Obama's Twitter Conundrum - InformationWeek

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7/27/2009
01:19 PM
Michael Hickins
Michael Hickins
Commentary
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Obama's Twitter Conundrum

It turns out the White House doesn't hate Twitter as reported, or at least not as much, or at least not for very much longer.

It turns out the White House doesn't hate Twitter as reported, or at least not as much, or at least not for very much longer.President Obama has disappointed many supporters for a variety of reasons from trivial to vote-alienating, but none has been noted as soon or as often as his wavering commitment to Web 2.0.

This makes sense on some level: Obama's mantra was change, and transparency and more open communications are critical harbingers of change.

Web 2.0 itself is synonymous with change, not just because it's a new iteration of the static Web, but because Ajax, CSS, Web APIs and other advances allowed Web developers to create sites that users could respond to in meaningful ways. Interactivity was born.

Candidate Obama used these tools to great effect, and even as President-elect, his Change.gov site included mechanisms for providing feedback on proposed bills and otherwise interacting with Obama and his staff. That changed quite quickly when Change.gov became WhiteHouse.gov.

Most interactive features went away, and while some have reappeared, WhiteHouse.gov is far from the interactive site many were hoping for. Obama also failed to do things like post bills for public comment before signing them into law. The site allowing citizens to track government spending is unlike anything we've had before, but that advance has been overshadowed by controversies like this one over whether government staffers are allowed to Twitter.

It's actually a pretty simple issue. People who work at the White House have security clearances of varying degrees, and because they work at the White House, what they say carries more weight than if they worked anywhere else -- even in the House or Senate. Rightly or wrongly, they are seen as representing the Administration.

We've all seen how a casual comment from a corporate executive can cause a ruckus and all kinds of bad PR for a company; imagine what that would do for government policy. How would North Korea react if someone in the White House tweeted, "we'll have a surprise waiting for Kim Jung-il."

Apparently, the Administration's stance on Twitter is more nuanced than originally reported. Regardless, give it credit for trying to do the right thing in this case -- which is to figure out how to use new communications tools to improve transparency and bring government closer to the governed without creating a crisis of truly international proportions.

And the Administration hasn't given up on using Web 2.0 to hone its message or communicate with constituents, as it's now creating a health care focus group on LinkedIn.

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