Tuesday, August 26, 2008

Little Brother is Watching You

Mark Drapeau has been writing a series about Government 2.0 at mashable.com that addresses how institutions of the state are using social media software such as Twitter or blogging engines to reach large numbers of citizens. Since Jane Fountain's early work on the "virtual state," analysts of e-government have also been trying to grapple with ideological issues that get beyond the mechanistic viewpoint of many of the initial HCI attitudes, which much of my work on the Virtualpolitik project addresses.

In "Government 2.0: Being Individually Empowerful," Drapeau links to a long list of government agencies now using Twitter.

Although his view of the Transportation Security Administration's blog Evolution of Security is less jaded than my own, which is developed at length in a forthcoming article in the Video Vortex Reader about government-funded YouTube channels, Drapeau does acknowledge that government media-makers rarely use social media genres appropriately or recognize the critical distinctions between "push" and "pull" media.

The Web 2.0 mentality is that of a conversation. But these blogs, while great, are really just press releases. The occasional post racks up lots of comments, but considering the potential audience of 300 million people domestically, there is little conversing going on.

Drapeau also notes that some government employees experiment with institutional identities other than the officially approved and branded ones that are associated with a government seal.

Interestingly, there are two categories of government Twitter usage. The first is a faceless entity complete with the office’s seal (“JFCOM” or “FEMA”) that I term the “Enterprise.” The second is an individual advocate representing an agency, most often using their real name and photo; I call this the “Empowered individual.”

. . .

What I found was very revealing. The Enterprises rarely follow anyone, and when they do, those tend to be other Enterprises. In contrast, the Empowered follow many people, often those with no obvious relationship with the government. Empowered entities also tend to deliver messages related not only to work but about other aspects of their lives.

Enterprises also rarely converse with other Twitter users. Many just use TwitterFeed to re-post blog posts that already read like press releases – a 1.0 messaging system masquerading in 2.0 technology. Conversing is so rare that I was hard-pressed to find any good examples. NASA should really be singled out, because although entities like “MarsPhoenix” don’t follow anyone, they do converse quite a lot (MarsPhoenix has about 44% @ replies and 56% “push”).

I might argue that the singularity of NASA may have more to do with a longer tradition of pro-am affiliations -- that include many astronomy enthusiasts in the general public -- than a smarter collective culture about the adoption of social media technologies at the level of policy.

Drapeau's earlier second essay, "Government 2.0: A Theory of Social Government," doesn't actually do much to advance a coherent theory, but it does include an insider's perspective on our current climate of political reaction that strives not only to regulate the use of seemingly subversive social media technologies by constituents but also the computer-mediated communication practices of agents of the government themselves.

Ironically, however, many government agencies block such sites for use at work. For example, I cannot access MySpace or YouTube from the computer in my office at the Department of Defense, and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) blocks most social networking sites besides LinkedIn. At least one part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH) blocks Google Chat. Not only do these policies make little sense (there are legitimate research uses for all of these sites, while email, iTunes, and non-blocked websites are ‘abused’ daily), the policies are inconsistent.

Drapeau argues that conferences like Defense 2.0 indicate that policy makers are finally getting over their instrumentalist ideology that hobbles effective action on the Internet to acknowledge that "the Internet has ceased to be a tool, and has evolved into a place."

After reading the first essay in the series, "Government 2.0: An Insider's Perspective" I didn't hold out much hope for the series, given his online persona as a facile DoD "expert" who actually was a late-comer to these technologies, who was trained as "a biologist who collects wild parasitic wasps from birds’ nests, videotapes tiny fruit flies copulating and was part of the international honey bee genome project." His smarmy introduction of himself as a person for whom this "all changed on March 3rd, when I attended the auspiciously named event, 'Blogs Meet Booze' in Washington DC, on a lark" seemed particularly rhetorically unfortunate.

When I opened the link I shuddered to think of reading yet another reductionistic sociobiological take on the World Wide Web that seemed to be previewed by Drapeau's assertion that "studying complex behavioral and genetic networks in animals is not so different from understanding human social networks." (This approach obviously ignores things like ideology or cultural imaginaries or linguistic connotation in computer-mediated communication.)

However, Drapeau's frank criticism of his bosses won me over. I was sorry not to be able to cite it in the footnotes of the forthcoming Virtualpolitik book, but it's out of my hands until final proofs come back in October.

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