Neal Ungerleider wrote a a funny piece on Fast Company about the State Department’s new Tumblr blog this morning, including a few suggestions on how the State Department could be more Tumblry by jumping on some of Tumblr’s most popular trends. It’s a great piece of writing, and it also says exactly what I was afraid someone would say when we started recommending Tumblr as a platform for government programs.
Tumblr has done a spectacular job of attracting a very large, very young, very diverse, and very energetic audience. Because of Tumblr’s social features, that audience has developed into a real community with a distinct culture. It’s a culture I happen to love, but it’s hard to imagine how the government could fit in with it. However, we didn’t recommend Tumblr as a tool for government on the merits of its community. We recommended it because it’s a great medium.
The title of this post, “don’t confuse the genre for the medium,” comes from an interview with comic artist Scott McCloud in which he points out that people miss out on the power of comics as a communication tool because they think comics are about men flying around in tights. They’re not. A comic is a series of sequential images with text, and is an extremely powerful means of communication. A comic can tell the story of a holocaust survivor in ways that no other medium can.
We often witness the same confusion when organizations start using new social media outlets. People look at Twitter, observe how twitterers tweet, and assume that using Twitter means mangling their organization’s voice until it sounds more like Twitter. That’s not how to do it. The TSA dabbled in this last November and it was disastrous. It’s a mistake of confusing the writing style of people on Twitter with Twitter as a medium.
The same thing, of course, applies to Tumblr. USA.gov’s Blog, while powered by Tumblr, is very un-Tumblry for specific reasons (that I’ll explain further in a later post). USA.gov uses Tumblr because it’s easy to use, allows for rapid blogging, and helps accomplish its goal of making government information more sharable. Tumblr’s community has been very welcoming to USA.gov, but it would be a mistake for USA.gov to compromise its mission and voice in order to gain more traction among the community.
Of course, Ungerleider isn’t recommending that USA.gov or the State Department do any such thing. In fact, he’s done a great job of revealing how laughable it would be if they did.