Going mobile and social at the USDA DigitalGov Open House

Last week, the General Service Agency’s Center for Excellence in Digital Government, the USDA and the Federal Web Managers Social Media Sub-Committee hosted a social media open house at USDA headquarters in Washington, D.C. Here’s what I learned, as told using social media — in this case, an iPhone, Twitter and Instagram.

Highlights:

  • The USDA has a location-aware mobile app for farmers markets
  • The GAO is going to officially launch an iPhone app soon
  • The U.S. Department of Education is tweeting at @FAFSA, chronicling Twitter chats with Storify and collaborating internally with Yammer, a microblogging application
  • The U.S. Department of Fish and Wildlife has an iOS app that lets citizens explore wildlife refuges.

U.S. Department of Agriculture

U.S. Government Accountability Office

U.S. Department of Education

U.S. Fish and Wildlife

How does the State Department practice public diplomacy in the age of social media?

Millions of people around the world are aware that the U.S. Department of State is using Twitter, Facebook and YouTube. Between them, the U.S. Department of State, U.S. embassies and consulates now collectively manage:

  • 125 YouTube channels with 23,940 subscribers and 12,729,885 million video views
  • 195 Twitter accounts with 1,403,322 followers;
  • 288 Facebook pages with 7,530,095 fans.

The U.S. Department of State also maintains a presence on Flickr, Tumblr, and Google+, and an official blog, DipNote. Its embassies and consulates also maintain a presence on these social media platforms and produce their own blogs.

What many U.S. citizens may not realize is that U.S. foreign service officers are also practicing public diplomacy on China’s Weibo microblogging network or Russia’s vkontakte social network. The U.S. Department of State also publishes social media content in 11 languages: Arabic, Chinese, Farsi, French, English, Hindi, Portuguese, Russian, Spanish, Turkish, and Urdu. Many embassies are also tweeting in local languages, including German, Indonesian, Korean, and Thai.

That’s a lot of talking, to be sure, but in the context of social media, a key question is whether the State Department is listening. After all, news about both human and natural crises often breaks first on Twitter, from the early rumblings of earthquakes to popular uprisings.

This morning, three representatives from the U.S. Department of State shared case studies and professional experiences gleaned directly from the virtual trenches about how does social media is changing how public diplomacy is practiced in the 21st century. In the video embedded below, you can watch an archive of the discussion from the New America Foundation on lessons learned from the pioneers who have logged on to share the State Department’s position, listen and, increasingly, engage with a real-time global dialogue.

Video streaming by UstreaPARTICIPANTS

  • Suzanne Hall (@SuzKPH), Senior Advisor, Innovation in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affair, U.S. Department of State
  • Nick Namba (@nicholasnamba), Acting Deputy Coordinator for Content Development and Partnerships, U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Information Program
  • Ed Dunn (@EdAndDunn), Acting Director, U.S. Department of State’s Digital Communications Center

From analog to digital diplomacy: a snapshot of the evolution of the tools of the diplomat

A display of the evolution of tech at the State Department
A display at the U.S. State Department in Washington, D.C.

If you’re interested in public diplomacy in the age of social media, I hope you’ll join me (either virtually or in person) at the New America Foundation next week, where I’ll be moderating a discussion on how the latest connection technologies are being applied to statecraft in the 21st century. Who’s participating and why? What have been some lessons learned from the pioneers who have logged on to listen and engage?

I’ll be talking with the following three representatives from the U.S. Department of State, each of whom will share case studies and professional experiences gleaned directly from the virtual trenches:

  • SuzKPH
    Suzanne Hall
    , Senior Advisor for Innovation in the Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs, U.S. Department of State
  • EdAndDunn
    Ed Dunn
    , Acting Director the U.S. Department of State’s Digital Communications Center, U.S. Department of State
  • nicholasnamba
    Nick Namba
    , Acting Deputy Coordinator for Content Development and Partnerships, U.S. Department of State’s Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP), U.S. Department of State

If you have questions for the panel, please submit them and vote for others on Google Moderator. Of course, I’ll also be monitoring the hashtag for the event (#SMWdiplomacy) on Twitter during the event, along with comment threads on Google+ and Facebook.


SURVEY: 85% of American adults who use social media say people are “mostly kind” on the sites

A new survey report on “the tone of life on social networking sites” from the Pew Research Center’s Internet & American Life Project found that 85% of American adults who use social media say people are “mostly kind” on those sites:

These attitudes will naturally be of great interest to people who work in practices that span open government to education, in terms of practitioners considering the use of social media for public engagement, civic participation, and deliberative democracy, along with grist for digital ethnographers of both the amateur and professional variety.

More stats, excerpted from the report:

“A nationally representative phone survey of American adults finds that:

*85% of SNS-using adults say that their experience on the sites is that people are mostly kind, compared with 5% who say people they observe on the sites are mostly unkind and another 5% who say their answer depends on the situation.

*68% of SNS users said they had an experience that made them feel good about themselves.

*61% had experiences that made them feel closer to another person. (Many said they had both experiences.)

*39% of SNS-using adults say they frequently see acts of generosity by other SNS users and another 36% say they sometimes see others behaving generously and helpfully. By comparison, 18% of SNS-using adults say they see helpful behavior “only once in a while” and 5% say they never see generosity exhibited by others on social networking sites.”

4 reasons #40dollars resonated more with citizens on Twitter than #1000days

Yesterday, David Copeland reported at ReadWriteWeb that the GOP tried to replicate the success of the White House’s #40dollars social media campaign on Twitter with their own #1000days effort. As the Chicago Tribune reported, the GOP campaign sought to highlight an inauspicious milestone for the U.S. Senate. 1,000 since it passed a budget. Democrats, who control the Senate, last approved a budget in 2009.

Writes Copeland, “It’s clear that the digitial [sic] media campaigns had different goals, and #1000days was primarily aimed at emphasizing a point that was notably absent in President Obama’s State of the Union address last night. But if social media as it pertains to politics is truly about connecting with voters and constituents, score one for the Democrats.”

In this particular case, I mostly agree. The GOP’s efforts at gop.gov/sotu this year constituted an unprecedented use of the Web and social media by an opposition party to respond to a State of the Union, with smart integration of Twitter and YouTube. Citizens asked questions on the #GOPSOTU hashtag and Members of Congress responded using YouTube. As the Daily Dot reported, the #1000days hashtag has failed to spread beyond the Beltway. From what I’ve seen, the four reasons why #1000days hasn’t resonated in the same way break down into structural, tactical, and strategic issues:

1) Structural issue: Reach. Based upon the statistics I’ve seen, the @WhiteHouse has much more reach than than any single other “governance” account on Twitter. The GOP caucus in Congress, former Massachusetts governor@MittRomney and the @Heritage Foundation do have, in aggregate, an even or greater number of engaged followers. That said, the @BarackObama campaign account, which amplified the #40dollars conversation, has far greater reach, if lower engagement. Both metrics matter, in terms of the ability to involving and focusing more citizens in a given conversation around a #hashtag at a given time.

2) Tactical issue: Timing. The #1000days campaign was launched during the #SOTU, when the attention of politically engaged Americans was fractured between paying attention to the President’s speech itself, watching online (3m+ visits to wh.gov/sotu), reading the media organizations competing to report or fact check on the speech online, watching the TV networks and, of course, talking to one another.

3) Strategic issue: Adaptability. Agreeing upon and passing a budget is a fundamental, basic issue for the operations of any business, organization or government entity. Congress and the Obama administration have cobbled together a series of continuing resolutions and omnibus bills to fund itself over the past 3 years. While many Americans have to make and live by budgets in their personal lives and businesses, however, the #1000days campaign may be both too abstract and too constrained to a single message. The question about #40dollars, by contrast, asked citizens what it means to them, which is concrete, personal and invites creative answers.

4) Tactical issue: Engagement and Amplification. As Copeland reports, “Ahead of last night’s State of the Union address, Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney and other Republicans started tweeting using the hashtag #1000days to accent the amount of time since Senate Democrats passed a federal budget.”

On Tuesday night, the top tweets for a search of the #1000days hashtag come from @MittRomney and Republican politicians. Neither Romney nor @SenJohnMcCain had retweeted any followers who have used the hashtag. @SpeakerBoehner has primarily retweeted the @GOPconference or other members of his caucus. The Heritage Foundation has only retweeted its own staff. That pattern is replicated throughout other participating accounts.

The @WhiteHouse, in contrast, continued its practice of resharing tweets from Twitter users who joined the conversation, sharing the voices of citizens with one another, not just other politicians. There’s a good lesson in this successful use to of Twitter that should extend well beyond citizen engagement and open government circles. One campaign amplified the messages of the representatives, the other channeled the voices of constituents responding to their elected issues on on a given issue back through the accounts coordinating the effort.

As I pointed out last year in an article on social media, politics and influence, it’s of note that the operators of the @WhiteHouse Twitter account now routinely natively retweet other accounts participating in #WHchats. While some of these Tweets will leave followers without context for the Tweet, the White House appears to have shifted its online strategy to one of engagement versus the lower risk style broadcasting that most politicians adopt online. To date, many of the president’s political opponents have not followed suit.

The challenges of these four issues look validated by the results to date: some 6,000 tweets per hour for #40dollars at the height of the campaign, as Ed O’Keefe wrote at the Washington Post. Keefe, on a talk on Monday, given by Kori Schulman, White House deputy director for digital strategy, “by 5 p.m., #40dollars was trending worldwide, Schulman said, and the hashtag was generating about 6,000 tweets per hour. At the height of the push, WhiteHouse.gov received about 5,000 responses per hour to the question.” In total, Schulman said the #40dollars campaign “generated 70,000 tweets, 46,000 submissions via the White House Web site, 10,000 related Facebook posts and contributions from 126,000 users.”

By way of contrast, according to the numbers in Topsy, the #1000days campaign has generated 3,862 tweets in the past week.

Agree? Disagree? What am I missing here.

Laptops, smartphones and social media allowed in U.S. House press gallery

The C-SPAN coverage of the resignation of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D-AZ) and tributes to her in the United States House of Representatives included something new: the House-controlled cameras provided an unusual display of extra TV camera shots in the House chamber, including the Giffords family in the House gallery.

In general, the viewing public does not get to see what’s happening elsewhere in the House. “These additional angles added much to the public’s appreciation for this Congressional action,” said Howard Mortman, communications director for C-SPAN, “and might lead one to ask, why not permit such camera shots every day?”

Mortman also alerted me to another interesting development: According to a new Roll Call story, journalists now can bring their laptops into the press gallery and use them to report on what’s happening. Reporters have to ask to do it — and they’ll need to have fully charged laptop batteries — but Superintendent Jerry Gallegos told Roll Call that he will allow laptops in for special events.

“It won’t be something that at this point we’ll be doing on a daily basis, just because power is an issue out there,” he said. “But because the House changed their rules allowing BlackBerrys on the floor … it didn’t make sense for Members to be able to tweet and not be able to have reporters get the tweets.”

It’s not the first time computers have graced the gallery, Gallegos said. The decision to allow laptops goes back to then-Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). But the gallery staff tired of arguing with testy writers about why plugging multiple power cords into limited outlets and running wires across the floor is a fire hazard.

“Early on, they weren’t going to be able to operate without plugging in,” he said. “It was very obvious that was going to create a safety hazard.”

Thankfully, battery technology has evolved since the 1990s and the House Chief Administrative Office equipped the chamber with Wi-Fi in August. So, Gallegos said, “It just seemed like now was the time.”

Even if the laptops run out of battery power or have connectivity issues, however, reporters will now have another option: Mortman tells me that iPhones, iPads, BlackBerrys and other smartphones will also be allowed into the press gallery of the U.S. House on a “trial basis.”

As a result, we should expect to see more livetweeting and Facebook updates from journalists on-site. That said, there’s a major caveat: Mortman said that the trial will be monitored to ensure that no photos or video are recorded.

Given the role that smartphones now play in the professional lives of journalists of all beats, political, tech or otherwise, the limitation on pictures and video is notable. There’s a good chance that the trial could be tested, as soon as a newsworthy event occurs off the C-SPAN camera. Late last year, during a debate over the payroll tax, House staff shut down C-SPAN cameras. Government staff acting to limit the capacity of a journalist to record a debate between elected representatives in the People’s House might raise valid First Amendment questions.

“One day, hopefully, the House (and U.S. Senate) will also allow in independent media TV cameras,” said Mortman.

Can Facebook predict the winner of the 2011 NH presidential primary?

Last week, looking at Twitter as a predictor the Iowa caucus results or building tools to do so felt like the shiny object of the moment in the tech blogosphere. Some were more over the top than others but the genre is well established: adapt the numbers of followers and fans a candidate has on Twitter and Facebook to the classic “horse race” coverage of political campaigns. Used that way, it feels like the latest in a long list of reasons to conjecture that political coverage is broken.

As Micah Sifry suggested at techPresident, however, you shouldn’t believe the social media hype.

“There are so many ways that such changes might NOT be indicative of anything, or indicative of the opposite, that it almost seems silly to list them. A candidate might gain followers because he’s entertaining to his opponents. She might gain followers because of something outrageous that she says. The same with retweets. As the saying used to go, “a link is not an endorsement.” At best, it’s a very low-level indication of interest, an invitation to start a relationship that campaigns need to convert into real support. Similarly, we shouldn’t take big numbers of followers or “likes” as proof that a candidate has a really engaged base. Over on the Huffington Post, Alan Rosenblatt demolishes the notion that Newt Gingrich 1.4 million Twitter followers means he’s popular among Republicans. For starters, half of those accounts aren’t even in the United States. Newt’s numbers are a sign of online longevity and notoriety, not much more. And who can forget when Herman Cain was topping the Facebook “buzz” charts?”

Today at techPresident, Nick Judd published a feature on Twitter obsession that went even deeper into the issue and how problematic trying to prognosticate about the campaigns using social media can be. It’s worth reading the whole thing but here’s the relevant bit:

“The thing about attaching numbers to people’s names is that it usually makes them want to make the number go up. Call it gamification if you want. The truth is that it’s human nature, and as more people pay attention to social media, it is creating a sort of downward behavioral spiral. Candidates wanting more points on the social media scoreboard are urging supporters to tweet and post to Facebook on their behalf — spreading borderline spam on social networks and doing nothing to make the campaign season less of a horse race when that doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. “

Judd suggests that instead, political reporters and tech journalists (and those of us who try to straddle those worlds, on some level) should be evaluating the success — or failure of campaigns based upon better metrics.

“…why not evaluate them in the public online sphere based on metrics that say more about their potential as a public official? Especially over the past two years, information of this type has become easier for programmers to get to. The unfinished bit is making a competition in which a candidate can ‘win the Internet’ by accumulating the most small-dollar donors, or by making the most in-state campaign stops of an hour or more in a week, or by staking out the most detailed position on oh, I don’t know, the future of American Internet infrastructure.”

I think Judd is offering political journalists a great way to differentiate themselves from the pack of stressed, overworked correspondents chasing the same story in the same place. As primary season goes into hyperdrive, I can’t help but hope that some take up his suggestion.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the intersection of social media and government over the past couple years. Governance has proven to be a genuine challenge, at least with respect to the current architectures for digital participation we have. That could well change, as the civic Web moves from idea to reality. To make the point in a succinct way, policy makers seeking to leverage technology in governance in the 21st century might do better to look to the wiki, not the tweet.

Campaigns, however, particularly well suited to quicksilver sociality of media, with its capacity to share links to viral videos, rapid responses or pithy quotes. There’s a reason that reporters of many stripes, political or not, watch Twitter carefully now: it tends to be where news breaks first.

All that being said, I saw some data tonight that made me wonder, yet again, about social media’s potential value as a leading indicator, getting out ahead of the polls that campaigns and the media traditionally use to gauge how the candidates are doing. While Twitter still has low penetration in the overall population of voters, a majority of Americans online are now on Facebook.

Earlier this evening, I got off the phone with Jan Rezab, CEO of Socialbakers, whose company has been crunching social data from Facebook around the GOP presidential candidates. They’ve been porting the data into an infographic on elections at socialbakers.com.

There are several ways to read the data, said Rezab, including the overall status of a candidate, where they’ve been gaining followers over a long period of time. If we look deeper, said Rezab, the best thing is geometrics, looking at fan gains, people talking about the candidates, how many people do they reach and what topic they talk about.

So here’s the interesting data point — and yes, I may well have buried the lede — social data from Facebook shows former Utah Governor John Huntsman is trending sharply upwards, much as former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum did before Iowa. Hunstman gained 1182 fans yesterday and, as of 7 PM EST tonight, more than 2000 fans, a 69% increase. The same is also true of people talking about him on Facebook, with some 8800 people on the 8th and approximately 11,0000 today, a 25% increase.

That’s “quite huge growth,” said Rezab. “He’s the one that’s trending right now.”

Will growth be a leading indicator for Huntsman finishing 3rd or even 2nd? Hard to say. The gold standard for political calculus is Nate Silver at 538, who is now at the New York Times. Silver blogged today that “Huntsman has momentum but lacks time“:

“Two new polls out Sunday night showed a favorable trend for Mr. Huntsman. A Public Policy Polling survey, which had a very large sample size, gave him 16 percent of the vote, enough to challenge Ron Paul for second place. Another poll, by the University of New Hampshire, had Mr. Huntsman at 11 percent of the vote, although this was improved from his 7-percent standing earlier in the week.”

Will that be enough to keep him viable and in the race? It’s hard to know. I’ll refer readers back to Silver’s analysis of Huntsman’s prospects on that count.

Here’s one more thing to consider: relevant academic research. Responding to a question on Twitter about whether Facebook was was predictive, Girish J. “Jeff” Gulati, a politics professor at Bentley University, replied that the growth in Huntsman’s “likes” and “mentions” was not. Rather, “our 2008 data suggest it would be response to positive news coverage of his debate performance and gains in NH polls,” he replied. According to “Social Networks in Political Campaigns: Facebook and Congressional Elections 2006, 2008,” co-authored with Christine B. Williams, suggests a causal relationship is credibel, if not confirmed by their research data and methods:

Preliminary analysis of the Iowa and New Hampshire contests (Williams and Gulati, 2008) suggests that Facebook supporters matters even more than candidate visits and television ad buys, and together these indicators explain very high percentages of the variance in candidates‟ vote shares. The predictive power of the model for all New Hampshire voters was lower than for the model of all voters in the Iowa caucuses, however, and the regression coefficients for Facebook support were not statistically significant. The model for the youngest age cohort in New Hampshire was highly predictive, and there was a very strong and highly significant relationship between actual vote share and Facebook support among 18-24 year olds. Another approach would be to include as an independent variable the percentage voter turnout for 18 to 29 year olds in each state‟s nomination contest. If Facebook support is simply a surrogate for young people‟s heightened political engagement in the 2008 election, its independent effect would wash out.

If future research can confirm these findings and demonstrate a causal connection between online strategies and votes, then Facebook and other social networking sites will be an essential tool in enhancing the democratic process. These sites go beyond simply communicating the campaign‟s theme and information on how to make participating easier. Active engagement by the candidate and a well maintained site can make the candidate more accessible and seem more authentic. It also can encourage a more professional discussion among supporters. In addition to personalizing the candidate, Facebook puts a face on the candidate‟s other supporters and facilitates interpersonal connections around activities other than politics. And because Facebook organizes members by regional and organizational networks and gives greater access to profiles in one‟s own networks, offline meetings and connections are a real possibility. As membership in traditional civic associations declines, we see in these networks a new frontier for cultivating social capital, which candidates, elected officials and civic leaders can tap when they want to mobilize citizens for political action.

Will rapid changes on Facebook predict the winner of the 2011 NH presidential primary? There’s little doubt 2008 Facebook was a very different place, in terms of scale, functionality and integration into the lives of Americans online, than 2012 Facebook is today. Tens of millions of citizens have tablets and smartphones now and access Facebook from where ever they are. As we saw last Sunday, television networks and Facebook are increasingly integrating debates.

There’s “definitely a lot more going on Facebook and other social media this time around,” wrote Gulati in a follow up email. “In fact, every two years we see so much growth and change. I’ve been studying this since 2002. The beauty of studying this field is that there always exciting and you are never short of ideas for a new study. I still am sticking with my view that it is not a strong predictor of future success at the polls.”

Gulati listed three rationales for this assessment:

1. Much of social media strength is a function of longevity on Facebook and national visibility. “Gingrich, Romney, Paul, and Bachmann start out strong simply because they ran before and carry over their supporters or are members of Congress that are known nationwide,” wrote Gulati.

2. Some of the candidates who are stronger on social media are in that position because they are shut out of traditional sources. “Ron Paul and Buddy Roemer are cases in point,” wrote Gulati. “So my point is not to look at social media in isolation of other media.”

3. Social media isn’t integrated with the campaign. “From our interviews with Congressional candidates and staff in 2008 and 2010 (~150 interviews), we found that the staff really does not know what to do with these likes and followers,” wrote Gulati. “So even if a social media consultant is succeeding in growing the candidate’s online presence, it really does not go much past that. I think that as the number of followers grows, it actually will be harder for campaigns to truly engage with them because there are just too many. A similar problem was happening in Congress with regards to e-mail overload. I’m not sure if they really have resolved the problem.”

Gulati attributes rapid changes in likes or mentions to external events, which is makes sense. The one billion dollar question, is whether a social media following will lead to offline action, in this case results at the polls:

Of course, your post was referring to the change in supporters rather than actual numbers. I think clearly that indicates some buzz around the candidate. But I still see it as a reaction to external events as in 2008 rather than social media pushing overall numbers mostly because I haven’t seen any evidence that social media strength can move poll numbers or actual results. I think one reason that so many of us who study social media give social media such an elevated prominence because that’s all we see or what we see on a regular basis.”

Do you think the growth in user base and political involvement will lead other researchers to different conclusions? Or, as Sifry and Judd eloquently argued, should the idea or the practice of looking at politics from the perspective of a social prism alone simply be consigned to the “dustbin of twistory?”

Comments are open. And, even more important, the first votes of the presidential primary season will be cast as the eyes of the nation turn towards Dixville Notch .