Monday, May 18, 2009

The State Dept on Social Media

The US State Department is now on Twitter. I thought we were going somewhere when Barack Obama showed up in my Facebook feed encouraging me to tune into his latest press conference. Now, apparently, one can follow the State Department on Twitter (Same posts: “Briefing Notes: On Aung San Suu Kyi -- She should not be under arrest, not facing trial, not threatened with prison. On Iran -- We are assessing Iran's progress on starting direct dialog, but we do not have any timeline.” Or “Secretary Clinton just stepped onto the Yankee Stadium field to loud applause. Most NYU commencement ceremony students standing and cheering.”)

It initially seemed an odd move for a government institution, especially one known for carefully worded statements. These things are traditionally the province of younger people, who wrote angsty or funny updates that communicate their personal mood more than anything else. (Someday, I will commission a study to prove that AIM away messages from about 2000 were behind all the social media. People, or at least my friends and I, got used to using the internet as a virtual dry erase board of their lives. Or else they posted random song lyrics. But I digress.)

At any rate, these sorts of things are traditionally person-to-person communications, and they’re constantly updated. Governments and large institutions are usually exceedingly careful about their public statements, and I’d expect even 140 word messages to have to be run by a team of lawyers. And indeed, many of State’s tweets are the sort of predictable press page items you’d expect. But I actually…like them. The feed is updated several times a day, and State usually has some something to say about the day’s major controversies. Its tweets aren’t usually earth shattering, but they have a way of making the day’s international news manageable. A quick glace down the page is an easy way to keep up with what’s going on in the world.

What I hadn’t expected was how much State interacts with other Twitterers. It responds to queries, usually with a link to relevant information, and corrects users who write things it disagrees with. This brings me to a larger idea – maybe the purpose of social media for an organization like State is not so much to put out new information, but to combat disinformation. Being on Twitter enables State to react to rumors when they get started, rather than waiting several days for them to metastasize before dismissing them at a press conference. It doesn’t post radical changes every day, because it can’t, but by being a part of the conversation, it’s able to steer the discussion while it’s happening.

(Two Tangents: State’s page evidently predated the White House’s; a tweet from May 1 welcomes @whitehouse to Twitter. Also, I wonder if I can follow the IRS?)

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