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Social Media in Gov is Like Riding a Bike, Seriously

When my son turned three, we got him a bike with training wheels. He did quite well, but when it came time to take off those training wheels,
he violently refused. Even a three year old knew that going from four
wheels down to two would increase his chances of falling from zero to
incredibly high.

That’s because training wheels aren’t actually training wheels. They’re impeding wheels. They rob you of the chance to
learn balance, which is the most important lesson in riding a bike. It
doesn’t matter how good you can pedal or steer, you have little chance
of success if you can’t balance.

So, my genius wife had the idea of getting a small bike with no pedals. You push off and glide along, then plant your feet when it gets
too wobbly. Since it was real low to the ground, my three year old had
no fear trying it out, and by the third day, was very proficient at
gliding. He learned how to balance.

Shortly after, we got him on a real bike without training wheels, and he took off like he’s been riding all along.

Why do I tell this story? Because I think government can greatly benefit from a “small glider bike” when first taking on social media.
Too many agencies are reluctant to try not just because they’re afraid
of falling, but because some mistakes lead to severe consequences.

So why not deploy a “transition” tool so the agency can learn how to “balance” before going public? Experiment privately within your agency;
don’t open it up until you figure out how to ride proficiently.

Both Twitter and Facebook have settings to create private accounts/groups. Invite your agency (try getting as many people as you
can, especially your skeptics) to participate and learn how to leverage
these tools to add value to your customers. There are so many facets
that take time to balance, such as

  • frequency of posts,
  • tone of content,
  • when to respond to inquiries,
  • when to delete a comment,
  • how much time to spend monitoring,
  • what types of information add value,
  • when to use multimedia,
  • how to minimize unintended consequences
  • how to write in 140 characters (short messages apply to Facebook as well)
  • when to promote other resources
  • how to train your personnel

And on and on. Yes it’s okay to stumble sometimes, and chances are you will make mistakes. But you can cheat the learning curve by
stumbling privately and finding that balance before you go public.

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Sterling Whitehead

There is a lot of sense to your argument. I’m wondering how this could be implemented. Go with me here for a second.
– Invite certain people and spread it
– Get ppl to understand how their lives will improve from these technologies

– Training sessions approved
– Leadership says everyone can talk about whatever (except classified stuff) and encourages social media.
– 60 day “training wheels” period before going “live” or however it would happen

Dan Gephart

Great post Jon. I agree. Let it loose internally and see what happens, and see how it works best for each agency. At a FOSE session last month, one of the speakers suggested that agencies implement a social media “experimentation” policy rather than just jumping in. A transition like you describe is a great way to experiment.

Jon Lee

Thanks y’all for the positive feedback.

Sterling, I think it will be a combination of both. The champions and drivers will come from the bottom-up, the folks who put the time and effort in to initiate and create value on these sites. And the endorsement from the top-down will create a positive environment that encourages more participation throughout your agency.

Amanda Eamich

Great illustration. When you’re closer to the ground, it doesn’t hurt as much – fail fast and fail small(er).

Challenging to the government psyche is the concept of “failing.” We’re not supposed to, but sometimes that’s the best or most effective way to learn. For those attending the Web Manager’s Conference, you’ll see a breakout session where rock stars Scott Horvath, Andrew Campbell and Jeffrey Levy will help walk through the concept of “Failing Fast.”

Amanda Blount

VERY COOL! You need to copy the link to this blog entry and post it in many places dealing with change! Good Stuff!!

Jon Lee

Thanks y’all! Amanda B: I posted on govfresh.com. Are there other good sites where I can repost?

Amanda E: If the fail is small and swift, I probably wouldn’t even consider it a fail. More like a tweak.

Megan Anderson

This is a great post! Holds true for both the public and the private sector, and one could argue for any new technology that will be changing the way daily life, marketing, social interaction and so on is run. Thanks for this!

Matthew Micene

Great post. This reminds me of a favorite quote from Twain, “There are no mistakes in life, there are only lessons to be learned”. The private sandbox approach is a great way to get people used to new tools and new approaches.

Oh, and your genius wife came up with the same concept as the Motorcycle Safety Foundation for learning to ride! Check out some videos on power-walking a motorcycle. Same concept as the glider bike but with a motor!

Jon Lee

Harlan – Thanks for your well-thought comments. I agree with you, there are many more considerations when using social media, and yes, Facebook, Twitter, etc. are just tools and there’s a lot more to it than what I wrote.

My bicycle analogy, I admit, is not the greatest because no “small glider bike” for social media in government currently exists. There’s still a lot of experimentation and adjusting that an agency will have to stumble through, many of the points you mentioned.

Thanks for the feedback.