Adobe Public Sector Blog

Social media for government is here, so what’s all the fuss about??

Should government use Twitter? Can you really say ANYTHING in 140 characters? Facebook, how can that be a business tool? It’s for college kids to share stories and pictures about their drunken exploits. And blogs? Well, who cares what I have to say?!? (spoken from the perspective of potential government bloggers)

Here’s some more FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt for the acronym challenged):

* Social media is insecure!
* What a time waster!
* I know my employees are going to say something they shouldn’t!
* Eh, this technology is for kids, mine use it at home every day.
* I can’t be bothered to learn yet another technology

Ok, so, I’m sure you get the point. Anytime something new comes along, there will be those who will do all they can to put up road blocks. It is a common response from some people when facing something unfamiliar. However, on the flip side, there are the innovators and early adopters to balance the FUD with hype. It’s this community of people who typically believe so deeply in a particular idea that they tend to see it as an answer to all things! Of course, over time, as a new idea becomes more acceptable and adopted for use by a larger population, the fear begins to minimize along with the hype.

To support my points above, let’s wind back the clock a bit to the mid 80’s. Assuming you were with us and old enough to be working, you most likely remember the first time you had access to email. Wow, what a change, huh? I was working for Wang Laboratories in those days and a big part of my job was to help people learn how to use office email. Thinking back, I used to hear so many reasons why email was going to ‘ruin’ the way organizations do business, but, I guess at this point, we are pretty safe in saying that email has been successfully adopted by business and, while it certainly did CHANGE the way organizations do business, it did not ruin it as some predicted it would.

Now, I’m sure there are those of you reading this who are thinking that this is not necessarily an apples to apples comparison between social media and email. Email was initially adopted internal to businesses, deployed by IT in a controlled fashion, refined to support business habits and not really available for the general public until the rise of the internet. On the other hand, social media has been created external to business and introduced by employees, whether the business likes it or not!

So, what would be a more accurate analogy? Well, a couple obvious choices come to mind, the internet itself and Instant Messaging (yes, I know, there are people now lumping IM into the social media bucket, but, well, I’m not one of that crowd!)

In the mid 90’s, when the internet was just starting to become popular I was working for a small information retrieval company. I recall building some of our first demonstrations, showing how our search engine could be used on the internet to find information. Of course today, we take it for granted that Google and Yahoo are there for us and no one would argue the virtues of having such tools available, but, in those early days, not only did we have to explain the value of being able to search, we had to contend with a whole host of fears regarding giving people access to the internet in the first place! For goodness sake, why would any organization want to allow it’s employees to have access to the internet? They will stop working and become unproductive. What value could there possibly be to internet access? It’s just a bunch of useless information, right? Well, of course, who could imagine an organization today who does NOT have access to the internet? (Notice how a couple of those rejections sound a bit familiar?)

In 2000, after a 5 year stint as the CTO for an internet-based eLearning company, I moved into a new CTO role with a company seeking to introduce instant messaging into the enterprise. Think back for a moment to that time. Instant messaging was a platform for kids to chat on. The idea that this could be a business tool was really pushing the envelope for many organizations. To many, IM was viewed in almost exactly the same way as social media tools are today, a scarey waste of time, meant for personal use only.

Ok, it’s 2009 and, along with a whole host of other initially ‘scarey’ technologies, email, the internet and instant messaging have all been absorbed, in some fashion, into government organizations. They’ve been woven into the fabric of how government does business. Did these technologies change things? Well, of course they did. Did they introduce new challenges? Again, yes of course. Did government organizations fail to continue to deliver on their mission because of these changes? Definitely not. Ultimately, did they make things better, has the positive impact outweighed the potential risks? I think it’s safe to say that in general they did.

Over the past couple years, I’ve spent much of my professional (and personal) time discussing the merits and pitfalls of social media technologies and concepts with various organizations and individuals within government. As you might expect, the viewpoints have been widely varied and the discussions have sounded reminiscent of conversations from the past. However, I’ve noticed more recently that the conversations are taking on a very different tone. The fear is beginning to dissipate and, due in part to the brave innovators within government who have been working diligently to adopt social media technologies in a responsible manner, there are more discussions now about best practices, approaches and lessons learned.

I’m encouraged that social media is on the path to becoming an acceptable part of government, to what extent still remains to be seen as the hype and the fears settle down.

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  • By Sohbet - 10:36 PM on August 22, 2010  

    I’m encouraged that social media is on the path to becoming an acceptable part of government, to what extent still remains to be seen as the hype and the fears settle down.