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 (CDC). "We wanted to use these tools to some end, some effect, some public good," said Macon Phillips, the White House Director of New Media. (See the best social-networking applications.)
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. (The White House New Media team, which posts on the networks from four old speech-writing rooms in the Eisenhower Executive Office Building, has been able to win an exemption from this policy.)
At present, government lawyers have drafted agreements with 10 private social-networking companies. (The tailored agreements take into account certain federal privacy statutes and require that disputes be settled in federal court, not state courts.) 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. (See the 50 best websites of 2008.)
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 now."
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.