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May A Networking Source Be With You

January 27, 2010
By Beverly Schaeffer

Star Wars character Han Solo said, "Traveling through hyperspace ain't like crop dusting." The same can be said about cyberspace-with regard to security. The valuable harvest growing from social media includes information sharing and networking opportunities-and developers of the military/government colleague network DEFStar want to settle the dust surrounding social media phobias of government leaders. Fear still abounds that social media sites for government use are too vulnerable to breaches. Executive Editor Maryann Lawlor brandishes a virtual light saber to separate wheat from networking chaff in her article, "DEFStar Shines Light on Networking," featured in this month's SIGNAL Magazine. DEFStar, a commercially developed networking site designed for .gov and .mil domain names, was launched last April. DISA first tapped SRA International in 2007 to create an application using existing technologies to examine how government, military and industry users can benefit from a dedicated social networking site. A site similar in nature to Facebook and LinkedIn, DEFStar takes Facebook's "Friday casual attire" approach and dresses it up for a more professional environment. "Friends" become "colleagues," and the focus is mainly on letting users form relationships with colleagues who share the same skills and interests. Work history, current position, a job description and other details can be added. DEFStar community members can also contribute to the "wall" by discussing current projects or posting a call-out for solutions to certain problems. To keep costs down, SRA called on the content management experts at Drupal Association because they offered an open-source path with customized modules. DISA Computer Engineer Brock Webb thinks this was the right move:

We are interested in spending thousands [of dollars] to serve millions of people instead of millions [of dollars] to serve several thousand people. We wanted to know if we could produce a "good enough" system.

Site success wasn't a certainty, but Webb admits it's a market-based approach:

We want to publish lessons learned and share them with the [defense and government] community through sites such as Intellipedia to help the Defense Department make better decisions about social networking. When we began, we didn't know if it would take off or fall on its face.

Although DEFStar was designed with the Defense Department community in mind, Webb emphasizes that other government organizations are welcome to tap into the capability. SRA's DEFStar Project Manager Steve Fox focuses on the possible features that will drive personnel to the site and continually bring them back. He also identifies the challenge of urging media users to participate:

We want to get people who are more than spectators.

One barrier to overcome is the negative perception of social networking as playtime, according to DISA's Webb:

This is not the case. These sites are a means to forming meaningful relationships. You may say, "Let's go get coffee," but it's all about getting to know people.

Based on the report from SRA and Webb's team at DISA, the Defense Department will assess its next steps. One possibility is to make DEFStar a program of record, but the decision will be based at least in part on the results of the demonstration.

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