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Is America Losing The Social Networking War?

While Twitter and YouTube have proven strategic for election protesters in Iran, the US Defense Department is "way behind the power curve" on social networking, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said last week. Military leaders need to get on Facebook and other social networking sites themselves, to learn how they're used firsthand.
While Twitter and YouTube have proven strategic for election protesters in Iran, the US Defense Department is "way behind the power curve" on social networking, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said last week. Military leaders need to get on Facebook and other social networking sites themselves, to learn how they're used firsthand.

"How do we communicate better with [young people]?" Gates asked. "How do we get reactions from them to things that we're doing? How do we get better plugged in with what they're thinking?"

The answer to those questions, in Gates' view, is to harness social media to enable DOD reach out to the world.

"For leaders ... it's really important to be connected to [social-networking tools] and understand it," said Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, noting that he has his own Facebook page. "I think communicating that way and moving information around that way - whether it's administrative information or information in warfare - is absolutely critical."

These are issues that governments and businesses are struggling with around the world. It's a struggle for anyone -- institutional or individual -- who takes social networks seriously. Some of the question we'll all be trying to figure out with over the next few years:

- When is something like Facebook or Twitter an appropriate channel for communications, and when is it more appropriate to use a more traditional channel, such as television, radio, the telephone, e-mail or the Web? (And isn't it ironic that e-mail and the Web are now considered old media?)

- Social media is evolving fast. How do you stay on top of the rapid changes, the blooms and die-offs?

Social media's roots go back more than 20 years, to Usenet and the BBSes of the 80s, they continue through CompuServe and Prodigy in the early 90s, blogs, online journals, discussion forums, and even e-mail mailing lists. These are all social networks, even though the phrase and concept are relatively new.

Those old networks -- BBSes, CompuServe, etc. -- passed. Individual companies boom and die quickly (anybody still use Friendster?), while new companies spring up fast.

How do you make sure your investment in a Facebook fan page or a Twitter account is portable, so you can take your social connections with you to another system? And how do you know when a new social network is worth investing time in? Spock looked promising, but never really went anywhere. Friendfeed has a passionate user community, but it hasn't achieved mainstream critical mass. And of course there's Second Life -- I'm still an enthusiast and an evangelist, but I'll be the first to admit it hasn't achieved the broad mainstream adoption that its biggest cheerleaders predicted in 2006.

How do you handle security? You're turning your information over to a third party, to run on their servers, and they, rather than you, ultimately control who has access to the information. A Defense Intelligence Agency cyber counterintelligence official warns that enemy agents could monitor online discussion groups and blogs used by DOD employees and contractors to single out disgruntled employees for recruitment or blackmail, and more. I'm sure there are even more risks that we aren't even contemplating, and we'll learn about them the hard way.

But the biggest risk of all is ignoring social networking. If you do that, you're an easy target: Your enemies can find you near the printer, where you're trying to figure out how to change the toner cartridge so you can print out all your e-mail.

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