Social Media: the Bridges and Tunnels of the Digital World

This post is part of a series on disintermediation and the internet–how it has failed to live up to its promises, and how it can yet achieve many of its goals. It written as a discussion between Gadi Ben-Yehuda and Dr. John Bordeaux. We invite you to join in the discussion in the comments section!

The late Steve Jobs famously answered some of the emails sent to him from strangers. Other celebrities, both in and out of government, have entered the world of digital communications, setting up email accounts, and starting social media feeds, only to become overwhelmed by them.

Dr. John Bordeaux: I had a CEO client once ask me if he should start a blog. My somewhat direct response: Do you have anything to say? Seriously, have you considered what it is you want to say and to whom? Deciding to jump in and establish a presence on social media doesn’t mean you put aside everything you’ve learned about communication and conversation. There are differences to be sure, but begin with first principles. Whatever else you think of Steve Jobs’ email exchanges, they were conversations.

In truth, people have been able to contact their personal idols—through fan mail, as but one example—for decades, but digital media changed the relationship between people in five key ways. Unlike most analog communications, digital media are:

  1. Asynchronous: comments on blogs or facebook, emails, and text messages can be written at one time and viewed at another, making them entirely different than a phone call, for example, or an in-person meeting. Further, unlike a voice mail, written communication can be scanned, forwarded easily, or presented on multiple devices, making for easier consumption.

JB: Just one aspect where the shift regarding work has not been universal, nor reflected in expectations. Now it is part of our job to tend to these broad communications and conversations – but incentives, work structures and expectations often have not adjusted to allow for this. Engaging in conversations about the work lengthens the workday for some; feels like extra work for no reward for others. We fired that receptionist, expecting existing labor to pick up the function. The backlash articles, some of them at least, spring from the overloaded sense that the definition of work is shifting in a way that just means more hours for the worker.

  1. Direct: many forms of social media have no human intermediaries; while a receptionist might screen phone calls, most people tend to their own email inboxes, to say nothing of their facebook or twitter feeds.
  2. Multimedia: not only can people share text, but they can also send documents, images, or videos. Especially in government, this is incredibly powerful, as official documents can now be sent easily to multiple recipients with a single communication.
  3. Referencing: because links can be embedded in text, writers can condense explanatory passages. Coming to the point that much sooner, they can spend more time explaining what they want rather than why they want it.

JB: While this gets us closer to the “As We May Think” vision of 1945 (Vannevar Bush), we sometimes forget the burden placed on the reader. It allows us to come to the point much sooner, but it also presumes our readers will follow us down the rabbit warrens. If I link to that 1945 essay, for example, how many of you will come back?

I’ve gone from asking specific people in my company for answers to posting my question on my internal page or in a community. The answers then arrive from people who have time to help, and occasionally from people I did not consider would have the answer. A well-tended network will become a resource for cognitive offloading, once we get past the sense that we know where the answers lie.

  1. Networked: refers to two related attributes. First, people don’t need to know someone’s phone number or physical address to contact them, rather they need to know only what networks their recipient belongs to—Facebook? Twitter? GovLoop? Second, sometimes it’s not even important to have a specific recipient in mind, simply appealing to the network is enough. Using a hashtag in Twitter or company’s name on a blog post can be enough to obtain a response.

All of these attributes are disintermediating factors; they all allow for individuals to contact and connect with other people with whom they may have had no prior relationship. But new barriers have arisen that have diminished social media’s capacity for connecting people.

How Social Media Lost Its Immediacy

Even as five factors worked to create an air of immediacy to email and other social media, other factors quickly came to spoil the party. First, information overload. As far back as the late 1990s, people were warning that regular email—not spam—would be the death of the medium. Simply put, everyone gets too much email on any given day; witness the rise in popularity of “Inbox Zero.” It took even less time for other social media to become overloaded with content.

JB: It is also important to remember that maintaining your privacy may be in direct conflict with the business models of these consumer social media platforms. Some of their mission statements include assumptions regarding ubiquitous transparency, discovery, and other revenue-producing ways to repurpose your conversations. This tension will persist.

Sadly, our response to these concerns is often based on a risk-prediction and aversion mindset. ‘Detail everything that could go wrong and establish your mitigation protocols before engaging.’ It is often easier to just shut down engagement in social channels, or restrict it to marketing and sales. If we consider that the conversations across these social channels are an important PART of our operations and serving the mission – we take a very different view regarding risk.

The next factor mediating new social channels is privacy. This works in two ways: first, in government, every email is part of the public record, so people are understandably more guarded when using that medium than, say, the phone. Second, because the people who maintain the feeds are real people who have lives beyond their offices, they may not want to identify themselves on their social media channels.

Cyber safety is a justifiably important concern that has tempered how freely some agencies engage through social media. And the institutionalization of all communications—which sometimes leads agencies to feel that they need to vet every tweet the way they would an official press interview—reduces the utility of quick-response social media (like Twitter) to near-zero.

Making Social Media Free Again

So how can government agencies lower the barriers within social media so that more people are able to use tools like Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, Instagram, and even email or the Web to connect with their government?

JB: If this seems odd, consider what your Agency went through when you first allowed telephones or e-mail on the desk. DoD approached email with trepidation – what if a private emailed a general directly, destroying chain of command protocols? Turns out if you establish your expectations regarding behavior, new modes of communication do not suddenly turn your people into mindless saboteurs.

  • Publish (and then adhere to) a social media policy, including a comments policy, a reply policy, a follow policy, and a moderation policy.
  • Craft a social media practice that aligns to the agency’s mission, so that feeds are maintained as a matter of standard operations, not a tacked-on activity that is no one’s responsibility
  • Use social media to listen as well as to talk, and react to changing events—don’t ignore them for the purpose of sticking to a rigid calendar
  • Enable as many people as possible to interact through social media
  • Apply reasonable filters to incoming agency feeds

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