Response to Why Twitter?

In his latest VLog (http://is.gd/bTIJZ), @cheeky_geeky (Mark Drapeau) asks those of us who work with government why we would use what he calls an unreliable service (Twitter and Facebook) on official government websites providing these services with a de facto endorsement. I think Mark clearly knows the answer. I think the fact that he is asking it now has more to do with the fact that he now works with Microsoft than anything else. It’s not just government that uses these services, obviously, Microsoft, IBM, etc. use them as well. It’s where the people are. And the fact that they are free has a lot to do with that.

Several years ago, when I noticed Twitter, it struck me immediately as a service that had business value for government. I immediately started using it with the idea that it provided an extremely fast way to communicate with people, both selectively and non-selectively. It was something that government needed to do, but still had not resolved. We had seen many costly services that proposed to do the same thing, but none with the same potential as Twitter. When some of our emergency management people became aware of Twitter, it was an immediate attraction for the same reason. The fact that people could subscribe via multiple channels such as SMS and RSS was a huge bonus. And although government follower numbers can’t compete with those of celebrities, growth has been regular and steady. I also provides a very convenient way to communicate with traditional media.
I was more reluctant with Facebook. I think the same can be said for most government people. What struck me last year was when I joined the Salt Lake City Facebook network and it had over 300,000 people. Since then, that number has grown significantly. The sheer numbers associated with Facebook make it a channel we cannot ignore. When I first looked, one of our state parks, Bear Lake State Park, had put up a Facebook site and it had attracted over 12,000 followers.
With these facts staring us in the face, we determined that a shared social media strategy was essential to our success. We also wanted to make sure that content was not leaking away from our official site, so that if an agency posted something solely on Facebook for example, a citizen who chose not to join Facebook could still obtain that information. With that in mind, we developed our social media guidelines, a policy regarding supported social media platforms, a Facebook, aggregator, a Twitter aggregator, and our social media portal at Connect.Utah.gov.
The fact that long-standing companies like Microsoft and IBM now want a bigger piece of the social media pie doesn’t change any of the reasons why we joined Twitter or Facebook in the first place. And the service from both Twitter and Facebook has been more than acceptable. In fact, if you look at the overall ROI, I would say it is excellent. So, no – we aren’t likely to stop using Twitter or Facebook anytime soon.
And this doesn’t reflect anything about MS or IBM, we use many services from both companies and probably will for quite a while into the future.

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Adriel Hampton

Good commentary on a point I also noticed – I see these complaints coming from industry rivals (Apple/Adobe etc.), not the citizenry.

Mark D. Drapeau

I’m not saying not to use Twitter and Facebook. They are useful, and I use them every day. I am saying, however, that it is a little surprising that where governments expect so much rigor with the many vendors they work with, when it comes to free social media tools, they not only get a free pass on rigor, contracts, reliability, security, and the like, but they also get logos on government homepages. There is an interesting double standard. Now, if a company is six months old, I can understand some kinks. We’re talking about Facebook – over five years old, 400 MILLION members, and when I pull up my friends list it’s still incapable of giving me a complete one? At what point does such malfunctioning software become to be unacceptable when we are talking about keeping in touch with citizens and providing services to them?

Noel Dickover

The answer is fairly simple – in an era of open government, it makes sense to go where the people are. If you want to engage people in dialogue, that only works if the other party is present to the dialogue. I think the terms of service agreements that GSA has worked take care of the defacto endorsement aspects of this.

But make no mistake, as the world changes, so will the government’s participation. If widget.com comes up with something far better that meets govt’s needs, it will be used. Same for Microsoft, Adobe, etc.

David Fletcher

Mark, thanks for the response. You make a couple of good points here that didn’t come out in your VLog. We have had a similar debate when we use an online mapping tool which shows the logo, or post a Word document or PDF document and show the Microsoft or Adobe logos. We’ve certainly helped turn those tools into standards as well, even though the users may not have originally had the software to support them, they have downloaded it. I think a lot of it is cost related. Particularly in the environment that we are in today where budgets are under constant pressure and Government is encouraged to be more open.

Sandra Fernandez

I am a big fan of Twitter and Facebook, and I believe in communicating with our customers using tools/media they’re already using… but I also know that we have to have a realistic view of these tools. We do not control Facebook or Twitter; we have little or no input in their daily operations; an, we have no say in whether they will be there tomorrow or next week or next year. So the question of whether we should put so much work into building a space that we don’t control is valid. These will only work long-term as part of an overall, well-balanced communications plan. And the plan should include ways your customers can interact with you that aren’t solely based in social media.

Scott Horvath

The reasons why Government uses many of these services was stated quite well by Noel’s first sentence “The answer is fairly simple – in an era of open government, it makes sense to go where the people are.”

Does the Government need to use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Vimeo, etc to be more open? No…absolutely not. Government can be open simply by using their traditional 1.0 sites–posting updates when they occur, releasing high valued data, etc. But the Government understands that we can’t expect John Doe to wake up in the morning and say to themselves

“Gee, I just feel like visiting somesite.gov and browse around to see what new things they’ve made available to me. I just love visiting Government sites!”

If anyone thinks that then they’re being naive. Isn’t Government supposed to be about the people, for the people, and by the people? If that’s the case then Government should also be “where the people” be. Otherwise, we’re not really being good Government.