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[berkman] Elizabeth Losh on Obama’s use of social media

Elizabeth Losh of UC Irvine is giving a Berkman lunchtime talk called “From the Crowd to the Cloud: Social Media and the Obama Administration.” She looks at “institutions as digital content creators.”

NOTE: Live-blogging. Getting things wrong. Missing points. Omitting key information. Introducing artificial choppiness. Over-emphasizing small matters. Paraphrasing badly. Not running a spellpchecker. Mangling other people’s ideas and words. You are warned, people.

She begins by pointing to a Congressional hearing in which someone unknowingly referred to some footage from Battlefield 2, in which you can play on either side, as proof that Jihadists are recruiting on the Net.

In the 2008 election, McCain had a series of rhetorical disasters when using social media, Liz says. McCainSpace, she says, was “an unmitigated disaster.” She also points to the mashups done with greenscreen videos of McCain. The Obama campaign, on the other hand, used social media well. It used low bandwidth interactivity effectively (e.g., online tax calculator). And third parties injected memes.

So, how much change has happened now that Obama is president?

It’s not all that difference. She compares, an abstinence site put up by the Bush administration. The Obama administration has kept it pretty much the same, except that some of the conversation starters have been slightly modified. has moved from featuring mountain lions as the guardians of children (an odd choice, says Liz) to Muppets. The Bush admin did some health initiatives using SecondLife, she points out.

How much privacy? uses and has responded to concerns about the privacy implications. When you leave a .gov domain, it signals that you are leaving a protected area. Liz wonders about the efficacy of using disclaimer language, however. At, if you decided to apply for a job, you start getting a lot of emails from the transition team.

The State Dept. Blog, “unfortunately named DipNote,” has been expanded. They twitter now. On Twitter, they’ve responded to citizen questions. E.g., Rebecca MacKinnon pointed out that a Chinese citizen had been arrested. The State Dept. tweeted that they were looking into it, although that tweet was deleted from Twitter shortly afterward. Rebecca also noticed that State Dept. photos posted on Flickr were marked as copyrighted; State now gives them Creative Commons licenses. Liz points to the CC notice and the DMCA takedown notice on the same page at and says that there we see the manifestation of the conflict between acknowledging the culture of sharing and the support of existing rules.

She worries about the “googlization of government,” i.e., commercial entities hosting info that is part of the public record. E.g., gov’t sites that use Google Maps.

At, you are encouraged to “share your story.” But what happens to those comments? How are they archived? Which ones will be displayed. They say in six months they’ll start posting that material, but it’s not clear how.

Q: [me] has started posting at Facebook where people can comment…
A: And this is a disaster for archiving.
Q: What would you do with comments at blog?
A: I’d like to see moderated comments. I do understand that there are limited government resources. Creating digital versions of Congressional records would maybe be a better way to spend the money.

Q: By going onto Facebook, the Admin is reaching out into civic society. That conversation would have been in coffee shops and not part of the public level. So maybe this shouldn’t be archived. How do we draw the lines as the lines between public and private are being blurred?
A: It’s a complicated thing. Suppose there are responses from officials to comments on FB? These are always difficult issues. [Paraphrasing!]

Q: Does government data include the back and forth between citizens? If we say it’s part of the public record, the gov’t won’t be able to participate, or build helpful stuff, as quickly. Would we want an archived federal Twitter that was crappy but kept a permanent record? Should the gov bring more of these social tools in house, or use existing, commercial sites and give up on including everything in the permanent record?
A: I tend toward wanting more stuff in public and archived. Let’s think about harvesting some of the discourse going on in the crowd.

Q: It seems like they’re doing lots of experimentation without the backbone of a full, stable archive behind it. Is this experimentation is leading us into an unknown state…?
A: The Archive is archiving some material on third party sites. The blog is impersonal and press-release-y, while the TSA blog (started under Bush) is folksy. So, some of these experiments have histories.

A: I’d give low marks for transparency because the PDFs are packed with charts that are not reusable.

Q: Social media is relatively new but and people express things that they don’t want known 5 years later…
A: A student applying for a job as a police officer found that they looked at his FB page and the pages of his friends. In the old days, they would have called his friends and asked questions.
Q: We’ve shifted the line between public and private life. Are we going to be able tor retract things from the public record?
A: That will be an issue.

Q: Any examples of the next frontier or participation, namely direct democracy
A: They still count emails. It’s quantitative, not qualitative. I worry about pseudo-interactivity, such as town hall meetings and the use of the Internet for political spectacle. That’s why I worry about these “share your stories” sites.

Q: During the Malagasi coup, people in Madagascar started talking about the deposed president finding sanctuary in the US Embassy, using Twitter. That could have flash-mobbed the embassy. Within 7 mins, the US embassy had responding, tweeting that the rumor was false. Can we give Obama a little bit of a break? All of us engaged in social media will screw up dozens of times …
A: That’s why we shouldn’t be cheerleaders. “I’m impressed by many of the social media efforts, but I think this form of criticism is important to do.”
Q: How do we encourage people to experiment in these spaces? As people go into these tools, they’re inept at first. At what point does the criticism discourage government officials from experimenting?
A: Many of my criticisms are that they’re not doing enough. Not enough commenting, with data representation, experimenting with new forms of participation.

Q: How much of out-of-the-box thinking are they doing with social media?
A: Theyre usually using them the way people already do. I wish they’d be more experimental.

Q: A crowd consists of the people who are uninformed. Government is about managing uncertainty. But if the info you get is biased and uninformed, you can’t manage. What’s the role of the crowd?
A: I don’t take as dark a view of the crowd. You can create political spectacles where a crowd is just a display, but you can get more participatory forms. There can be smart mobs. There are ways they can participate that are meaningful. The Obama admin is trying to take advantage of social occasions that are oriented around civic identity, not persuasion. “As a rhetorician, this is an interesting administration to watch.”

Q: Are Republicans inherently bad at social media?
A: Not at all. Sam Brownback had a great Web site. It does not divide easily along partisan lines.
Q: It depends in part on the demographics of the party. Libertarians have an incredible presence on line.
Q: Markos Moulitas says that Republican’s political philosophy leads them to be uncomfortable with bottom-up media…
A: Republicans do seem to like talk radio, where only a few get to participate.

Q: There was a time when there were a small number of leftwing political blogs and they bemoaned the fact that they had so little Web presence compared to conservative and libertarian blogs, around 2002-3. The populist element is present in all parties and drives a lot of social media. Some believe that the Dean campaign derailed because it thought the comments on its blog were representative of the world…
A: The postmortems are still being done.

Q: I’m not sure how I feel about the gov’t investing enough in social media to do it well. Experimentation is great, but totally botching it at the federal level isn’t good for anyone…
A: Good search on gov’t websites should be a top priority. To get all of Bush’s signing statements, you’d have to know to search on “shall construe.”

Q: Don’t you need a proprietary company to provide those services?
A: We need to be asking questions. [Tags: ]

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