Twittering in Obamaland: The Social-Network Administration

Twittering in Obamaland: The Social-Network Administration

The first tweet the White House Twittered was not about the
weather. It had nothing to do with how the President was feeling, what he
was doing or what he wanted for lunch. The First Dog, Bo, failed to receive
even an oblique mention.

Instead, the Obama Administration jumped with both feet into the 140-character
Twitterverse on May 1 with a one-sentence post on how Americans can learn about swine flu directly by joining social networks with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention . “We wanted to use these tools to some end, some
effect, some public good,” said Macon Phillips, the White House Director of
New Media.

So it has gone in the first few months of the Obama Administration. At
the new President’s urging and by his example, the entire Federal Government has bounded into the world of social-networking. Twenty-five agencies now have YouTube channels. The Library of Congress has begun posting thousands of free historical photos on Flickr. In the past week alone, about 30 agencies, including the White House, have joined Facebook.

“The whole pondering process — Should we do it Should we not do it — has
been truncated because the White House is doing it,” says Theresa
Nasif, director of the Federal Citizen Information Center, which helps
coordinate Web outreach. “It’s very exciting to be in government.”

The federal technology transformation remains very much a work in progress, with several agencies just beginning to grapple with allowing employees to even access social-networking sites. The White House communications team, for instance, is not able to access the government’s Facebook postings and Twitter feeds, let alone those of reporters from the press corps, because of filters installed at the White House.

Still, the Administration has already made great strides in opening up to technological innovation. On Jan. 21, his first full day in office, Obama signed an Executive Order calling for all departments and agencies to “establish a system of transparency, public participation and collaboration.” At the same time, White House lawyers, working with other federal agencies, sought to create new “terms of use” agreements with private companies that would allow government to sign up for social networks like MySpace, YouTube and Facebook as if they were just another person. What was once the sole domain of adventuresome government agencies and officials soon became standard policy.

At present, government lawyers have drafted agreements with 10
private social-networking companies. Six other
private-sector products, including iTunes, are being considered for
further expansion, potentially clearing the way for easy iPod downloads of Obama Administration messages.

At some agencies, like the White House, other considerations had to be taken
into account. To comply with the Presidential Records Act, every Twitter and
Facebook posting, for instance, generates an e-mail record that can be stored
with other records. Citizen responses to the White House postings are also
sampled and archived for the sake of history. On Monday, to coincide with
the announcement of a crackdown on corporate overseas tax havens, the White House Twitter feed asked followers — who now number more than 40,000 — for their reaction. Jason Furman, deputy director of the White House National Economic Council, responded to three of the questions in a follow-up posting, which was linked to the White House blog. The questions, far from softballs, led to a discussion of the difference between statutory and effective tax rates, among other things.

Other areas of government have had success on a far greater scale. The CDC,
which began experimenting with social media three years ago, has created a
raft of YouTube videos, podcasts, webpage widgets and Twitter-size feeds
to inform the public about the latest news on the H1N1 virus, also known as
swine flu. Between April 22 and May 4, the CDC received 1.2 million views of
flu-related material on YouTube and 46.6 million Web-page views, and attracted
99,000 followers on its Twitter feed “CDCemergency,” which provides breaking
updates on health issues. Janice Nall of the CDC’s Center for Health
Marketing says the agency is interested in employing any social media that
people use. As for Twitter, she added, “It just happens to be sexy right

Several agencies have been struggling to free themselves of bureaucratic
restraints, like filtering software that bars employees from accessing
social networks from work computers. In recent months, both the Department
of Energy and the Department of Housing and Urban Development
have opened up employee access to social-networking tools. The Defense
Department has also been going online, with a new Air Force Twitter page and
a Facebook page for General Ray Odierno, the U.S. commander of multinational
forces in Iraq.

Nonetheless, the entire project of making the government social-network-friendly remains in its infancy. As it stands, the government controls about
24,000 websites but is only beginning to utilize the social-networking sites on which citizens are spending an increasing amount of their
time. Yet the historic bureaucratic resistance to adapting to new media has
clearly begun to fade, says Bev Godwin, director of Online Resources and
Interagency Development at the White House. “I think you will see a huge
increase in use across the government of social-networking tools,” she says.
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