Understanding time and place is crucial for government use of social media

Does government “get social media?” As always, it depends which government you are talking about. This morning, Gartner analyst Andrea DiMaio posted about when government doesn’t get social media, in the context of new guidance on the use of social media in federal workplaces. Specifically:

On July 27, the US Office of Special Counsel published a document with Frequently Asked Questions Regarding Social Media and the Hatch Act. The Hatch Act of 1939 is a US federal law preventing federal employees from engaging in partisan political activities.

The FAQ looks at how to comply with the act when engaging on social media, with particular reference, but not limited, to Facebook and Twitter.

The basic advice is that if a federal employee accesses social media from a federal workplace and during working hours, while on duty, then the provisions of the act would apply.

The OSC memo doesn’t mean that government as a whole “doesn’t get social media,” of course. Have you followed @NASA recently? It does show that the lawyers there haven’t quite caught up to the always-on, mobile workforce. After my discussions with people in government, I’ve taken away a sense that many of the government employees themselves are quite aware of those risks and are being careful. Some will make mistakes. Some already have.

Other people have expressed frustration with this update of an old law (1935) for the social networking age. As I’ve read through the coverage, the extension on restrictions for government employees on the job didn’t strike me as unreasonable, at least with respect to previous technology. Would a government employee use a work email account to send out political messages? Or would she make calls in support of a party? Or post banners for a political party or rally on the office bulletin board? Would he loudly exclaim in a meeting in excitement that a favored candidate won a primary?

Likely not.

DiMaio’s analysis is sound, where he recognizes the permanent blurring of the boundaries between work and play, particularly for elected officials, high profile private sector officials and (of course) entertainment figures stalked by the tabloids.

On the latter count, however, the recent Supreme Court decision regarding electronic privacy over government-issued communications gear (the infamous ‘sexting’ case) re-affirmed that it does indeed matter where an update, txt or email is sent from. Any major enterprise can and does place expectations for behavior for the use of its IT equipment in the workplace, or off, particularly with respect to pornography, streaming video, P2P applications or social media. Many CIOs still choose to block public access to such platforms, for a variety of reasons. That’s changing slowly, not least because of smartphone access, but also because many organizations are shifting to risk management as opposed to risk avoidance to address social media and compliance.

I must, however, be blunt in my disagreement with his statement that “time and place are irrelevant on social media.” The growth of geolocation and location-based social networking, like Foursquare, Gowalla and now Facebook Places imply otherwise. Those services are ALL about time and place. Twitter too, in large part, in terms of its real-time ebb and flow around events, particularly disasters or breaking news. The utility of geolocation in social media was especially evident in discussions earlier this month in Washington, where the Emergency Social Data Summit highlighted the role of social media during crises.

Even a layman, without the toolset of a digital forensics team to track down IP addresses, could see where a federal employee might be if geolocation is turned on.

DiMaio is right that a tweet, update, like or link shared on a government employee’ social media about a partisan topic would be an issue, regardless of where ever and whenever it was made. As we feel our way through the meaning of the hyper-charged media environment of the moment, that’s a good lesson to take away. Be careful mixing politics and Facebook.

About Alex Howard

Alexander B. Howard is a DC-based a technology writer and editor. Previously, he was the Washington Correspondent at O'Reilly Media, where he covered the voices, technologies and issues that matter in the intersection of government, technology and society. If you're feeling social, you can follow him on Twitter, like him on Facebook or circle him on Google Plus In addition to corresponding for the O’Reilly Radar, he has contributed to the Huffington Post, Govfresh, Mashable, ReadWriteWeb, National Journal, The Atlantic, CBS News and Forbes. He graduated from Colby College with a bachelor's degree in biology and sociology. Currently, he is a resident of the District of Columbia, where he lives with his greyhound, wife, power tools, plants and growing collection of cast iron pans, many of which are frequently used to pursue his passion for good cooking.

2 thoughts on “Understanding time and place is crucial for government use of social media

  1. Alex, thanks for your useful comments. I am very well aware of location-based services becoming more relevant. However my point about time and place is that once the post is made, it stays there forever. So time and place are irrelevant from the reader’s perspective. This is very different from a public appearance at a meeting while you are off duty ot a phone call that you make from home to support a candidate.

    1. You’re welcome! It’s a pleasure to have comments be described as useful. I think I lost that point in your analysis, with respect to time and place, or your awareness of LBS given the statement about social media.

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