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White House Social Media Initiatives: Are They Doing It Wrong?

The White House recently launched membership in three of the most popular social media sites: Facebook.com/Whitehouse, MySpace.com/whitehouse and Twitter.com/whitehouse. The White House initiatives highlight ongoing questions about government use of social media: Is citizens' privacy protected? Is it appropriate? Is it effective?
The White House recently launched membership in three of the most popular social media sites: Facebook.com/Whitehouse, MySpace.com/whitehouse and Twitter.com/whitehouse. The White House initiatives highlight ongoing questions about government use of social media: Is citizens' privacy protected? Is it appropriate? Is it effective?When a citizen "friends" a government agency on MySpace, the agency gains access to a variety of information about the citizen. How should the government agency use that information, The New York Times wonders:


The privacy advocates' biggest concern is that most social networks treat a government agency no differently than a former roommate. People might friend the White House on MySpace, for example, to indicate support for the president or to get messages about what the administration is doing. In doing so, however, they are agreeing that every party photo, love poem, and wisecrack from a friends that appears on their profiles will be visible to White House Web masters. And so far there are no guidelines that say whether those Webmasters might keep copies of any of personal information they see or send it to the government officials who could use it to get authorization to audit people's taxes, keep them from boarding an airplane, tap their telephones or even arrest them.

For example, the Centers for Disease Control is providing swine flu information on social networks. Often, when people are sick, they'll share that information on their social networks. Should the CDC use social networking information to track the spread of the disease?

This isn't a problem on all social networks -- Facebook, for example, lets government agencies, businesses, and celebrities, create "fan pages" that don't give the operators access to other users' information.

Similarly, how should government presence on social media sites be juxtaposed with advertising?


Jeff Chester, the director of the Center for Digital Democracy, added a concern about how the interaction of people with the government might be captured and used for advertising. Is it acceptable for people who look up interest rate information at the Federal Reserve to then receive mortgage offers, he asked?

"We don't want access to government information to become a digital bazaar, where the attractive digital interactive come-ons might conflict-and even confuse-users," he wrote in an e-mail.

Another question raised by government use of social media: Is it effective? Government uses social media to get messages out to citizens, and to field complaints, but we've yet to see social media fulfill its promise for collaboration with citizens, says Beth Noveck, deputy director for Open Government, within the Office of Science and Technology policy at the White House.


"We see examples of civic participation, but it's divorced from government itself," she said. "We see example of how government responds to complaints...but they don't engage people in the process, nor do they track progress."

In other words, the marriage of social networks and government has been pretty much a one-way street so far. Lots of "noise" coming in, but very little in the way of collaborative solutions, based on citizen participation, coming out.

She described efforts under way to resolve the problem, including Harvard University's Group Brain Project and the US Patent Office's Peer-to-Patent Project, designed to reduce the time for patent reviews.

TechCrunch was underwhelmed by the new White House initiatives, and questioned whether the MySpace advertising undercut the dignity of the White House:


Other than the blog post with the video, there isn't much to the page other than a few links to Whitehouse.gov and to Obama's and Vice President Joe Biden's MySpace pages, as well as a link to some playful White House photos. The whole page seems designed to humanize Obama and help younger voters relate to him.

There are no ads on the page, but if you click through to photos page, then you do get some ads. The ad beside this photo of the president running down a hallway with his daughter's puppy says, "Pimp My Profile." Not very Presidential.

VentureBeat was also underwhelmed, but optimistic:


Hopefully, these pages will follow the same pattern as the administration's other web efforts - they start out underwhelming, but improve eventually. For example, the White House blog originally contained little more than repackaged press releases, but it has become chatty and conversational. Meanwhile, until recently, the Recovery.gov site for learning about how the $787 billion stimulus package gets spent lacked any real data. Hopefully, with the White House's new Chief Technology Officer Aneesh Chopra and Chief Information Officer Vivek Kundra, we'll soon see many more improvements in this vein.


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