted to start a facebook and she asked everyone to invite all their friends to join so that the office would have an established network to get the word out on the services we are providing (we are the Office Citizen services and communication). What happened is that our facebook pages are very unprofessional overall. We have had pockets when it has been used well like during the inauguration Gobierno.gov kept their constituents in touch with everything going on all day with pictures and posts, but this is not the rule. It is the exception. There is going to be a big learning curve with all new media and I think this is the case for Congressional representatives and twitter. They will continue until they realize how stupid and unprofessional they and others look. It is still new territory.

Geoff Livingston

Walter: If your intent is to stay elected and not serve your people with a genuine conversation then yeah, you should lose your job in the next election.

Mark Danielson

Great post Geoff,

My hope is that particular piece of etiquette: politely listening when someone is talking, will not go by the wayside in social media. Although it is illuminating to see the thoughts of our representatives exposed in all their glory. Impolitesse aside.