Sunday, January 18, 2009

The 2008 Foleys: The Worst that .gov Has to Offer

Before the Bush administration is history, it's time to look back to 2008, as we did in 2007 and 2006, to award our annual prizes here at Virtualpolitik for the very worst in government digital media making, from embarrassing online videos to truly terrible taxpayer-funded computer games.

In 2009, it's true we'll miss out on having a McCain White House that had the potential to make federal content-creation even worse, since the Republican campaign brought us sublimely awful Internet experiences like McCain Space and Pork Invaders to insult our intelligence. But at least we can savor one last time how a bumbling Bush presidency managed to trip up on the information superhighway time and time again in 2008.

Worst Internet Event

Henry Jenkins
has written about how the Internet supposedly fosters transmedia experiences in which print, broadcast media, and content on distributed computer networks nourish a rich media ecology of participation and specialized knowledge and spur conflict, dialogue, and debate.

The painful Briefing 2.0 with U.S. Department of State Spokesman Sean McCormack was apparently intended to emulate aspects of the popular YouTube/CNN debates by having Internet users submit questions to powerful stakeholders and government experts, but this twenty-nine minute spectacle of cluelessness received fewer viewers -- by a factor of seven -- than this spontaneous video of my kids playing the Atlantic City Pipe Organ. Forget skateboarding dogs, this video was trounced even by bad Sponge Bob impressions, high school poetry readings, and "How to Plot a Point on a Graph." It would have been bad enough if McCormack was performing solo for a webcam in his bedroom, but there was an entire room full of dumbfounded reporters present at the event, who were apparently forbidden from asking questions themselves, even though this was ostensibly a press conference. It's really cringe-inducing to see McCormick struggle with his statements about "fun" and "foreign policy" and take credit for "something I started three years ago," as though that made him an savvy old hand.

Worst Government YouTube Channel

Most government YouTube channels attract relatively few viewers, especially since comments are often disabled and video responses are frequently forbidden. The channel for the Transportation Security Administration is a rare exception, since the curious flock to watch videos that represent the most currently hated of federal agencies. During a time in which the public wants to be reassured that vigilant oversight is taking place in "highways, railroads, buses, mass transit systems, ports and the 450 U.S. airports," it is appalling to see that almost all of the content on the TSA's channel focuses on justifying the "security theater" that takes place in the airport x-ray and metal detector lines. Even there, rather than rapidly update travelers with good instructional videos about new and current regulations, like those produced by many state DMVs, attention is paid to the "Simplifly" program and other ridiculous passenger self-sorting procedures rather than what to pack and how to pack it. For example, I've learned more from Ian Bogost about laptop transport than any of the supposed how-to videos on this site. Also, check out the bad green screen in their TSA "Why?" infomercials and the fact that comments have been disabled on their "lost and found testimonial" clips.

Worst Government Blog

Web logs could be such a great tool for personalizing complex policy issues and demonstrating how different government officials perform their duties throughout the country and throughout the world, so that public servants could be humanized in ways that might attract the best and the brightest to the profession. Alas, that is very rarely the case, even in blogs from diplomats in far-flung places, a genre that has been perfected by the British foreign service but seems poorly understood by our own U.S. State Deparment. Perhaps not the worst but certainly typical is The Mongolian Monitor, which actually contains the following example of its subliterate prose:

In the morning and early afternoon of October 28th the GoM-World Bank sponsored "Economic Growth Conference" was successfully conducted with an impressive list of internationally recognized speakers analyzing different national mineral sector policy frameworks.

This is from a guy who is in fricking Mongolia not the Rotary Club in Dayton, Ohio! He's in the exotic land of yurts, throat singing, nomadic horsemen, National Geographic spreads, and uneasy negotiations with nearby superpowers China and Russia. He's in a place where he might have said something substantive after a 2008 throwaway item that began "On July 1st, a riot broke out in the capital of Ulaanbaatar in response to opposition concerns about election fraud during the June 29th Parliamentary election vote." And yet the USAID author of this blog often goes months without posting.

Worst Government Computer Game

One could make an entire career out of critiquing misguided attempts to combine the fun of computer game play with the public information efforts of the organs of state authority. (And certainly I've tried.) But what's the fun of seeing the worst of game mechanics foisted on citizens young and old with an Internet connection at taxpayer expense. Because it is so far from being a game that anyone would want to play FEMA's Disaster Discovery, which combines dreary multiple choice testing with tedious board game action, deserves special attention.

Worst Government PowerPoint Presentation

You can make a really interesting electronic slideshow about global warming. Ask Al Gore. See a movie called An Inconvenient Truth. It's definitely doable with the right understanding of digital rhetoric. And yet on the USGS site you can find a series of almost unwatchable pre-fabricated PowerPoint presentations developed by the United Nations on the subject: One Planet, Many People that include every cheesy animation from the Microsoft corporation that reduces the scientific and humanistic argument to bullet points and crowded slides. Check out the terrible verse on the slide above. (Click to enlarge.)

Worst Government Website for Children

The site for adults isn't half-bad, so its discouraging to see that the Federal Reserve Kids Page is so lousy. Young people need to understand economics, although it is a subject often skipped in teach-to-the-test No Child Left Behind curricula. So it's terrible to see what is essentially a bad FAQ rewritten for an audience of morons representing fiscal policy to the young.

Worst Government Website Overall

I've awarded the prize to the Department of Homeland Security two years in a row now, so it is time to recognize the irony that the Federal Communication Commission is apparently incapable of communicating on the World Wide Web. Have fun looking for videos of the hearings or even transcripts. I challenge you to find anything but the bare-bones agendas of those meetings in clunky Word and only slightly less clunky PDF formats. With some ingenuity you may be able to find your way to this page with pay-per-view content from the public agency and proprietary technologies that seem to require this long "help" page. Compared to government websites with RSS feeds and open APIs, one would think that this site intentionally refused to recognize the advent of Web 2.0 years ago.

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