Esperanza Spalding won a Grammy for Best New Artist tonight. She’s an extraordinary talent. Moments after her win, White House new media director Macon Phillips congratulated her on Twitter and linked to a video of her performance at the White House Poetry Jam on YouTube:
Shortly after that, the White House account shared the same video, along with a link to all of the performances on the White House YouTube channel. Congratulations to Spalding for the well-deserved recognition. (Sorry to the Justin Bieber fans out there. Sources say his millions of fans and followers may provide some comfort after the loss).
Postscript on government and social media
I wrote on my personal blog that it was “good to know there are some music fans down the road at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.”
Elsewhere on Govloop, Kanga Ellis had made it clear that she’s not sure that that use of the account was fitting, and that I “called her out” after she tweeted that she didn’t “love seeing the White House hanging out on Twitter gabbing about the Grammys.”
Given the flood of Grammy-related tweets about performances, costumes and the merits of the winners, I did decide that it was a good moment for me to observe that for a few hours last night, everyone was a critic. If Kanga felt called out by that reply, that wasn’t my intention.
When Kanga asked if anyone has just seen the tweet, I replied with a link to my report. When she asked about whether there had been other news from the White House, I pointed to the release of of new open source code from WhiteHouse.gov and budget information. She is correct that the White House had not tweeted in the 24 hours since the account shared NSA Donlon’s statement on Iran, Pete Souza’s photos or the president’s full statement on the Egyptian revolution.
On the other hand, I also saw no “gabbing or “hanging out” from the White House account, and pointed that out. The White House new media director was, clearly, like many other Americans, watching the awards ceremony, but he wasn’t using the official account to interact with Justin Bieber or Arcade Fire, despite the precedent set by Senator Reid’s interaction with Lady Gaga. Phillips straightforwardly shared a connection between an event at his institution and the history Spalding had just made, and included the full range of video available at YouTube.
This is not the first time that the White House account has been used to share tweets related to cultural events nor #hashtag them. The @WhiteHouse has been exploring the boundaries of government use of Twitter since it was created. Phillips is an active participant in new media culture and knows its conventions, after all.
The broader question of whether the White House should be a part of pop culture or contribute to it could probably be tabled in 2011, given that presidents and staff have been participating in sports or entertainment for decades through speeches, first pitches, interviews or broadcasts.
The advent of social media platforms, however, has catalyzed new questions about propriety of official accounts. Should State Department officials tweet about anything but foreign policy? Should a mayor tweet about a particular restaurant and not another? Should the Press Secretary tweet a recommendation for a bike shop on his official account? Specific use cases are easier to parse than more generalized rules. If an official wouldn’t endorse a business from the rostrum of the briefing room, tweeting about it probably won’t sit well with some observers. More generally, adding a sense of the humans behind government social media accounts has been a consistent element of advice from analysts, consultants and related experts.
Reasonable people can and will differ on the propriety of the White House tweeting about topics that diverge from the serious issues of the day, whether it’s the business of government, foreign policy or the President’s views. It’s worth remembering that it wasn’t so long ago where observers questioned whether the White House should tweet at all. Legislators and elected officials are, after all, still questioning whether using Twitter at all has utility in 2011.
Another way to look at the White House use of Twitter might not be to question a tweet linking to video of a performance at a Poetry Jam but to question the absence of more tweets that direct attention to the work of citizens, government workers or military outside of such fora.
For instance, the White House has an opportunity to put the spotlight on fast moving events in the Middle East by amplifying the messages of State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley, raise up the voices of those who serve or respond to the questions of the electorate. Ultimately, the success or failure of government leveraging a platform like Twitter will likely be judged by its relevance to accomplishing the mission of the institutions using it. In 2011, there’s still plenty of undiscovered landscapes ahead.