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Government 2.0 and the Expiry Date of Social Networks

By Andrea Di Maio | November 24, 2009 | 5 Comments

social networks in government

A very good article by Mike Elgan (The Wikipedia Exodus Is the Least of Our Worries) and already commented by my colleague Daryl Plummer, raises a few excellent points for those who are strategizing about government 2.0 and the whole issue of citizen engagement.

Elgan flags the decreasing number of editors on Wikipedia, as well as the decline of Digg, as possible signs of what could happen to some of the most critical web 2.0 machinery that holds communities together. What if URL shorteners just go out of business? What if some of the mainstream social media platform suddenly change policies or shut down? What about all the content that people is putting on these various platforms (including videos on Youtube or pictures on Flickr or collaborative work in Facebook groups) and turns to be very vulnerable to their fate?

This is a problem that each of us has and is not dissimilar from the one of relying on old support to store our content: who does remember floppy disks? or Betamax tapes? and how many of us did lose pictures of their beloved ones when our disk crashed and we realized we had never backed it up?

However it becomes a societal problem when one looks at the government 2.0 implications. If it is true that successful engagement between government and citizens happens when the former joins the latter on a turf of their choice (be it a Linkedin group for unemployment support or a Facebook page to chat about changes in public park opening times or a tweets for mass notification or Flickr for a historical pictures archive to be tagged), then the whole issue of how persistent these communities and platforms are becomes a very pertinent one.

While this may give additional ammunitions to those who like to believe that government needs to retain control and host communities on its own web sites, reality is that joining external communities and making content available to others to transform and consume in the way they see fit is unavoidable and there is no way back.

Governments must reflect about where they draw the boundaries, and this clearly extend to where they decide to host their data. Daryl Plummer touches upon this, and clearly the whole issue of cloud portability and vendor independence is one that will stay with government clients for a long time. However the most critical problem is whether and how to secure information that is beyond the span of control.

In previous posts I talked about the asymmetry of government 2.0 and the need for governments to reach out to communities to be able to assess and possibly use external information that they create. If they do, should they then secure that such information survive? Should they make it subject to records management rules (whereas doing otherwise would seem the smartest move at the present time)? And how will they deal with liabilities that may derive from somebody else’s decision to shut things down?

As usual, answers will be found as we go along, and sometimes the hard way. A good rule of thumb for governments approaching external social media is to realize that choosing an external social media platform or network to engage with is like picking up a bottle of fresh milk in a store and being unable to read its expiry date because it is printed on the edge of the label. Unfortunately, unlike in a store, all bottles have an unreadable expiry date. The important thing is to know there is one, and sip carefully every time you open it.

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  • Mark Drapeau says:

    Doesn’t this suggest that the U.S. Fed government URL shortener was a good idea because it’s “trusted and reliable” and that governments may want to actually innovate in the realms of social networks, microblogging, etc, itself rather than rely on five people in a Silicon Valley garage (or whatever)?

  • @ Mark.
    Definitely. However setting the boundaries of intervention is critical here. Would people like to have their conversations hosted on a government-owned platform in exchange for greater sustainability? I have my doubts. There will always be something cooler or new or more trendy to catch people’s attention and imagination.
    Governments can only watch the space and act where they can really add value. Incidentally, until when the government URL shortener gets integrated into Tweedeck and the likes, it may be of limited use 🙂

  • zBeer says:

    As commented @ Mike Elgins post. Will we see “Nationalisation” on an International level for what becomes “essential” online real estate? It certainly seems likely if e-Gov sees a need to protect it’s online investment in 2.0.

    Is this a sort of example of the rise of the Market State that Phillip Bobbit made us think about in Shield of Achilles? Large providers/clouds stepping in to secure the viability of 2.0 sites as a public service. Or a forerunner to Government crossing national boundaries to do the same?

    Wikipedia via dbpedia and open data could certainly qualify. The US Gov’s request to Twitter during the recent Iranian issues is another salient example of an private sector online resource being determined to be in the national/international interest.

    I love how the online world is changing the look of geopolitics and the world. Very exciting times.

    Chris Beer
    Canberra, Australia

  • Spot on, Andrea. I am trying to campaign for the public sector to provide infrastructure platforms to replace for stuff like Ning, Basecamp or Second Life – all platforms that I use.

  • Content is ever evolving, that is true. Their will always be predictions of the future. I’m not sure about an expiration date but I’m sure they way that we currently use them will absolutely change.