Editor's Note: For good or for ill, governments have to deal with social media. In Cairo and London and Washington, the way people organize themselves is changing -- and governments are struggling to adapt, adopt, co-opt, or disable the technologies that enable these changes. Here, O'Reilly Media's Government 2.0 correspondent takes a step back and surveys the landscape at the crossroads of social media and political power in the summer of 2011.
In the 1990s, the Internet changed communication and commerce forever. A decade later, the Web 2.0 revolution created a new disruption, enabling hundreds of millions of citizens to publish, share, mix, comment, and upload media to a more dynamic online environment. That two-way communication, enabled by new, highly accessible and scalable Web technologies, is generally called "social media." In the years since the first social networks went online, the disruption has spread to government, creating shifts in power structures as large as those enabled by the introduction of the printing press centuries ago.
"Connection technologies, including social media, tend to devolve power from the nation state and large institutions to individuals and small institutions," Alec J. Ross, senior innovation adviser to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, said in an interview. "Nothing demonstrated that more than the power to publish and distribute at great scale by historically disempowered individuals with inexpensive devices."
For a recent example, consider the role of social media in revolutions in Tunisia and Egypt, where YouTube, Facebook, and Twitter acted in combination with Al Jazeera and mobile phones to catalyze reactions to deep-seated repression. "If governments are not engaging in social media, they are essentially ceding influence and power," said Ross.
It also provides new capabilities and opportunities to work with the public in collaboration, co-creation or oversight. Social media is changing how state and local government elections are covered, including fraud or corruption reporting. In California, social media is connecting citizens to e-services, and it is an elemental component of New York's bid to be the nation's premier digital city. In Washington and other capitals around the world, legislatures and executive offices now operate in a 24-hour stream of live updates and discussion. This January, the Congressional transition was streamed live online, as well as on Twitter and Facebook. After President Obama's historic speech on Middle East policy, the White House turned to Twitter to discuss it.
"Social media allows for more distributed communication and collaboration when natural or man-made crises occur," said Ross. "This allows for faster and more inclusive, broadly participatory responses to life and death situations." For example, in Australia, social media and geospatial mapping helped crisis responders deal with historic floods. In San Francisco, city services, 311 and Facebook are enabling new ways of solving civic issues.
Mainstream media is increasingly merging with social media. Last year, more citizens experienced "Twitter TV" during sporting events like the World Cup. This fall, Facebook and NBC will co-host the Republican primary debate. (Don't get lost in the glitz of social media, though: Election 2012 will be about the data.) In June 2011, Google launched YouTube for Government, offering civic leaders around the world a platform to reach all connected citizens.
Social media does present novel risks and rewards for government beyond the changes wrought by telegraph, telephone, and television. Social media creates new online privacy challenges for citizens and government alike. It presents a real headache for the government employees entrusted with records management. A recent GAO report highlighted the need for consistent social media policies that address security, privacy, and records keeping.
contributed to this article.