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Reflections on online cruelty and kindness

This morning, I read an interesting reflection on dealing with online cruelty in the New York Times by Stephanie Rosenbloom:

In the virtual world, anonymity and invisibility help us feel uninhibited. Some people are inspired to behave with greater kindness; others unleash their dark side. Trolls, who some researchers think could be mentally unbalanced, say the kinds of things that do not warrant deep introspection; their singular goal is to elicit pain. But then there are those people whose comments, while nasty, present an opportunity to learn something about ourselves.

Easier said than done. Social scientists say we tend to fixate on the negative. However, there are ways to game psychological realities. Doing so requires understanding that you are ultimately in charge. “Nobody makes you feel anything,” said Professor Suler, adding that you are responsible for how you interpret and react to negative comments. The key is managing what psychologists refer to as involuntary attention.

When I checked her reference, I found that Rosenbloom made an error with her citation of research, along with failing to link to it: the 2011 report on teens, kindness and cruelty on social networking sites by the Pew Research’s Internet and Life Project she cited found that a vast majority of young people (88%) had “seen someone be mean or cruel to another person on a social network site,” not 69%. That percentage refers to a happier statistic: “69% of social media-using teens think that peers are mostly kind to each other on social network sites.

On that count, I’m glad the author chose to end with a reflection on kindness and the psychology involved with focusing on positive comments and compliments, as opposed to the negative ones. Anyone who wants to see how a positive feedback loop works should look at how Justin Levy’s friends & networks are supporting him, or how dozens and dozens of friends, family and strangers supported me when I lost my beloved greyhound this week.

I’m not sure about the New York Times editor’s summary — that the “Web encourages bad behavior,” through anonymity and lack of consequences.

I think that what we see online reflects what humans are, as a mirror, and that what we see on social media (which is really what is discussed here, not the World Wide Web) is 
1) a function of what the platforms allow, with respect to the architecture of participation, and
2) what the community norms established there are.

Compare newspapers’ online comments, YouTube comments and Twitter to what you find in the comments at Ars Technica, BoingBoing or even, dare I say it, in the blogs or public profiles I moderate. As Anil Dash has observed, the people who create and maintain online forums and platforms bear responsibility for what happens there:

It’s a surprisingly delicate balance to allow robust debate and disagreement on politics, current events, technology choices, or even sports (hello, tribalism) while guiding conversations away from cruelty, anger, or even hatred, whether we lead a classroom or an online discussion. The comments we allow to stand offline or online largely determine the culture of the class, town hall or thread they’re made within:

While people bear always responsibility for their own cruel actions or words, it’s incumbent upon those of us who host conversations or share our thoughts publicly online to try to respond with empathy, kindness and understanding where we can, and with polite but resolute moderation when others do not respond to those tactics or attack our friends and communities.

[IMAGE SOURCE: Amanda Lenhart, Pew Research Center]

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Out of the ashes of printed newspapers will come the rebirth of journalism

In a post on Medium, professor Clay Shirky says it is last call for printed newspapers.

“My friend +Jay Rosen  writes about the media’s “production of innocence” — when covering a contentious issue, they must signal to the readers “We have no idea who’s right.” Among the small pool of journalists reporting on their own industry, there is a related task, the production of ignorance. When the press writes about the current dislocations, they must insist that no one knows what will happen. This pattern shows up whenever the media covers itself. When the Tribune Company recently got rid of their newspapers, the New York Times ran the story under a headline “The Tribune Company’s publishing unit is being spun off, as the future of print remains unclear.”

newspaper-ad-revenueThe future of print remains what? Try to imagine a world where the future of print is unclear: Maybe 25 year olds will start demanding news from yesterday, delivered in an unshareable format once a day. Perhaps advertisers will decide “Click to buy” is for wimps. Mobile phones: could be a fad. After all, anything could happen with print. Hard to tell, really.

Meanwhile, back in the treasurer’s office, have a look at this chart. Do you see anything unclear about the trend line?” [Chart by Professor Mark Perry]

In that vein, here’s an untold story, from me: Over a year ago, when I went in for a series of interviews at the Washington Post, I talked to half a dozen long-time editors and reporters there from around the newsroom, all the way up to then managing editor John Temple. None of them — not one — could tell me how the paper would resolve the disruption to its advertising business model posed by the Internet, find and build new revenue or address pension obligations in the context of that challenge.

The sole exception to that lack of answers was my friend Andrew Pergam, then the director of video. He was the driving force behind PostTV, an online-only video channel that was and is profoundly post-print. Andrew noted to me that while it was hard to produce high quality video, they could charge much higher advertising rates for it. The Post reportedly had 42 employees devoted to PostTV, in late 2013. As people who’s tried it know well, making good video, much less “good TV” is HARD. By the end of 2013, however, PostTV decided to move away from shows to the 2-4 minute “easily digestible segments” that are increasingly the hallmark of online video.

I thought then that it was a mistake, and the breathtaking online success of John Oliver’s signature blend of humor and investigative journalism at “Last Week Tonight” suggests (to me) that I was not wrong: people will watch longform video if it’s well done and engaging.

Oliver is obviously a singular talent, but he’s not the only person who can deliver great writing with timing, nor make the transition to a produced show, as Brian Stelter has demonstrated in moving from the New York Times to host CNN’s “Reliable Sources.”

I think there’s huge opportunity for “papers” to create high quality longform video, if they can seize the day. Maybe, post-acquisition by Jeff Bezos, the Post will do so.

Here’s the thing: If they don’t, others will.The Pew Research Center’s Excellence in Journalism Project’s 2014 State of the News Media shows video, mobile and digital-native publications soaring.

Technological improvements lowering the barrier to entry, both for the audience and those in the news business, have spurred a wave of new entrants into the digital news video space. With 36% of U.S. adults recording videos on their cellphones, citizens are playing a valuable role in the news process, sharing videos of eyewitness moments around news events small and large. And both digital news outlets like Vice Media as well as legacy outlets like NBC took steps to develop approaches to digital video content in 2013.

In the 21st century, the convergence of media means that formerly print, broadcast, radio and online-only outlets are all now playing in the same sandbox: screens connected to the Internet. Consider: CNN and PBS are streaming online, producing online stories and documentaries. NPR is creating news apps and personalized players. The New York Times is experimenting with video, quizzes, Web-native interactives and mobile apps. Boing Boing blog creates videos that end up in the player on seats of Virgin Atlantic flights. Vice Media employs 1,100 people, looking to take documentary filmmaking around the globe.

I don’t mean to say that this is in any way easy for existing media institutions to adapt to, only that the necessity is clear. Again, Pew:

…a closer look suggests that digital news video does not necessarily have a clear or simple path to becoming a major form of news in the future. Producing high-quality video – or even streaming it live – can be costly, and the payoff is not clear. Video advertising, while on the rise, amounts to just 10% of all digital ad revenue and just 2% of total ad revenue. Large distributors of video content like YouTube already account for a large portion of video watching on the web, and a hefty share of the revenue. And for traditional legacy providers – local TV stations and national networks – most of their audience and revenue are still in the legacy platforms, which may reduce these companies’ desire to invest in digital video in a big way. Non-digital news revenue on local and national broadcasts, as well as cable, now amounts to $16 billion a year.

That said, I’m pretty bullish about the prospects for media and tech companies to create new products and services that source, organize, report and distribute the news. What worries me most about daily newspapers going away, however, is the impact of their disappearance on reporting on state and local governments. As the Pew Research Center highlighted in June, there’s a growing deficit there: “Less than a third of U.S. newspapers assign any kind of reporter—full time or part time—to the statehouse.”

Moreover, local TV news — which remains profitable, for the moment, focused on traffic, sports, crime and weather — is not filling that gap. Per Pew, “gully 86% of local TV news stations do not assign even one reporter—full time or part time—to the statehouse. Of the 918 local television stations identified by BIA/Kelsey and Nielsen, just 130 assign a reporter to cover the statehouse.”

While nonprofits and digital-first outlets like the Texas Tribune may fill the gap in the years ahead, they haven’t made it up yet. Pew reports that “about one-in-six (16%) of all the reporters in statehouses work for nontraditional outlets, such as digital-only sites and nonprofit organizations.”

My hope is that civic media, funded by the public and foundations, will be the way that local and state governments are well-covered. As I explored in my report (PDF) on my research on data journalism for Columbia Journalism School, “this situation may grow worse as more local newspapers close, as detailed in the landmark Knight Commission on the Information Needs of Communities in a Democracy.”

As I described in the paper, one strategy for empowering citizens to be more informed about their communities and local government is the report’s recommendation to create local online hubs based upon open government data:

If the evolutionary descendants of EveryBlock are ever going to be a meaningful replacement for local newspapers, however, they’ll need to be sustainable, independent from government’s influence, deliver a valuable information product and be interesting. They’ll have to feature compelling storytelling that’s citizen-centric, uses adaptive design, and provides information that’s relevant to what people need to know, now.

That’s a tall order but there’s hope: Hundreds of entrepreneurial journalists are working on creating versions of that future today, with more to come.

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Twitter disables links in direct messages [Updated]

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Removing the ability to send links in direct messages is the first time Twitter has truly crippled its service for me.

UPDATE: Per TechCrunch, this appears to be temporary, caused by a technical choice to try to address an upsurge in spam, not a permanent change. Here’s hoping. I’ve updated the headline of this post.

Twitter posted this message on its DM help article:

We’re restructuring back-end elements of our direct message system. As a result, users may be unable to send some URLs in direct messages. We apologize for the inconvenience.

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So long, and thanks for all the fish

Thursday was my last day at O’Reilly Media. The past three years have been extraordinary. No other professional experience I’ve had even comes close to matching it.

Tim gave me the opportunity to have an impact on the world in the spring of 2010 and I took it and ran with it for all that I was worth.  I started my career at O’Reilly by interviewing Tim Berners-Lee, live on the Internet, and I finished by sharing the stage with Al Gore and Madeline Albright at Stanford, albeit in a non-speaking role. (Recognize that young looking fellow below?)

As I’ve navigated the corridors of power in DC,  statehouses, boardrooms and legislatures around the world, O’Reilly’s name and reputation opened doors everywhere. I lost count of the number of times that I pinched myself during my travels.

I also lost count of the number of the hundreds of articles I wrote over the years, bracketed by videos, annotated pictures, and tens of thousands of tweets and status updates on Facebook, Google+, Tumblr and other services. My wonderful editor, Mac Slocum, encouraged me to use the Web and social media as a platform for narrative expression, increasing the surface area for ideas and amplifying the work of people innovated at the edges of society and social change.

I was blessed with brilliant, supportive colleagues who approached collaboration and work with purpose, good humor and wit. I’m deeply grateful for all of the advice, mentorship, teamwork and wisdom that they  offered over the years.

I enjoyed the support of an amazing executive team when I spoke truth to power and pushed for change on important issue.  Few companies would have provided the degree of editorial freedom and institutional support that I had from my very first day. I saw the work we did together had a positive effect upon the world, from Israel to Africa to Australia to Australia to San Francisco — and I heard about it from people in those places and many more. I’m deeply honored to have spent this time with O’Reilly.

Briefing the president and cabinet of Moldova about the Internet and the next generation of open government remains a highlight, as was my interview of the prime minister of Georgia and delivering remarks in front of the Brazilian Congress. There are also  thousands of other moments and memories that I treasure that will never be as public but will be remain important to me in the years to come. Thank you all for your confidence and trust.

My email address at oreilly.com may no longer be a secure direct connection to me but I welcome your news, tips and ideas through more than a dozen social media channels.

I’ll have more to share with the world about “what’s next” for me in the days and weeks to come. For now, I’m looking forward to becoming a father for the first time in about 40 days.

Thank you to each and every one of you who have read, commented, replied, retweeted, reshared, picked up the phone and offered your time for interviews and reflections.

I look forward to seeing you online and around the world.

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White House supports unlocking cellphones but Congress must update DMCA to fix rule

“…neither criminal law nor technological locks should prevent consumers from switching carriers when they are no longer bound by a service agreement or other obligation,” wrote R. David Edelman, senior advisor for Internet, innovation, & privacy, in an official response to a popular e-petition.

In other words, the Obama administration has come down on the side of consumers unlocking their phones. That’s a good thing for every user, from what I can see.

The meat of the reply, in terms of what they’ll actually DO about the e-petition, recognizes the authority of the Librarian of Congress and the validity of the rulemaking process, And as far as I can tell, the statement from the Library of Congress does not indicate that they’ll be changing, which leaves it to Congress to act.

“The question of locked cell phones was raised by participants in the Section 1201 rulemaking conducted between September 2011 and October 2012 by the Register of Copyrights, who in turn advises the Librarian of Congress. The rulemaking is a process spelled out by the Digital Millennium Copyright Act in which members of the public can request exemptions from the law to enable circumvention of technological protection measures. In the case of cell phones, the request was to allow circumvention of technological protection measures controlling access to copyrighted software on cell phones.

The rulemaking is a technical, legal proceeding and involves a lengthy public process. It requires the Librarian of Congress and the Register of Copyrights to consider exemptions to the prohibitions on circumvention, based on a factual record developed by the proponents and other interested parties. The officials must consider whether the evidence establishes a need for the exemption based on several statutory factors. It does not permit the U.S. Copyright Office to create permanent exemptions to the law.

As designed by Congress, the rulemaking serves a very important function, but it was not intended to be a substitute for deliberations of broader public policy. However, as the U.S. Copyright Office has recognized many times, the 1201 rulemaking can often serve as a barometer for broader policy concerns and broader policy action. The most recent rulemaking has served this purpose.”

To put it another way, the Librarian of Congress heard these concerns during the rulemaking process and decided an exemption from the DMCA was not warranted. This White House response does not change that decision. If you read that letter differently, let me know in the comments.

For this rule to change, the Digital Millennium Copyright Act itself, which led to the contentious rule, will need to be amended.

“In today’s phone unlocking response, the White House took a strong stance in favor of consumers, competition, and innovation,” said Sherwin Siy, VP of Legal Affairs at Public Knowledge, in an emailed statement.

“We’re very glad that the administration recognizes the significant problems created when copyright laws tread upon the rights of consumers to use the products they have bought and owned. These problems will continue, however, so long as the law is written in such a way that laws intended to protect artists can be abused to stifle competition–not just in cell phones, but also in a wide variety of other products and services. Public Knowledge has long sought changes to the DMCA that would prevent not just this problem, but many other abuses. We look forward to working with Congress and the administration to put these changes in place.”

A statement from the author of the petition

“I received a call from David Edelman at the White House, and he gave me the news,” related Sina Khanifar (@sinak), who introduced the e-petition, in an emailed statement.

“I’m really glad to see the White House taking action on an issue that’s clearly very important to people. As the White House said in the response, keeping unlocking legal is really “common sense,” and I’m excited to see them recognizing this. David was enthusiastic about getting this fixed as quickly as possible.

This is a big victory for consumers, and I’m glad to have played a part in it. A lot of people reacted skeptically when I originally started the petition, with lots of comments to the effect of ‘petitions don’t do anything.’  The optimist in me is really glad to have proved them wrong. The White House just showed that they really do listen, and that they’re willing to take action.

While I think this is wonderful, I think the real culprit here is Section 1201 of the DMCA, the controversial “anti-circumvention provision.” I discussed with the White House the potential of pushing to have that provision amended or removed, and they want to continue that conversation. I’ll have exciting news on the campaign to make this happen tomorrow.”

Bottom line?

My read of this response is that the White House essentially has said that it would support “narrow legislative fixes” (over to you, Congress!), encourages mobile carriers to “enable customers to fully reap the benefits and features they expect and notes that the FCC has a role to play.

“From a communications policy perspective, this raises serious competition and innovation concerns, and for wireless consumers, it doesn’t pass the common sense test,” said FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, in a prepared statement. “The FCC is examining this issue, looking into whether the agency, wireless providers, or others should take action to preserve consumers’ ability to  unlock their mobile phones. I also encourage Congress to take a close look and consider a legislative solution.”

To put it another way, thank you for the e-petition, we agree with the principle, but the rule stands unless Congress acts.

There are other aspects of the response, however, worthy of note.

Tech journalist Rob Pegoraro also highlighted an important element of this response: “The White House didn’t just endorse legalizing phone unlocking, it also backed Carterfone for wireless.”

The White House’s response to a petition urging the administration to undo the recent re-criminalization of unlocking cell phones goes farther than I would have thought possible. In it, tech advisor R. David Edelman endorsed legalizing unlocking not just phones but tablets–a type of hardware unmentioned in the petition. Then he wrote this: “if you have paid for your mobile device, and aren’t bound by a service agreement or other obligation, you should be able to use it on another network.”

That would be a huge step forward for the wireless business–and would bring it in line with wired telecom, where the FCC’s “Carterfone” decision ended the Bell System’s control of the hardware we could plug into its lines. It’s a big deal for the administration to endorse.

This response is also a modest victory for online activism and open government, as expressed on the We the People platform.

“This is terrific news,” said Derek Khanna, a vocal advocate for this change, in an emailed statement:

“It shows the power of the people to affirmatively act to fix policy rather than just stop bad policy.  We the people have this power when we come together to fight for positive, common-sense solutions. This is a major affirmative victory for the digital generation that stood up against censorship of the internet through SOPA a year ago. The work of this movement is not done, now Congress must follow through – and it will require continued activism and engagement from average people who made this possible.

A free society should not require its citizens to petition their government every three years to allow access to technologies that are ordinary and commonplace. Innovation cannot depend upon a permission-based rulemakings requiring approval every three years from an unelected bureaucrat.  A free society should not ban technologies unless there is a truly overwhelming and compelling governmental interest.”

[Image Credit: Josh Bancroft]

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With more than 5 million users, “We the People” want to be heard online

Use of one of the White House’s signature open government efforts, its e-petition platform, has exploded over the last six months. New data released today by the White House strongly suggests that We The People is the first open government platform that has gone mainstream.

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As of January 14, 2013, there are now 5,410,525 total We The People users.

That’s up from 2,756,057 in late August 2012, doubling over the course of 6 months.

There are 141,310 total petitions, up from 45,901 in late August 2012, more than a 3-fold increase.

There have been 9,178,278 total signatures, up from 3,320,520, nearly a 3-fold increase since late August 2012. The majority of this growth came after the election, when petitions to let states secede from the U.S.A. popped on the platform and drew broadcast media attention, which in turn drove more awareness of the platform.

On many levels, this makes sense: more people have access to the Internet now, particularly through their mobile devices, and the use of social media has exploded. These three factors have connected more people to government and to one another, combining to enable them to use the Internet as a platform for collective action to speak out about issues that matter to them.

We the People was launched in November 2011 as an effort to give citizens a voice in government in the Internet age. While the platform was new, the idea was not: the British government has had online petitions for years. Across the Atlantic, however, there’s special context: the First Amendment of the Bill of Rights of the Constitution of the United States protects the right of the people to “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” Petitions have played an important role in the nation’s history, from the Virginia Legislature to Quakers petitioning the colonial government and Continental Congress to abolish slavery.

“When I ran for this office, I pledged to make government more open and accountable to its citizens,” President Barack Obama said in 2011, when the platform was announced. “That’s what the new We the People feature on WhiteHouse.gov is all about – giving Americans a direct line to the White House on the issues and concerns that matter most to them.”

Prior to the election, this open government effort was a relatively slow burn, in terms of growth. Until the fall of 2012, the most significant role it had played came just under a year ago, when the White House took an official position on petitions on the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and PROTECT IP Act (PIPA), changing the political context for the bills.

On the evening of December 20 2012, however, President Barack Obama responded to 32 different e-petitions related to gun violence. It was the first direct response to an e-petition at +The White House by a President of the United States. While this remains the only e-petition that the President has responded to personally, before or since, it was a milestone in digital government, marking the first time that the President spoke directly to the people through the Internet about an issue they had collectively asked to be addressed using the Internet.

While We The People has been used as a punch line for DC political reporters, given some of the more edgy petitions that have gone up on it, this new set of data strongly suggests that a majority of users not only found the responses meaningful but intend to keep involved. According to the White House, of the more than 50,000 people who responded to a survey after receiving a response to their epetition:

  • 86% said they would create or sign another petition
  • 66% said the response was the administration was “helpful”
  • 50% learned something new

To date, according to the data the White House released today, 201 petitions have crossed the 25,000 threshold that means the White House will give an official response. Of those, 162 e-petitions have received a response, which results in an 80.6% clear rate. 2.1 million users have received a response to their e-petition, a 38.8% response rate. The remaining 3 million or so users are either awaiting a response or signed on to petitions that didn’t meet the threshold. Responding to the growth in user base that has come with more attention, the White House raised the threshold for an official response today. In a blog post at WhiteHouse.gov, White House digital director Macon Phillips talked about the change:

When we first raised the threshold — from 5,000 to 25,000 — we called it “a good problem to have.” Turns out that “good problem” is only getting better, so we’re making another adjustment to ensure we’re able to continue to give the most popular ideas the time they deserve.

Starting today, as we move into a second term, petitions must receive 100,000 signatures in 30 days in order to receive an official response from the Obama Administration. This new threshold applies only to petitions created from this point forward and is not retroactively applied to ones that already exist.

In the last two months of 2012, use of We the People more than doubled. In just that time roughly 2.4 million new users joined the system, 73,000 petitions were created and 4.9 million signatures were registered.

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The most signatures on a single petition to date (319,782 and counting) are on one that remains open, asking the administration to declare the Westboro Baptist Church a hate group, followed by two other related petitions. Other popular petitions remain open, from one to recount the election, one to support the release of standards for labeling genetically modified food and one to require free access over the Internet to scientific journal articles arising from taxpayer-funded research.

It isn’t an accident that there’s a wide variety of causes and issues on We The People. The White House made a notable design choice when it left the platform open to any petition, instead of constraining it. It was also a politically risky one given the potentially unwelcome distraction in an election year. Yes, that resulted in less serious outcomes, like a petition to build a Death Star, or edgy ones, like secession, but it also enables the people to petition their government about issues that don’t fall into pre-selected buckets, talking points or lobbying areas.

Given that the platform is in part aimed at creating more participation in government, it would be fair to judge that aspect of We The People a qualified success. On other counts, the effort is more of a mixed success. Open government advocate Jim Snider, who has been critical of the democratic function of the platform, has made other specific suggestions for ways that Congress could improve We the People, from verification of identity to standardized data to a deadline for an official written response from the head of the relevant federal agency.

There are several other ways the platform could be improved, which is always true if you think of open government being in beta. (That’s particularly true architects are improving a given government platform using citizen feedback). Once again, the White House is releasing a snapshot of data about the nature and growth of the platforms use but isn’t sharing open data about the Web analytics behind We The People as it changes. It would be useful to have more than twice yearly check-ins on use and to be able to see how long petitions have been open or how quickly they’ve passed a threshold. Micah Sifry made even more significant suggestions for how We the People could help form a more perfect union in November, recommending that the petitions be used to enable signers to talk more to one another, not just the White House.

Last August, the White House open sourced We The People on Github. If more civic coders get involved in “hacking the government, some of the improvements might come sooner rather than later. While the code hasn’t been repurposed by another national government yet, In the months since, they’ve continued to work on an API that would allow other petition services, like Avaaz, Change.org, 38 Degrees or SignOn, to tie into it. Phillips referred to this work today:

It’s wonderful to see so many people using We the People to add their voices to important policy debates here in Washington and bring attention to issues that might not get the attention they deserve. This increasing adoption strengthens our resolve to build new features, including an API that would allow other popular online petition platforms to integrate with our official one.

Such an API could also allow integration into Facebook or other social networking services, which could expand the reach and power of e-petitions, particularly if networks of people can be activated to engage in offline actions, like phone calls, in-person visits, demonstrations or votes.

For more discussion of the pros and cons of online petitions, tune in to the episode of Kojo Nnamdi from earlier today, where I discussed We the People and other platforms with representatives of Change.org, MoveOn.org and a member of the Maryland House of Delegates.

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Open Government 2.0: Government of, by, for, and with the People

In the 1990s, the Internet changed communication and commerce forever. A decade later, the Web 2.0 revolution enabled a new disruption in media by democratizing the tools for publishing. Citizens without specialized technical skills can now easily upload pictures, video, and text to a more interactive Web, where they can then use powerful new platforms to share, mix, and comment upon it all. In the years since the first social networks went online, the disruption presented by this dynamic online environment, fed by faster Internet connections and a global explosion of mobile users, has created shifts in the power structure as powerful as those brought about by the introduction of the printing press centuries ago.

With the Internet being hailed as the public arena for our time, governments around the world are waking up to a changed information environment in the 21st century. Social-media platforms present new risks and rewards for government, but the fact is these platforms are hosting public discourse between hundreds of millions of citizens. In the context of these changes, public servants have begun using social media to share information and engage with citizens. Below, four Government 2.0 pioneers share their insights, experiences, and hopes about the new opportunities social media offers for people to participate in their government.

These essays were originally published in the Association for Computing Machinery’s “Interactions” Magazine. They are republished here with permission.

Serving Citizens via Social Media


By Steve Ressler (@govloop), founder of GovLoop.com, former IT program manager and auditor at the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

In 2012, social media is mainstream. Facebook is preparing a $100 billion IPO. President Obama is hosting a series of [social media] Town Halls. Even my grandmother is on Facebook. So what’s the role of social media in government? A few years ago, social media in government was brand new. It was exciting when a new city launched a Facebook page or a councilperson posted meetings on YouTube, or a state department launched a mobile app.

We’ve moved past the honeymoon phase, and now social media is being asked to deliver core mission value. For state and local governments, there are three foundational ways in which social media helps deliver value:

Reach more people. One of the core foundational roles of state and local government is to provide information for citizens. This is why for years government agencies have sent information via postal mail, printed agency newsletters, held in-person town hall meetings, and built telephone call centers. With more than 750 million users on Facebook, 200 million on Twitter, and the whole world tuning in to YouTube, social media is simply the largest channel that most people use these days to get information.

Get feedback. Another core role of government is to get feedback from citizens. Classic town halls simply do not work as well in today’s modern society, where everyone is busy and few people have the time to drive downtown at 5 p.m. on a Wednesday for a meeting. Social media is an interactive, two-way medium that acts as a great vehicle for real-time feedback.

Lower costs and increase revenue. In today’s tough budgetary times, cities and states simply cannot ignore opportunities to lower costs and increase revenue. Mobile applications like SeeClickFix let citizens photograph and report potholes and other city problems, instead of the city having to send out a truck to investigate every call-in complaint. Instead of spending tens of thousands of dollars on printing and mailing property-tax statements or city guides, city governments can save lots of money by sending the same information via email and social media. And that’s just the beginning.

I’ll be the first to admit that social media is not perfect. It is not a magic cure. Just because you add new social media channels does not mean you can remove other channels, like phone lines. Further, implementing social media well is a skill, and it takes time to see its impact. It matters, however, because the world has already changed. If government wants to remain relevant to citizens, it must evolve to meet the demands of the 21st century. The modern citizen is using social media, and is the reason why Facebook has [845] million users, and that iPhones and iPads have made Apple the second most valuable company in the world. Government must meet citizens where they are now or risk losing the opportunity to be more relevant to their lives.

Selective Use of Social Media in Government Projects

By Jeffrey Levy (@levy413), Director of Web Communications at the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

The use of social media runs the gamut, from agencies that are still considering it, to those who are using it mostly as a broadcast mechanism, to those like EPA that offer a mix of broadcast and community participation, to those who rely on social media for full-blown collaboration. Social media gives us good tools to enhance transparency, participation, and collaboration. But the trick is figuring out the most effective projects in which to use these tools.

Five years ago, there wasn’t even a single U.S. government blog. Today there is at least one U.S. agency using every type of social media I can think of. EPA itself is engaged in most channels, at least in broadcast mode and often in two-way discussion and the solicitation of community-created content (photos, videos, comments, etc.).

Social media works very well in conjunction with email and websites. At EPA, we use all channels to promote other channels, both by cross-linking and by embedding content from social media into Web pages. Some things we’re starting to think about are how to use two-dimensional barcodes (QR codes) well, and developing mobile applications in general. One nice thing is that many social media sites already have mobile versions, so it is simple and useful to link to them from our mobile site.

We are active where the people are on the most popular social media platforms, so we have the chance to talk to, and respond to, people who may never come to our main website. We also have a much broader ability to share our information. In many cases, we hear ideas from people who otherwise would not contact us. For example, during the recent nuclear crisis in Fukushima, Japan, we were able to answer questions through Facebook to help alleviate concerns and provide solid information to new groups of people.

Our mission is best served when we work collaboratively with the public to protect their health and the environment. Photo and video projects engage people. For example, the “It’s My Environment video project involved hundreds of people making short video clips, in which they took ownership of protecting our environment. By using social media channels to promote “Pick 5 for the Environment,” we challenge people to take other kinds of actions.

Social media can also help us catch environmental criminals simply by helping us advertise our fugitives list. The health warnings we issue can reach hundreds of thousands of people through Facebook, Twitter, and email. The recipients are people who asked to be kept in the loop, so they are a much more interested audience than the general public. Another key aspect of our mission is our use of online discussion forums, where we invite anyone to share their thoughts and opinions on policy issues.

My social media mantra is mission, tools, metrics, teach. It depends on the channel, but generally, we need better stats. For example, we have 42,000 followers on Twitter. But what’s the number of people who actually see a particular tweet? Facebook provides impressions, which is a more useful statistic. YouTube provides some good metrics too.

We also need inexpensive tools to help us monitor multiple channels. Each social media company is doing its own thing, and most are not focused on helping us cross channels. But multichannel management will become increasingly important as we grow more active in more channels.

Changing the Conversation Through Social Media

By Nick Schaper (@nickschaper), Executive Director of Digital Strategic Communications at U.S. Chamber of Commerce, former Director of Digital Media for U.S. Speaker of the House of Representatives, Representative John Boehner.

Much has been made of American politicians’ sometimes transformative, sometimes awkward, and occasionally career-ending entrances into social media. Suffice it to say that many are on board and they’re not likely to exit social media. Your member of Congress wants you to like him or her, both at the ballot box and on Facebook. While the number of elected representatives integrating social media into their communications efforts has soared, this is still very much a new frontier in governance. Americans are getting a very rare opportunity to shape the direction of their government.

In the heady frontier days of the government’s adoption of social media (five to seven years ago), members of Congress moved from the stodgy “traditional media” strategy of drafting and sending out a press release to the cutting-edge “new media” strategy of drafting and sending out a press release and then posting a link to it via Twitter and Facebook. It was hardly splitting the atom, but it was moving in the right direction.

As the government social media ecosystem continues to evolve, we’re seeing more aggressively innovative efforts aimed at increasing participation, transparency, and accountability. Officials and their staff are identifying the unique abilities of popular platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter, and they’re adjusting their communications accordingly. In the past year alone, we’ve seen Republicans in the U.S. House of Representatives enlist Americans’ digital support in voting on which government programs to cut, resulting in their directly shaping the governing agenda of what would become the House’s new majority. Further down Pennsylvania Avenue, the Obama Administration’s digital team has led the nation’s first Twitter and Facebook town halls, among numerous other experiments in participatory and open government.

These efforts have helped to create a vast new virtual town square. Unfortunately, that square is still a noisy, unruly place. Like much of the Web, .gov is plagued by signal-to-noise issues, many of which are exacerbated by the unique rules and traditions of each branch. Members of Congress, for example, would prefer to communicate primarily (if not exclusively) with constituents who live in their districts. Users don’t generally list their home address in their Twitter bio, so should members be @replying to tweets when they can’t trace the origin?

Identity and bandwidth challenges will not be solved anytime soon, and certainly not in this space, but suffice it to say that your representatives are eagerly looking for new ways to communicate and legislate. Congressional staffs scour online communities for mentions of their bosses. Bloggers and other digital influentials have been given unprecedented access to politicians. When the president recently took questions live via Twitter, he found himself on the hot seat in his own White House when he faced questions on the lack of jobs and a flagging economy. All of this is testament to the fact that the tweets and status updates of citizens are echoing in the marble halls of our nation’s government.

The marriage of social media and government has made it through the honeymoon stage. To what degree that results in a more perfect union is still yet to be seen. The potential for transformative change is there, and I’m confident it will be realized by this and many generations of social media patriots to come.

Reaching and Revealing New Heights Through Social Media


By Stephanie L. Schierholz (@schierholz), former Social Media Manager, National Aeronautics and Space Administration.

To understand how NASA uses social media to accomplish its mission, you must first understand the agency’s vision. Simply put, the space agency’s goal is to “reach for new heights and reveal the unknown so what we do and learn will benefit all humankind.” What NASA accomplishes and learns cannot benefit all humankind if people do not know about what we’re discovering. This is why the 1958 act that established the National Aeronautics and Space Administration also called for the agency to “provide for the widest practicable and appropriate dissemination of information concerning its activities and the results thereof.”

Making NASA accessible to the American people—and, really, to citizens around the world—has been ingrained in the agency’s operations since the early days. If you are old enough, you know this is true because you saw astronaut Neil Armstrong set foot on the moon via television signals from a NASA broadcast. Today you can watch NASA TV streaming online via your computer or mobile device.

The mandate to share what the agency is doing as widely as possible (and a restriction against advertising) keeps us on the lookout for new ways we can spread the word and be more accessible. Social media tools have enabled NASA to engage the public efficiently and effectively. Social media sites provide us an easy way to keep the public updated with news delivered straight into their personal newsfeed or homepage, which they probably visit more often than traditional news sites or the NASA website.

The agency has come quite a distance since the pioneers at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory started a Twitter account for the Phoenix Mars Lander program (@MarsPhoenix) in May 2008. NASA’s primary Twitter account (@NASA) has more than 1 million followers. We have more than 200 social media accounts agency-wide, including more than 20 astronauts on Twitter. You can find them all at www.nasa.gov/connect. Because of its interest in identifying new ways to connect, NASA was the first government agency to form partnerships with Gowalla, Facebook, and SlideShare. Why? Because each allows the agency to share our content with audiences who might never visit the main NASA website.

The real value of NASA’s use of social media tools can be seen in the level of engagement they attract and the communities that form around them. It is called social media because our fans and followers have a reasonable expectation their questions will be answered and their comments heard. By responding and interacting with them, NASA has the opportunity to educate, inform, and inspire. Fans and followers who are passionate about what we do have platforms to express this passion and share it with others.

NASA “tweetups” take it to the next level, bringing the online engagement to in-person gatherings where participants have an opportunity to talk to NASA leaders, scientists, engineers, and astronauts and the chance to see how and where we work. Participants have arrived at NASA tweetups as casual fans or followers and walked away as enthusiastic advocates of the work we are doing. A strong sense of community develops at these events, exemplifying how social media can bring together people who have common interests.

What’s next for NASA and social media? We’ll continue to keep our eyes open for platforms we can use to engage and share the word out about what we’re doing. Meanwhile, the agency is working on improving our internal support for social media, focusing on processes, guidelines, and coordination. You can expect to see improvements to our Facebook page, a mobile check-in spot for our “Search for the Moon Rocks” partnership with Gowalla, a Foursquare mayor of the International Space Station, more of our presentations, videos, and documents on SlideShare, and more out-of-this-world content in the places you go to be social online.

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The insights and experiences shared above represent only a small sample of the variety of ways in which social media is transforming governments. While the examples are U.S.-centric, they do represent trends that are evolving in other countries. What we’ve left for a future discussion is how citizens around the world are using social media to disrupt traditional ways of governing. For instance, social media is credited with helping to accelerate social change in Tunisia, Egypt, and other parts of the Middle East. It’s also been used in collaborative partnerships between government and citizens to respond to man-made crises or natural disasters.

The examples above, however, should provide a useful overview of some of the ways in which today’s participatory platforms are playing increasingly important roles in the evolution of government of, by, for, and now with the people.

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