A few thoughts on the use of Twitter by federal officials

“Yes, saw news @acarvin retweeted from Tunisia. On it. Please @reply from @StateDept. – Hillz”

Last month, Federal Computer Week reporter Alice Lipowicz interviewed me about how federal officials and Congressmen in the United States government were using Twitter. She ended up using just one quote in her article on Feds using Twitter, regarding the reality that the division between “personal” and “professional” accounts has become quite blurred in the public eye, regardless of disclaimers made.

Look no further than the Congressional staffers who were connected to tweets about drinking during the workday and subsequently fired. With millions of people on the service and the DC media listening closely, there’s simply a higher likelihood that a bad error will be noticed and spread — and corrections never travel as far as the original error. An offhand comment, even if meant to be funny, can be taken out of context.

If a government executive or editor shared pictures of cute puppies and dogs on an official Twitter feed, they do run the risk that some people may not take their professional leadership as seriously. Then again, citizens and colleagues might connect with them as a fellow ‘dog person,’ like me. I set up a Twitter account for my greyhound some time ago. (He doesn’t tweet much.)

Alice and I talked about much more than risk, though, and since I have notes from the conversation, here are a few other observations I made. (The caption above, for Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, is 100% fiction.)

First, we talked about Senator Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa), who writes cryptic tweets but appears to be doing something some of his colleagues may not: listen. He told the National Law Journal that he pays attention to reactions to his tweets.

“Twitter’s a new way to communicate with constituents,” said Senator Grassley. “The real-time feedback and contact with the grassroots that Twitter offers is a real value.”

Even though some of his more partisan tweets have drawn controversy at times, he is a notable example of a lawmaker in the Senate demonstrating personal use of social media, including typos, text speak and messages that his staff might prefer he hadn’t sent, like his recent comments concerning the President.

In general, if Congress is going to draft legislation that leads to rulemaking about social media, it makes sense that Senators and Representatives should have some basic familiarity with these tools and what’s being said on them or down with them, given the role that they’re now playing in the new public square.

Their staffers certainly realize that by now, tethered by BlackBerrys and iPhone and Android devices to a 24/7 newscycle that has compressed to 24 minutes — or even 24 seconds — from 24 hours. The modern workplace may reward working long hours outside of the office, or at least the appearance of it. Late night and early morning emails are part of Washington working culture. It takes a specific attitude, boundaries and discipline to find a healthy work-life balance in the context of pressure.

That’s certainly true of officials as well, like federal CIO Steven VanRoekel, who is a father to several young children. He is an unapologetically geeky guy who has been learning to use Twitter better, as Alice described, to go “direct” in answered questions from the government IT media.

He and his colleague, US CTO Todd Park, are actually both more advanced in their use of Twitter at this point in their tenures than Vivek Kundra and or Aneesh Chopra, their respective predecessors, neither of whom were tweeting when they began work. (Both men continue to tweet now, after they’ve left government, with Chopra much more active.)

VanRoekel tweeted infrequently as the managing director of the FCC, although he demonstrated that he both knew the basics. Using hashtags for comedic effect in his tweets now strongly suggests he’s learned something about the culture of Twitter since then. Yes, it was a bit of inside baseball, since you’d need to understand the context of Molly’s column to understand his comment, but the tweet was a reply to a specific column.

I thought that he was trying to be funny, with respect to confirming that APIs would be part of the federal government’s digital strategy using a “#specialsauce” hashtag and “#thereIsaidit.” At least for my (admittedly) geeky sense of humor, I think he succeeded.

I still see a perception in some quarters that Twitter is a fad and a waste of time — and currently, given the political context around taxes, the federal budget and spending, conversations about government wasting anything trend pretty negatively. Even with 100% of federal agencies on the service, I find that it still takes a demonstration of how Twitter is useful to accomplishing a mission before an uninitiated person’s eyes open to its value. Searching for topics, events or the name of an employer or agency is often effective.

That’s true for every other social network or tool, too. In 2012, I’m still enjoying exploring and experimenting with what the right approach to each platform, from blogging to Twitter to having family, friends and subscribers on Facebook and Google+ to tumbling or staying LinkedIn to my professional network or sharing video on YouTube. The same is true of federal officials.

We’re all “stumbling” along together.

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Filed under article, social media, technology, Twitter, video

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