The War on Social Media

Tuesday, December 02, 2010
By Christopher J. Dorobek

The term does not represent the real value of these tools—collaboration.

The news earlier this year that the U.S. Marine Corps was banning social media sent some people into a near tizzy. How could it do such a thing? Aside from the fact that it was not what Marine Corps officials actually said—for security reasons they prohibited Marines from using applications such as Facebook and Twitter on Marine Corps computer networks—the move by the Marine Corps, and the uproar surrounding it, spurred the Pentagon to examine its policies surrounding these collaborative tools and to assess how they are treated.

In the end, many people simply do not take social media seriously. But Dave Wennergren, the U.S. Defense Department’s deputy chief information officer (CIO) and deputy assistant secretary of defense for information management and technology, often says, “If you think Facebook is just for dating, you’re missing the point.”

One of the reasons these collaboration tools are dismissed so easily is the term “social media,” and in the enterprise 2.0 community a fairly extensive debate is taking place about the terminology. But this is much more than semantics. Words have meaning—and impact—and the term social media should be verboten. That said, the terminology is all over the place. For example, the CIO Council recently published Web 2.0 security guidance titled “Guidelines for Secure Use of Social Media by Federal Departments and Agencies, v1.0,” and the CIO Council is not alone.

I have several justifications for why I am not a fan of the term social media. Among them is that it is not an accurate description. Enterprise organizations such as government agencies simply are not interested in using these tools because of the “social-ness” they provide. The social aspect may be very important for chunks of Facebook, but it is not why people increasingly are using these tools at work. Most people use these tools to solve problems, to share information and to collaborate. They all have a social aspect to them—they allow you to connect with people you may have never known before. But like e-mail and the telephone before them, the value to the enterprise simply is not social. It is the speed and agility that it provides an organization—the ability to better accomplish the mission.

Harvard Business School professor Andrew McAfee argues that people “hear ‘social,’ in short, and think it means not work-related or time-wasting or productivity-draining. Because of this tendency, I rarely if ever use the word social when discussing enterprise 2.0. I prefer instead collaborative, a term that has largely positive connotations for business leaders. People collaborate in order to get work done and solve problems, and these days there’s no shortage of problems to solve.”

In the end, these tools are really about providing a unique way for agencies to do something that they have long sought to do: to share information, to work together, to collaborate. If these tools were just about being social, they would have been written off long ago.

But the debate is not just one of semantics. And the term social media in some ways allows people to ban these tools, which are rapidly becoming an essential part of missions.

This struggle with new technology is not new. Despite claims that they relish change, people are not so accepting of new ways of doing business, and this has happened before. In the “Incoming” column in the June 2009 issue of SIGNAL Magazine (page 88), I noted that the General Services Administration (GSA) was the first federal agency to connect each and every employee to e-mail and the Internet right from their desk on Flag Day, 1996. This simple act created much consternation. People asked “Why?” They argued that GSA personnel would merely be online shopping on or sending e-mails to their kids. But David J. Barram, GSA administrator at the time, had the foresight to understand the importance of the Internet and the remarkable collaboration that can occur through those connections.

E-mail revolutionized communications and definitely has had a social aspect to it, but it is not social media. It is a tool that enables organizations’ personnel to do their job better and more effectively. Unfortunately, since that time, e-mail has been tried as a collaborative tool. Workers used it as such in the 1990s, and it helped then because other tools were not available; today, other options exist.

Real pockets of innovation and information sharing are going on right now using these collaborative tools. For example, on GovLoop, which bills itself as the Facebook for feds, a group of acquisition workers created an Acquisition 2.0 group, where they are sharing ideas about how to improve government procurement. From the GovLoop Acquisition 2.0 discussions has grown The Better Buy Project, where people are suggesting ideas—and voting on others’ ideas.

Yes, there may be social aspects to these applications, but in the end, these tools are about long-standing organizational challenges: sharing information and collaboration. The era of social media may be over, but long live the era of collaboration tools.

Christopher J. Dorobek is the co-anchor of The Daily Debrief with Chris Dorobek and Amy Morris on Federal News Radio 1500 AM.


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Need to check the date on this article. Dec 2, 2010 has not happened yet, unless I lost an entire year.

Indeed. Our IT department was troubleshooting some RSS issues involving the date field, and this must have been changed during that process. Thank you for bringing this to our attention.