COM0011: Reflections on the Use of Social Media

 

Over the last few months, while taking part of this course I became gradually more aware of how friends and family members use their personal social media channels, in particular Facebook. Although most of them are fairly passive users, posting funny memes or updates on their various daily happenings, I noticed a few using Facebook to aggressively market either themselves or their pet projects / initiatives. Mind you, had I not been studying up on the use of social media I’m not sure any of this would have registered with me beyond vague annoyance, but I’m increasingly struck by how misguided some users are when it comes to Facebook and how they fundamentally misunderstand what Facebook is intended for.

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For instance, I have a friend (we’ll name him Anthony here) who I hadn’t spoken to since about 2009 who reached out to me via Facebook a few weeks back. Thinking nothing of it I accepted his friend request, sent the requisite “hi how are you nice to hear from you” email, and promptly relegated him to newsfeed fodder. It’s not that we didn’t get along before, it’s that I hadn’t heard from him in a long time and he no longer lives in the area, so I assumed our interactions would, going forward, be limited to Facebook passivity. However, I noticed Anthony was using Facebook as a marketing tool to establish himself as a motivational speaker. Moreover, Anthony’s primary subject was, in my opinion anyways, rather esoteric: Bringing awareness to the challenges faced by the gay handicapped community in hook-up culture.

With over 5000 friends on Facebook, it was clear Anthony’s message was reaching its intended audience, as well as sex-positive speakers making connections on his page. For all intents and purposes, Anthony was succeeding at branding himself a motivational speaker and representative of the sexually active disabled community. However, it didn’t take long for his message to be lost in a deluge of overposting and towing the line between marking successes and becoming a bragadagio. First, the overposting: On a single day, Anthony would post about 5-6 times, encouraging people to read his latest article on disability sex awareness, or watch a video he’d posted on the subject, or read an article from another press outlet dealing with the subject, etc. Personally, being able-bodied, I was unaware of the specific challenges faced by the community, and read many of the articles with great interest… until I realized that, well, 90% of his social media presence is him pushing his message. There were very little posts that were casual in nature or just discussing something going on in the press or in the world, just the same message being pushed again and again. It wasn’t long before, I’ll admit, I began losing interest in the subject. I had re-connected with Anthony in the hopes of keeping up with his life and activities, but reading about his job on a daily basis was not part of the deal for me, esoteric subject or not.

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Further, I began noticing a shift in Anthony’s persona rather quickly. After the first few months of overposting, I started to gleam that Anthony was becoming a person of note within the sex-positive motivational speaker community and was being asked to give speeches at various conferences and participating in media campaigns on the subject. I put aside my annoyance with him aside, which ebbed and flowed depending on his level of output for the week, and celebrated his successes with him, because I was happy for him that he was making a mark in an area that was clearly important to him. After a while, however, came the pictures and videos. He began posting videos and photos of himself at various events speaking on his subject, often in various states of undress and in bondage gear, pushing his message of social acceptance as far and as hard as he could. I was uncomfortable with it myself at this point: Having read his articles with an open mind, I was sensitive to the specific challenges his community faces in this area of life. However, his social media presence had become entirely inappropriate. I work on social media and tend to spend a majority of my day on Facebook and Twitter, and Anthony’s posts were becoming a problem for me: I would scroll through my newsfeed only to see various inappropriate photos and videos of him, and quickly had to unfollow him if only to reduce the amount of due diligence I had to do at work due to his social media use. A few days later, I unceremoniously removed him from my friends list, because I figured if I couldn’t even have him in my newsfeed, then there’s no need for us to stay connected on social media.

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Mind you, it wasn’t Anthony I had a problem with, or the subject he was interested in branding himself in. It was his use of social media: If I re-connect with someone over Facebook, I’m not doing so in order to read a barrage of information on someone’s work or their initiatives, I’m in for the personal posts and the images that connect us, that keep us up to date on his each other’s comings and goings, and if we get there, to make plans together.  Many of my older friendships have been re-kindled over Facebook since I joined in 2007. Anthony, however, made a fatal mistake on Facebook by insisting we should all be equally involved in a subject he’s passionate about. It’s important to start a conversation about a subject when there is little visibility for it, but raising awareness is different than repeatedly forcing the topic forward. A more even balance of personal / professional posts would have softened the edge, and less inappropriate videos and photos would have made his message easier to digest for the audience he is attempting to connect with (i.e. able-bodied folks who are unaware of those specific challenges by lack of representation). It’s an interesting subject, but like all personal subjects, they exist within a plethora of other considerations as well as the fact that every person has their own passionate beliefs, and recognizes that less is often more. Had Anthony been treading more carefully on social media, I think his message would have registered louder – but by repeatedly pounding the pavement, his message ended up existing in a vacuum.

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What about you? Have you experienced a similar situation while re-connecting with an old acquaintance fundamentally misusing social media?

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COM 0011: Are You a Facebook Slacktivist?

Have you heard of “Facebook slacktivism”? It’s a term invented a few years ago referring to Facebook users who consider themselves socially aware and politically active, but whose contributions to any given social movement are limited to supportive but vague, intangible efforts, such as a “Like” on a page about feeding the homeless with no actual action required. I first noticed this trend on my own newsfeed in 2012, when an initiative to raise awareness of child abuse was mobilizing users to change their profile pictures to their favorite animated character. Confused? I was too. On the one hand, it’s never a bad thing to raise awareness of any social problem, like child abuse, racism, sexism, and various other isms. But in reality, or at least in this particular case, users changing their profile pictures was the entire initiative. Sure, it makes everyone’s feeds cuter and more vibrant, but actually does very little to address a problem as widespread and insidious as child abuse, and in the process trivializes it. So, the conversation that resulted from the initiative wasn’t so much about bringing awareness to child abuse but instead about how inane the initiative was. So, then, does “slacktivism” have any value?

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I suppose my own opinion on the subject is that it does… kind of. Consider the rise of trans rights in North America, for instance. Although the movement has been around for a long time, there have been noticeable leaps made in the last five years or so, with many trans public figures emerging as legitimate inspirational figures: Laverne Cox, Caitlyn Jenner, and Chaz Bono, among others. Additionally, we saw a rise in trans visibility on mainstream shows like Glee, Orange is the New Black, Drop Dead Diva, etc. In particular, Cox and Jenner have benefited tremendously from social media – both maintain active presences online, with Cox’s Facebook page attracting over 900k likes, while Jenner’s has nearly double that. Jenner saw a significant boon to her public visibility and acceptance following the release of Vanity Fair cover interview, which was the most shared item on Facebook for the week of June 28, 2015, and her subsequent Twitter account reached one million followers quicker than American President Barrack Obama’s did.  Both women have managed to expand social media boons into legitimate media attention and in the process became positive role models for their community, with a significant push from an online community growing increasingly insistent on equal rights and social justice activism. Users passively shared articles, openly discussing the trans rights movement in ways that had not been seen before, and contributed significantly in making the issue commonplace and negating its former taboo status.It almost seemed like, “What’s the big deal about this?” Of course, that’s a pat way of describing a complex situation, but it’s an encouraging sign of changing times that an entire generation greeted Jenner’s transition with a hearty “Good for her!” and then moved on.

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For a different side of the coin, however, look no further than the KONY 2012 media campaign. Despite a running length of nearly half an hour, the now-famous KONY video discussing the leader of a Ugandan guerrilla group struck a chord with users online, if only temporarily. Despite its relative length, the video reached nearly 100 million views within a matter of only days, with users inundating Facebook and Twitter by sharing it and openly discussing an issue they had previously been unfamiliar with. I even remember friends of mine who are politically and socially disinterested having impressively informed opinions about it. Yet what was missing from the movement was actually what the video actively encouraged viewers to do: Post pictures of Joseph Kony in the real world to continuously raise awareness, hoping to inspire real-world change. There was very little that actually physically done, and awareness did not translate to actual activism. It began on social media, became a news item literally overnight, and disappeared almost as quickly.

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However, where social media slacktivism is at its most useful is in terms of beginning a conversation on an issue that has yet to attract traditional media attention, and leading to actual, tangible benefits. For instance, in 2013 the UN World Food Programme teamed up with Royal DSM to raise awareness about hunger and potential solutions: For every “Like” that the WFP receives on its Facebook page, Royal DSM donates towards the charity. Adapting the passivity of Facebook slacktivism into a fundraising opportunity is a direct way to ensure real-world change, while simultaneously raising awareness of the issue. In the end, although many people dismiss social media as trivial, narcissistic white noise, it has actually managed to alter the way an issue can be discussed and led to real-world change… although, to do so, a campaign should be more robust than, say, changing your profile picture to a cartoon character…

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What about you? Have you been a Facebook slacktivist?

COM 0011: Social Media in the Age of Terror

This past Friday night, while waiting for some friends to arrive at my place for a casual dinner, I was on Madonna’s Instagram casually looking at pictures from her latest tour when I stumbled on a comment by a fan that went along the lines of “Paris needs you now.” Thinking it had something to do with nationalist politics I wasn’t aware of, I moved along, not particularly eager to start reading about French politics while waiting for company to arrive. But the more pictures I saw, the more I saw variations of these comments, so I moved over to Facebook to check the Trending topics, and that’s where I first read about the devastating ISIS attacks in Paris. Immediately I went over to Twitter, determined the right hashtags to follow the story, and began reading as much as I could: Individual on-the-scene tweets, various international media organizations releasing statements, politicians reaching out to constituents, news reports from the Associated Press, and so on. It didn’t occur to me then how much things have changed in a relatively short amount of time but over the next few days I began remembering the events of September 11, 2001 and how different the media is now.

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I was 18 in 2001 when the two planes hit the towers. I was in my last year of high school, in a French media class wherein we had just been appointed new laptops during this particular class so we could learn how to use emerging technologies within an educational context as most of us were headed into University the following semester. News that the United States was under a terrorist attack were reported to us by a fellow classmate, who had seen a breaking news report on CNN. So we all did what we thought was best: We went online and tried to find as much information as we could but the Internet was clogged and nobody got much more than we already knew, which was that no one knew much. We relied heavily on radio broadcasts, tuning into CBC Radio and hearing unconfirmed reports that the twin towers had fallen, that the Pentagon no longer existed, that the Washington Mall was ablaze, and that there were reports of planes headed for the Canadian Parliament. Of course we know now that, other than the two towers falling, none of these reports were accurate, instead borne of fear, conjecture and confusion. We sat in the class, frozen still, listening to how modern North American society was falling all around us.

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I was reminded of the paralyzing fear I felt in those moments on Friday night, not so much because I felt the same was happening again but instead about how much social media has changed the way news are reported and digested. Reading through the various tweets and articles on Friday night, I was aware of the magnitude of the attacks, could watch videos of the streets of Paris and local news reports being shared over Twitter – in short, I had a better sense of the scope of the events occurring, and was able to keep up with the Canadian response to the still-developing tragedy and contextualize the events. I thought many things all at once but one thing kept creeping back in my mind: What if we’d had social media back in 2001? How differently would people have reacted if they had access to news being released in real-time on their phones? Would it have made any difference at all? After all, in moments of panic, people are more apt to believe any information that is being fed to them, because nothing seems inconceivable when the inconceivable is already happening.

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The next day, I did what millions around the world did and adopted the French flag color scheme on my Facebook profile. I knew it wasn’t likely to do anything particularly productive but I felt a need to show empathy and solidarity with the people of France. A few hours later I began to read that there was some controversy over Facebook’s opt-in French color scheme initiative, specifically over similar attacks in Lebanon  on Thursday and Kenya on Saturday that had gone almost unnoticed in the mainstream press. I didn’t remove the French scheme off my profile picture, because in just twenty-four hours I had already seen a different use for it: Its very existence was the spark for an outpouring of support for the Lebanon and Kenya attacks as well, which I had somehow completely missed. Had the Facebook profile picture backlash not occurred, I wouldn’t have heard of either attack, so in that sense it had a practical benefit: the lack of a similar fla option for either country itself became a news item drawing attention to those specific events. I was then more informed thanks to a social media initiative that had an almost immediate backlash.

It’s in moments like these that I feel there’s a tangible value to social media, beyond Madonna concert photos and memes about Game of Thrones: When used properly and with immediate purpose, it can mobilize a population, inform the world in real-time of events as they unfold, and lead to an international outpouring of solidarity and support. Indeed my Facebook feed remains populated with pictures of the French flag colors being used around the world on various national monuments with messages of hope attached to inspire confidence and unity. I for one had never been more grateful for the benefits of social media – warts and all – as I was this past weekend.

What about you? Did social media play a part in informing you of the events in Paris on Friday November 13, 2015?

COM 0011: Dating in the Social Media Era

I was 14 when my family got its first home computer, back in 1997. I used it primarily as a research tool to keep up with entertainment and the news, and although I’d heard of online dating, I thought of it as a fringe part of the Internet for the lonely and unloved. Since then, online dating has become much more normalized in mainstream culture, with many sites (like Match.com, eHarmony.com, OKCupid,com, etc) popping up and essentially defining modern dating. I can’t speak for anyone else but I can think of at least ten of my friends off the top of my head who have met their partners online and no one really bats an eye anymore (people closer to my age may remember the shifty, vaguely judgmental side-eyes that usually came with an admission that you had an online dating profile).

It kinda looked like this, only less subtle.

It kinda looked like this, only less subtle.

Me, I’ve been partnered since 2010 so although I participated in dating sites, I have very little experience with social media platforms dedicated to online dating. Apps like Tinder, Twine and Grindr were either non-existent or hadn’t yet proliferated the way they have now, and registering for my profile on PlentyOfFish.com seems rather quaint in comparison: It’s a testament to how quickly the culture changed that only 5 years later, filling out a profile on a dating site versus an app is almost low-fi, a beta experience of the Internet if you will. At the risk of being “that guy,” I have to say that modern dating in the era of social media and instant gratification is, well, kind of scary to me.

Me on dating sites & apps circa 2015 (artist's rendition)

Me on dating sites & apps circa 2015 (artist’s rendition)

Consider this situation: Back in 2010 I agreed to go on a date (dinner and a movie) with someone I met over PlentyOfFish.com. We’ll call him Michael. Based on his profile, Michael was well-spoken, handsome, independent and had a clever sense of humor. A few back-and-forth emails over a week and we had a date planned, which came and went without much fanfare or fireworks (let’s just say our date’s best moment was when I realized both of just wanted to go home, separately). I found Michael dull at best and vaguely menacing at worst.

A few days later, while recounting this lame date to a friend of mine who was also on the site, Michael’s past came up. Turns out my friend knew Michael, and confided in me that Michael had a very disturbing run-in with the authorities over some alleged domestic abuse in his previous relationship that ended up ruining his career in the medical profession. I’ll spare the more disturbing details, but suffice to say it involved significant bloodshed and intimidation tactics that would make the CIA uncomfortable. Shaken but relieved that I had dodged a bullet, I put the incident away in my head and moved on.

Remember: Crazies aren't always as easily identifiable.

Remember: Crazies aren’t always as easily identifiable.

A few weeks later, I began receiving middle-of-the-night phone calls from an unidentified number just around the same time that Michael began texting me a lot, after weeks of no contact. His messages would vary from innocuous to downright hostile, and I’ll confess I didn’t take it very seriously despite what I knew about him. I decided not to respond to any of them (in effect ghosting him) and they gradually decreased in volume until they stopped altogether, and I never saw or heard from him again. I couldn’t help but think of Michael over the weekend when a girl friend of mine excitedly told me she had set up a Tinder profile, showed me how the instant chat works, and how easy it is to find a Tinder user’s Facebook profile and do a little bit of light stalking. I thought to myself, golly, if it’s that easy for us to do it to them then it must be easy for them to do it to us. What if I had a Tinder profile circa 2010 (had the app existed) when I met Michael? How would I have managed the situation? My friend explained to me that it’s easy to block someone, but didn’t have much an answer to my follow-up question: What if someone just creates a new profile and keeps bothering you?

The online equivalent of this is significantly less amusing.

The online equivalent of this is significantly less amusing.

I decided to do some research into how modern folks are fielding the lack of anonymity in the social media era when dating online, and what I found was… well, perplexing. Distressing yet unsurprising, most of the online entries I found on the subject were from women reporting harassment from spurned men. It seems that not many of these apps are equipped to deal with harassment, and alternatively that many online users are unable to react to sexual and romantic rejection with anything but over-the-top harassment.

Moreover, many women reported receiving an excessive amount of unsolicited sexual advances online and, frustrated by the lack of clear guidelines on acceptable use of the app, have turned to online shaming as a resource to fight back. Online presences like www.straightwhiteboystexting.tumblr.com or Reddit channels like CreepyPms and NiceGuys, among others, are inundated with women posting screen-caps of various interactions that made them uncomfortable or downright scared for their safety. Now, this isn’t meant to set up a gendered argument or comment on gender behaviors at all, I just noticed a lot more uncomfortable women than men. It’s actually become so common that women are even writing articles giving advice both to other women setting up dating profiles and to the men reading them on how to avoid being a creeper.

Seems about right...

Seems about right…

It made me really wonder about Michael: Despite my ghosting him, he still persisted to some degree even though all he could do was call and text me (I had declined to give him my full name and had put my Facebook on lockdown), and even though I never took the bait it still took a while for him to move on. How scary would it have been if this had been over Tinder, for instance, where he could message me and be notified that I’d read his messages, create a new profile for the sake of bothering me, finding out personal information about me through Facebook or LinkedIn, etc? Or what if he used dummy accounts on social media to solicit information about me from any of my friends on Facebook, or my Twitter account, or Instagram, or Tumblr, etc?

In her article “What Impact Has Social Media Truly Had On Society,” Jenny Q. Ta wrote “If you are a victim of cyber bullying, do not take it lying down, but try to take appropriate legal action against the attacker.” However, the Internet is full of scary stories of dating app users who find themselves at the mercy of aggressive users with few clear and enforceable guidelines on social media harassment. For instance, Twitter debuted in 2006 but it’s only now in 2015 that it’s enforcing a harassment prevention strategy to protect its users as much as it can without violating freedom of speech laws. How can you “not take it lying down” when you literally have no legal case? Being a jerk is not illegal, and proving an online harassment case is difficult at best.

If only this were as efficient as it is funny.

If only this were as efficient as it is funny.

I don’t pretend to have an answer regarding what should be done here, if anything can be done at all. I suppose one can make the argument that dating apps in the social media era are a “buyer beware” situation at best, but that reeks of victim blaming. What should be done to protect users? Is there anything preventative that can be done, or does a user have to wait to be harassed before something can be done? If you’re a dating app user, how do you stay safe?

COM0011: Film Criticism in the Social Media Era

In this age of rapid information sharing, the very concept of film criticism has become more and more redundant. After all, with the information overload we’re constantly under, why would anyone bother reading a 1500 word movie review when you can get word-of-mouth consensus on Twitter, or ask your friends on Facebook about a new movie and get instant feedback? Or even simply going to www.RottenTomatoes.com and see an aggregated total percentage from both critics and audiences alike? Social media has made it easier to get a consensus and make a reasonably informed decision, but for those of us who value film criticism and enjoy both reading and writing it, it’s a little disconcerting seeing how it’s becoming increasingly devalued. After all, my buddy Matt may have posted about how much he loved the latest Mission Impossible movie, but I don’t know if he’s a fan of the series, or if it’s the first he’s watched, or he just likes action movies in general, etc. I’m the kind of cinema lover who watches literally hundreds of movies a year, so if Matt is a casual movie watcher we may be looking for different things, but there’s no context there – it’s a passive tweet that offers his opinion, which is valuable but perhaps not particularly informative. Such is the difference between a professional movie review, which typically will explore both the technical presentation of a film as well as its themes at large, and a tweet expressing a black-or-white opinion in real time.

As a result of social media, and more specifically the impact of Twitter, many newspapers, magazines and websites no longer publish regular reviews. That much is true not only of cinema, but also of music, television, food, etc. The objective critic as an informed arbitrator is no longer a commodity, having become increasingly niche and outside the mainstream. In his article “Is Social Media Beginning to Undermine Film Criticism?” writer Kieran Turner-Dave writes “it is worth remembering that the increase in the quantity of opinions is not the same as enhancing the quality of the discourse.” I think that’s an important distinction – there are so, so many different opinions being sent into the vortex of social media but seemingly few of them offer expertise, and that’s what a film critic brings. For instance, Roger Ebert won a Pulitzer Prize in 1975 for his film criticism in the Chicago Sun-Times, not only for being a personable writer but also a subject matter expert who wrote for a community that trusted his input. In 2015, even a film critic aficionado like myself is hard-pressed to name any contemporary film critic whose output is notable other than the infamously contrarian Armand White (Google him if you’re interested – he’s a treasure trove of unintentionally hilarious pretentiousness). So that begs the question: In the social media era, what is film criticism anymore? Is it an antiquated form of writing, or has it just cooled off? Or has it become re-contextualized as a niche market (like on sites like www.avclub.com or www.pajiba.com) or is it more of a passive hobby for film-happy bloggers (like Scott Telek of www.cinemademerde.com or Pat Mullen of www.cinemablographer.com)?

It was with these questions in mind that I began a bit of a project for myself that had been rattling around in my head for some time. I wanted to participate in the modern discourse on film and film criticism, so I decided to set up a Facebook page wherein I post one-sentence reviews of the new movies I’m watching, along with a rating out of 5, the movie’s cover art, and a link to the trailer. I wanted to keep it simple and easily digestible – in other words, I want this to be specifically a social media capsule review project, with consideration given to when I post, how often I post, what kinds of movies I will review, etc. Miriam Slozberg’s article “The 7 Risks of Social Media” was very helpful in resolving these questions, offering great advice like not over promoting or over posting, but more importantly not using my own personal channels to bring attention to my project: “If all you do on your social media profiles is pitch your business, no one is going to want anything to do with you.” Mine is not a business endeavor but the crux of the message remains the same. So as it is, my little personal project remains in its infancy on Facebook, with only a dozen or so “Likes.” It’s not much, but I feel I earned those “Likes” because I didn’t advocate for them, they were organic. It’s an encouraging little boost, and the relatively obscurity of the project also lets me make mistakes as I figure out the format. It’s with this time in mind that I feel contribute to the film criticism discourse in my own way, acknowledging the history of the medium as well as twenty-first century technological realities.

Writing Social Media Content for the Government (COM0011)

When I was asked to take on a social media work assignment last year, I didn’t quite know what to expect. Although I’m a daily user of various social media platforms I had no real context for government social media and zero experience. I’ve worked in communications for the government for almost ten years and know first-hand how the government’s structure means any long-term projects can take a long time, so I was skeptical but willing. Now, 18 months later, I’ve learned that, although government tends to work slowly, there are a number of ways to adapt the two realities (the pace of government vs. that of social media) into a consistent, reliable online presence.

I work as an analyst for a department with a massive and unique file that often attracts controversy one way or another. As you can imagine this creates a challenge for us – we need useful and informative channels but we also need to carefully measure every word we publish, which requires extra time to develop. So the way it works for us is the following: we determine a theme months ahead of time, and develop related posts for each of our platforms. Then we send our content to subject matter experts to make sure what we’re saying is 100% accurate, and then we have to translate before getting final approval. By the time a post is published, it’s typically been vetted by many people over the course of some weeks… which goes against the spontaneous, personable interactions favored by users, making it challenging for us to connect to them. Cindy King’s article “28 Social Media Marketing Predictions From the Pros” discussed this particular challenge: In order to engage their customers, brands “must break down the social media silo they have created.” This is particularly problematic for social media writers in the government, because we want and need to connect with our audience but we’re limited in what we can say to them and how quickly we can say it.

To deal with this issue, we develop as much interactive content as we can, like contests or trivia questions, literally asking our audience to engage with us and let their needs direct us instead of speaking at them in a vacuum. King’s article addressed this, asking “can you create a voice and inspire customers to take action or do you simply publish pre-created content?” It’s a good question, and it’s something we have to carefully weigh each day. We are less free to embrace risk the way a brand can, but our restrictions are irrelevant to our audience so we need to bridge the gap between what we want to do and what we can do. In 2012 the University of Regina published a study on the use of public media by governments, arguing that a challenge for governments in social media is that “federal executives must show more flexibility, openness and leadership in using these new technologies.” Three years later, there have been significant leaps in that regard as the government workforce has embraced the need for a robust social media presence.

It’s an encouraging sign of changing times when a government becomes more accessible by using technologies that demand a certain transparency without sacrificing the need for restraint and careful consideration. As these technologies stabilize and evolve, I think we’ll see more and more openness on governmental channels. So, although social media is still a fresh endeavor for the public sector, we’re seeing how it’s contributing to a reduction of bureaucratic red tape and working towards a friendlier, more personal relationship with the citizens it represents. It’s no secret that governments work slowly, but we shouldn’t let that stop us from making meaningful contributions to technologies that have already changed the way people and organizations interact.