Social media has become so significant that people who are just now getting on the Internet are more frequently accessing it via a single site, Facebook. Facebook serves an important function in that it can make Internet usage more relevant, by allowing interaction with a certain number of people rather than having to use the wider Internet that lacks context. This way, many Internet users remain herded within individual social networks, often referred to as “walled gardens,” instead of venturing out into the open Internet.
What does this mean for government executives who have a mandate to interact with the public thorough their .gov websites? Will people only find information on important government programs if it is posted in Facebook or other social networks? Certainly it is not possible to recreate everything on social media, or to require anyone to join a social media platform to get taxpayer-supported information. The risk is that large sections of government information will essentially become invisible to the average online citizen.
Social networks are going to have more and more influence over how people search for things, because people want their networks to approve the results they get. Government executives must consider that even when people are accessing the wider web via Google, its results are factoring in whether a site has credibility in social media. This means a .gov property with few social media connections will be harder to find.
Some international audiences are also more likely to search for information in Facebook because it can be a more relevant starting point than the larger Internet, much of which is in English. Sites like Facebook and Twitter can more accessible, because their content is a reflection of people’s real lives. Even while Facebook’s basic platform remains English, people will converse with their friends in their language of choice inside the frame.
With these changes, how can a .gov site hope to keep up? Government departments and agencies are increasingly starting to examine their entire digital footprint. As a government executive, it is part of your fiduciary responsibility to put publicly available information and resources on the relatively neutral territory of a dot gov, but that’s only one piece of the puzzle. It’s important to stand back from your digital properties and ask: Do people find this information understandable and useful? Do they recommend it in social media? You have to make sure the message is getting out to people where they are. From an appearance and performance standpoint content has to play nicely with social media. Is your .gov created with responsive resign? Does it perform equally well across a variety of devices?
Future communications campaigns will need to look at social media as more than just an outreach component, and will need to design the message so that people using only social media can find the information. For instance, this means using hashtags to join conversations that are already going on about your topic. Campaigns need to join a conversation where it is, rather than expecting people to come to them.
Hilary Brandt is the Director of the Office of Innovative Engagement (OIE) in the Bureau of International Information Programs (IIP) at the U.S. Department of State. The Office of Innovative Engagement provides expertise in the best use of new and emerging digital tools for public diplomacy. Hilary oversees research and development of new tools and platforms, comprehensive education and support for the department’s 200 plus social media practitioners, and outreach to the technology industry.
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