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The Government Blocks Twitter No It Doesn’t


This post was originally published by O’Reilly Radar on July 27, 2009.

In a recent CSPAN interview, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs noted that, “for some reason, Twitter is blocked on White House computers,” which created a minor frenzy among tech-savvy journalists ranging from UPI to The Hill. Later, news upstart Mediaite uncovered that the New Media team in the Old Executive Office Building could indeed access Twitter, but other people working on White House staff do not necessarily share the same privileges. This is all very interesting, but this story is far bigger than the White House, because it serves as a metaphor for rules governing social media tool use for the thousands of employees working throughout the Federal government.

Decisions about which social media sites are allowed in the Executive Branch are somewhat inconsistent, as I pointed out in a Department of Defense research paper earlier this year. Often without explanation or transparency, different agencies and even offices within agencies have different policies about use of social media platforms on the Web. Additionally, even when public affairs employees are allowed to use tools like Twitter and YouTube to communicate, they are sometimes blocked by different authorities at work from using them. So, in a gray area, they employ workarounds using personal laptops, iPhones, and the like.

Such internal contradiction cannot last long. Eventually there will have to be consistent, widely-known policy guidance about what sites can be used, and by whom, and why. And as the workforce age structure changes, and lines between professional and personal increasingly blur, employees will demand access to these sites more. Some sites may legitimately be blocked, but currently, there are a hodgepodge of rules that are often confusing, and possibly make the overall situation worse. Here, I propose two arguments for not blocking most social media sites on most government computers.

One, blocking social media sites does little for safety and security. The statement “Twitter is blocked” typically means that the domain Twitter.com is rendered inaccessible from a government Web browser. The downside to blocking sites this way is that there are simple mechanisms for alternatively accessing the underlying software (Twitter.com can be accessed from TweetGrid.com, YouTube.com from videos.Google.com, and so forth). Hence, official computers can access the same sites through different portals. Employees may also turn to nearly ubiquitous personal devices like BlackBerries to use social media during work hours. Finally, there are many “clones” of sites like Twitter and YouTube; are Identi.ca, Plurk, and similar microsharing sites also blocked? Thus, some employees effectively use the same social networks to send and receive the same information, with all of it being harder to monitor. This is not a recipe for good cyber-security of government systems or employee information.

Two, blocking social media platforms does little for government efficiency, transparency, and citizen engagement. True, when used poorly, sites like Twitter and YouTube are a distraction from official duties and a time-sink. But the same can be argued about phones, email, and even the cafeteria. When used responsibly, however, social media provides real-time information about critical news, helps employees working on similar topics within the government find and communicate with each other, allows the discovery of work-related conferences and other events, helps people better understand how technology is influencing overseas incidents like the Iranian election protests, conversing with citizens about microniche issues related to the office one works in, and countless other worthwhile applications. Blanket social media bans empower information to fall through the cracks rather than get to people who could use it.

Three reasonable steps should be taken. First, top-level government information assurance analysts need to determine what security risks various common social media websites pose to the government; they should be “binned” into categories like “Use only on non-military computers” or “Not for government system use.” Second, policies need to be transparent, consistent, and well-publicized across the government; employees will frown on radically different policies being applied in different buildings on Independence Avenue, or on different Army bases in Virginia. Third, employees and contractors working in government facilities need to be educated about the positive and negative aspects of using social media websites, just as they are about other aspects of cyber-security and other government procedures.

These three steps should counteract possibly less secure employee workarounds, and go a long way towards the more open, transparent, and participatory government that the President proposed in the first memo he disseminated after taking office. Interestingly, while the U.S. debates whether or not certain computers can and cannot access Twitter, across the pond the U.K. has released an official government template for how to use Twitter – it’s a 20-page document offering practical advice, and uploaded online using Scribd for the entire world to see. Just as we look to other countries for ideas about how we can improve transportation, health care and the like, we might include social media on that list.

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Bantamweight Publishing in an Easily Plagiarised World


This post was originally published on O’Reilly Radar on July 15, 2009. I still (2014) think this – ownership and plagarism of micro-publishing – is a greatly underappreciated topic.

Even professional writers are prone to infrequent accidental plagiarism. But in the world of novels, newspapers, and college exams, there are rules about bootlegging others’ work that are well-established – most everyone agrees on what behaviors are unacceptable and what the consequences are. In bantamweight publishing, however, the rules are not so clear.

In order for the British Army to raise more units during the First World War, it created battalions of otherwise healthy men with lowered minimum height requirements. In this way, short, powerful miners and similarly swarthy individuals were able to contribute to the war effort. These soldiers were called bantams (a term now heard most commonly in boxing, bantamweight). Similarly, in a Web 2.0 environment, the short powerful bursts of searchable, findable, and sharable data emitted from personal electronic devices are a form of bantamweight publishing in which persons outside the regulated publishing industry can contribute to the information sharing effort.

Bantamweight publishing comes in many forms. Twitter is certainly in this category, but there are a steadily increasing number of ways to share small bits of information with the world. From updating your Facebook Wall to Yammering inside your enterprise to updating your LinkedIn status to commenting on people’s BrightKite locations, everyone is doing it. But in an easily plagiarized world, who owns your sentences once you publish them? It’s not really clear. And in a murky environment where someone might get a macropublishing book deal by popularizing someone else’s creative hashtag, bantamweight publishing runs the risk of serious future problems.

Oh, bantamweight publishing has its customs. Self-policing crowds ensure that most people who lift someone else’s excellent quote or funny picture or news link give credit to the originator using the “retweet” (RT) convention followed by a username. But there is little downside to cheating relative to being expelled from college or fired from your newspaper. As is well known in animal behavior circles, it can be temporarily advantageous for cheaters to infiltrate a system like this.

To be sure, quoting someone’s original haiku verbatim and making it appear as if it were your own is an infraction of bantamweight publishing customs. But what if someone tweets an Abraham Lincoln quotation – must the re-tweeter cite the originator? The custom seems less pressing in this case, mainly because of a lack of intent to deceive and arguable “fair use” of a well-known statement by a famous person. One can imagine altruistic plagiarism as well, where people repeat memes to raise money for charity, or virally make people aware of an immediate Amber alert. Further, who could fault someone for copying information about a charity onto their Facebook Wall without citing the originator? In the bantamweight publishing world, information sharing can easily supersede attribution. There are gradations of citations.

Bantamweight publishing is popular among those who feel brevity is a virtue. But when an entire work of art is bounded in 140 characters, even brevity has its limits. Sometimes, squeezing in a proper attribution through editing content can change the original meaning, when the edits unwillingly shift from cosmetic to substantive. And what happens when you run out of space when attempting to retweet someone who retweeted someone who tweeted an important quotation from the Washington Post? To a large degree, a work of bantamweight publishing is like a painting with an upper weight limit, where the novelty is the canvas and the attribution is the frame; most viewers would choose to appreciate the canvas without the frame if given the hard choice.

Another major difference between regular publishing and bantamweight publishing is the lack of research and editing standards. Sometimes people attribute flawed information properly. It is obvious that excellent curators of information like NYU professor Jay Rosen and publisher Tim O’Reilly are exceptions to the rule, based simply on the phenomena of Rick Rolling, #moonfruit, and celebrity death hoaxes. To many, bantamweight publishing is not an micro-investigatory piece to be researched, sourced, edited, and spread, but rather a form of enhanced social chatter and gossip spreading. And according to the rules of gossip, it doesn’t really matter where it comes from; gossip is fun.

Few would argue that the British bantam units were a bad idea, and likewise bantamweight publishing has many virtues. But there are also pitfalls to this in an easily plagiarized world, particularly when money comes into play. Who’s looking out for the intellectual property of a winning hashtag that becomes a book, or a stream of haikus that becomes a blog that companies advertise on? At some point, bantamweight publishing will no longer be a lawless frontier territory; what will it look like next?

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Twitter is Not a Conversational Platform


This post was originally published on O’Reilly Radar on June 9, 2009, and it was quite controversial at the time.

Perhaps the most common reason given for joining the microsharing site Twitter is “participating in the conversation” or some version of that. I myself am guilty of using this explanation. But is Twitter truly a conversational platform? Here I argue that the underlying mechanics of Twitter more closely resemble the knowledge co-creation seen in wikis than the dynamics seen with conversational tools like instant messaging and interactions within online social networks.

Wikis are causally thought of as platforms for “collaborative” document creation. But on Wikipedia, while many people share knowledge to co-create pages, the process is not formally collaborative in the sense that contributors are not cooperating with each other ways that form group identity (to paraphrase Clay Shirky from his book Here Comes Everybody). To the contrary, passionate experts write the majority of text, and a long tail of other contributors offer relatively few, small edits. Many users contribute nothing. Through this process, Wikipedia pages often become valuable repositories of knowledge.

Brian Solis recently posited the dichotomy of whether Twitter is a conversational or broadcast platform. New data bears on this. According to a Harvard Business School study, about 10% of Twitter users contribute roughly 90% of its content. Anecdotally, these 10% are subject-matter experts, passionates, mavens, and thought leaders who break news, write strong opinions, and tell jokes. Like on Wikipedia, most users merely read this information, and a modest number of people in the long tail use the information in the form of re-tweets, comments, corrections, and alternative opinions or links.

So while an individual user may use Twitter primarily as a conversational tool or a broadcast medium, in its totality, Twitter operates a lot like a wiki: as a knowledge-sharing, co-creation platform that produces content and allows its consumption. Conversation is perhaps the most simple and obvious form of collaboration, but would anyone claim that Wikipedia is a conversational platform? Despite the presence of information sharing, co-creation of an end product, and even discussion pages, Wikipedians on the whole aren’t having conversations.

According to this argument, Twitter is no more a conversational platform than Wikipedia is. But is it a social networking platform? New HBS data showing that men have 15% more followers than women and being twice as likely to follow another man than a woman also bear on this to some extent. Authors Bill Heil and Mikolaj Piskorski state: “On a typical online social network, most of the activity is focused around women – men follow content produced by women they do and do not know, and women follow content produced by women they know. Generally, men receive comparatively little attention from other men or from women.”

As in the case of the conversational platform, it seems that Twitter is also no more a social network than Wikipedia is. Wikis have user accounts and discussion pages, and it is possible for relationships to form. Twitter has user handles and direct messaging, and relationships can form. But social relationships on Wikipedia and Twitter are not a prerequisite for satisfaction and success (inasmuch as that can be defined). For instance, the popular and useful account @BreakingNews has hundreds of thousands of followers but participants in effectively zero engagement. There are many Twitter users who contribute large amounts of useful information and engage in relatively little conversation. And it is not common for people to describe Wikipedia as a social network.

Andrew McAfee notes that two useful Twitter traits are its asynchronous and asymmetric nature. These two traits are also critical to Wikipedia, but importantly much less so within popular social networking platforms like Facebook and MySpace. Thus, entities that are clearly social networking platforms can be but are not necessarily knowledge co-creation platforms, and entities that are clearly asynchronous knowledge co-creation platforms can be but are not necessarily social networks.

If microsharing tools resemble wikis more than conversational tools and social networks, this has huge implications for how people and organizations approach use of this emerging technology. Solis suggests, I think rightly, that “sometimes it’s effective to…maintain a presence simply by reading, listening, and sharing relevant and timely information without having to directly respond to each and every tweet.” The strategy of being a “lethally generous” member of a community would seem to be more worthwhile in this context, contrasted with the individual-level customer service approach of (for example) @ComcastCares.

This framework for thinking about microsharing platforms as knowledge co-creation enablers also puts Nielsen’s recent data on Twitter’s “user retention and loyalty” in a new light. When the average user is a consumer of the content produced by subject-matter experts and passionate mavens, how much does it matter if the majority of use is infrequent spectating (particularly when the information is archived for asynchronous retrieval)? As Shirky recently noted in his talk at the IAC/ACT Management of Change Conference that I attended in Norfolk, VA, such an imbalance of contribution is not a condition of failure for the platform or its users.

Finally, if microsharing is equated with knowledge co-creation, rules for attribution becomes an important consideration. But while the wiki attribution process has generally been worked out, attribution on Twitter is like the wild west – there are no rules; only conventions that are commonly accepted in some circles but not others. In addition, it is relatively easy to cheat the system, hard to catch someone doing it, and difficult to determine what the consequences are of such behavior. This problem will be a lasting one, requiring careful consideration by not only the user community, but also Twitter itself.

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Geeks Invade Government With Audacious Goals


This post was originally published on O’Reilly Radar on May 27, 2009.

Guest blogger Mark Drapeau is the Co-Chair of the Gov 2.0 Expo Showcase in Sept 2009 and the Gov 2.0 Expo in May 2010, both in Washington, DC. He holds the title of Associate Research Fellow at the Center for Technology and National Security Policy at the National Defense University, a professional military educational school run by the Joint Chiefs of Staff. Mark is also co-founder of Government 2.0 Club, an international platform for sharing knowledge about the intersection between technology and governance.

When one thinks about important problems facing the United States, and indeed people all over the world, it is difficult to not come up with the laundry list that every talking head seemingly has on the tip of their tongue: jobs, education, health care, national security, poverty. There are so many problems to solve, with so many constraints on spending money, and such a short supply of manhours to get the job done. Many government employees spend a lot of time working on the issue or crisis of the day (or the hour) rather than thinking about long range planning and strategy.

This might be Alexander Hamilton’s fault. One of the first things I was indoctrinated with after moving to Washington, D.C. was that the U.S. system of federal government was not designed to make good decisions; rather, it was designed to not make horrible ones. This is counterintuitive, perhaps, but mainly true. And this flies in the face of ideas about using technology to make government more efficient, mainly because the purpose and organization of government is quite different from that of business.

Nevertheless, more and more people from the private sector are interested in playing a role in government, thanks in no small part to the excitement surrounding the Obama election and inauguration, in which social media technologies and information sharing were showcased at their best – massive fundraising from many small donors, empowering people to self-organize locally, and direct public relations that circumvented a mainstream media lens. Now, people enamoured with emergent social technologies want to know how they themselves can revolutionize not only politics, but also governance.

For those who don’t follow fashion trends in Washington, D.C., allow me to present the new and increasingly popular species of talking head – The Geek. (The Geek is distinguished from The Wonk, studious, preppy, bespectacled types that run Washington policy, know exactly what intersection Brooks Brothers is on, and enjoy cocktail parties for “networking,” and The Nerd, the type of scientist or other fastidious pointy-head rarely seen outside a laboratory or professorial tower, with nary an interest outside their own peculiar and narrow slice of life.)

The prototypical Geek is a different breed of talking head, one that usually lacks media training, one that often hails from Silicon Valley, San Francisco, Seattle, New York, Austin, Boston, St. Paul, or Boulder, one who likely knows more about the inside of a computer than the average person does about the inside of their fridge, a well-read introvert shy in real life but outgoing on Twitter and in the blogosphere, who is erudite enough to have always felt there was a better way to run the government but feeling entirely disconnected from the apparatus.

No longer. When I speak about Government 2.0 to audiences around D.C. I am fond of telling them about the very smart and motivated outsiders (i.e., The Geeks) who think that they can run the government better than the government can. I enjoying dropping the line, “The government can no longer afford to work at the pace of government,” because people never really know what to say in response as they mull it over. That statement is somewhat tongue-in-cheek and not entirely fair to hundreds of thousands of hard-working government employees; but of course, my role as a speaker is usually to provoke thought and get a point across, not to be fair. And gradually, through my efforts and those of many other Government 2.0 enthusiasts, people inside the Beltway are understanding that new ideas and new technologies can bridge gaps between government and the citizens (and that outsiders are starting to utilize such technologies whether the government gives permission or not).

Detractors might point out that Government 2.0 advocates, and their predecessors, have been predicting that the information technology revolution will reinvent government for quite some time (check out this 1995 special issue of the Journal of Systems Management, for example). What’s different now, however, is that the democratization of data is actually fundamentally disrupting how people think about their personal role within a democracy (one author has somewhat ironically termed this “digital socialism“). People separated by continents can network effortlessly. Companies exist in virtual spaces. Information and data are more accessible, sharable, and discoverable than ever before. Clay Shirky has pointed out that these new social arrangements are leading from cooperation to collaboration to collectivism. Citizens feel empowered. But is this empowerment properly setting the stage for what I’m fond of calling “government with the people”?

Neither the people inside nor outside the Beltway can create Government 2.0 alone – they need to cooperate and collaborate with each other. But deciding how that is to be done is not so simple. The “how” of collaborative Government 2.0 will be an important topic of conversation at the Gov 2.0 Summit in Washington, D.C. on September 9-10th. Both The Geeks and The Govies need to listen to each other’s ideas, hear each other’s concerns, and work towards achieving Shirky’s four stages of organizing if the government is to provide all the things that its citizens are increasingly demanding of it. And if that is to happen, government must operate much faster and be more agile, yet somehow still behave in a legal and fair and equitable and thoughtful manner.

In a theoretical “adaptive government,” employees, contractors, and citizens alike realize that 80% solutions in the right time frame are better than 100% solutions in the wrong one. The notion of “Government as a Platform” (the overarching theme of Gov 2.0 Summit) helps to make this common sense right-time approach possible, and I think that many of these 80% solutions will be displayed by their creators at the exciting Gov 2.0 Expo Showcase taking place the day before Gov 2.0 Summit. As co-chair of the Expo Showcase program committee, I’m looking forward to reading proposals about grassroots Gov 2.0 experiments and projects and making sure that the best ones get heard in front of as many people as possible. I want to see real-world examples of how the availability of open and transparent data sets combined with social tools like wikis, blogs, and mashups have enabled microsharing across millions of weak ties, simple discoverability of information and data, and crowdsourced input and analyses to create right-time 80% solutions.

At the grassroots level, I have been increasingly proud of our group efforts to form Government 2.0 Club and hold the innaugural Government 2.0 Camp in Washington, D.C. That two-day event inspired people not only to network with each other and share their ideas locally, but for a global rise of “Goverati” to form Gov 2.0 Camps not only on specific topics like crisis response, but also localized events around in the world – in Canberra and Berlin, for example. If Government 2.0 Camp accomplished nothing else, it showcased the tremendous amount of human capital that can be catalyzed and tapped to solve big problems.

Within both the government and large businesses, there is a huge cultural challenge to integrating collaborative technologies into a traditional, siloed organization to create more adaptive entities. But ultimately this integration needs to occur to some degree in order for the government – and by extension, the society it governs – to behave in an anticipatory manner instead of the reactive one most are used to. Earlier I wrote that the U.S. government was designed to not make disasterous decisions, but checks and balances are not fullproof. As Jared Diamond explains in Collapse, irrational failures happen for numerous reasons we are not immune to; for example, failure to anticipate problems on the horizon because of lack of experience or false analogy (think: the Maginot Line), and failure to perceive problems as such because of lack of hands-on experience or the phenomenon of creeping normalcy (think: climate change).

Thus, the theme of Government as a Platform is about more than making tools available on a computer. It is about setting the conditions that empower employees and citizens to be successful under unpredictable conditions. It is to a large extent about embracing the unknowable, empowering experimentation, and permitting small failures. Highly impactful and highly improbable “Black Swans” have huge effects on large, slow, maladapted organizations. Even moderately unpredictable environmental disruptions – “Grey Swans” – are a significant challenge to navigate. I have heard Tim O’Reilly describe a government “architecture of participation” as an emergent method for anticipating the unknown, and being more resilient and adaptive to it. While most quarters of government are far from being true learning organizations because of a combination of rules and regulations and organizational and individual barriers, best practices need to continue finding their way into everyday government processes and planning, with the blessings of senior leadership.

Despite the tech-oriented nature of Gov 2.0 Summit and Gov 2.0 Expo, it’s important to remember the grand challenges that the U.S. and other countries currently face. Input from stakeholders and thought leaders not just from Silicon Valley and Washington but also representing huge global issues like extreme poverty, infectious disease, cybersecurity, religious freedom, intellectual property, and many other areas of modern concern will be important. Ultimately, a more strategic, innovative, and efficient approach to government can stretch finances and maximize capabilities to avoid stagnation and solve important problems.

Changing times call for a change in strategy. And while a great deal of discussion needs to occur – and this is one of the primary purposes of the upcoming Gov 2.0 Summit – one possible vision for Government 2.0 may be for people inside the Beltway to move from sheltered silos to collaborative hives for public good, and for tech-savvy entrepreneurs to work on stuff that truly matters. With regard to broad information sharing, I’d like to see popular technology blogs focus somewhat more on applications to large societal problems, and see Beltway publications write more about possibly relevant happenings in Silicon Valley, Tribeca, and Austin. I’d like to see real dialogue – such cross-polination could only be helpful at this crossroads in history. Imagine what this generation’s list of Big Hairy Audacious Goals to come out of such a conversation might be.

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