Friday, May 1, 2009

Weekly Column: Online Namespaces, Twitter and #Swineflu

I was strapped for a good idea for a column this week so I put out the question on twitter:

To which I got this reply (and others):

In my presentation a couple of weeks ago I mentioned the need for government departments to at least lay claim to their departmental twitter accounts, even if they weren't ready to use them. Essentially, my argument at the time was that government departments need to circumvent the problem of cybersquatting (or in this case twitter squatting) and the potential for harm to one's brand that could arise there from.

Just how easy is it for someone to lay claim to your department or agency's online namespace? About this easy.

Point proven, right? (Hint, PCO doesn't own that twitter space ...)

Ok so let’s move on to a more in-depth conversation within the context of the twitter-fuelled swine flu panic, which will provide for a more interesting discussion.

A Case Study: Swine Flu Spread by Twitter

While it is obvious that you cannot catch swine flu from Twitter, what you can catch is a greater understanding of the importance of Twitter's ability to spread information quickly, and the subsequent need for government departments and agencies to use Twitter to help shape that spread.

As Evgeny Morozov, a fellow at the Open Society Institute in New York puts it:

Here is a tough question to communication experts out there: how do we reach the digital natives out there, especially those who are only accessible via Facebook and Twitter feeds? The problem is that while thousands of concerned and misinformed individuals took to Twitter to ventilate their fears, government and its agencies were still painfully missing from the social media space; the Twitter of account of Centers for Disease Control and Prevention was posting updates once in a few hours -- and that was probably the only really trustworthy source people could turn to online.


Before I proceed I want to be clear that what follows is by no means intended to be a criticism of PHAC or their handling of the Swine Flu situation. I am simply putting on a citizen engagement via social media observer hat and doing some preliminary and hypothetical analysis.

A Closer Look at PHAC on Twitter

Interestingly, the Public Health Agency of Canada (PHAC) is already on Twitter. Even more interesting is that PHAC's Twitter account was actually created back in September 18, 2008:

Second, it would seem that their first tweet didn't occur until April 28th:

I can only speculate that the decision to start actively using twitter (rather then just idling the account) has something to do with the perceived demand/need to provide more reliable information on the swine flu via twitter.

Morozov again has some insight:

... In an ideal world, [government organizations] would have established ownership of most online conversations from the very beginning, posting updates as often as they can. Instead, they are now faced with the prospect of thousands of really fearful citizens, all armed with their own mini-platforms to broadcast their fears -- which may cost it dearly in the long term.

The question of whether we need to somehow alter our global information flows during global pandemics is not a trivial one. A recent New York Times piece highlighted how a growing number of corporations like Starbucks, Dell, and Whole Foods are turning to Twitter to monitor and partially shape conversation about particular brands or products. What the piece failed to mention was that conversations about more serious topics (like pandemics- and their tragic consequences) could be shaped as well.

I think that there are three interrelated things worth discussing within the context of PHAC's use of Twitter to disseminate information about Swine Flu, they are (1) frequency, (2) conversation, and (3) trending.


PHAC's timeline at the time of writing this column contains seven (7) tweets - all linking to their website. My assumption is that PHAC is only using (or has only approved the use of) Twitter to drive people to press releases. Yet, given the amount of the discussion on Twitter about Swine Flu, a low number of tweets severely limits the agency's exposure and reduces their overall ability to shape the conversation.


While writing this column I started to wonder if they would respond to someone who tweeted at them (e.g. engage in two way communication), so I threw them a softy:

4 hours later I have yet to receive a response. In fact they have not responded to any of the tweets directed at them or referencing them.

Truth is that I wasn't expecting a response, because I know how difficult it is to know how to respond to an inquiry via Twitter "as a government organization".

But the truth of the matter is this: the proliferation and expectation of instant communication as facilitated by services such as Twitter and the multi-layered communication approval hierarchies of government just don't mix. One of these things is going to collapse, and my guess is that it will be the latter. Until then, rigid communication policies will ultimately hamstring departments and agencies looking to engage citizens via social media.


The last thing I think we can learn from PHAC has to do with trending. Let's again examine PHAC's timeline. Looking at PHAC's 7 tweets we see that:
  • 4 mention "Swine Influenza"
  • 2 mention "swine flu"
  • 1 fails to mention swine flu in any variant
These slight variations are important because the majority of people on Twitter are not talking about "Swine Influenza" - they are talking about "swine flu" and "#swineflu" (the latter are both trending topics, while the former is not). The result is that 70% of their tweets are left out of the larger conversation, thus impeding their ability to contribute and shape it.


You may be asking yourself: when my department or agency is facing a communications crisis of pandemic proportions, will it be able to wield social tools with confidence and efficiency in order to engage citizens and shape the conversation?

I think the better question is: Why wait for a crisis to find out?

If you are interested in further reading, Chris Brogan has some great tips for businesses looking to use Twitter, I am confident that they apply to government departments and agencies as well.

And please, at the very least secure your organization's online namespaces before someone less forgiving/honest than I do it for you.



  1. I found this article to be both informative and thought provoking. Thank you for taking the time to share your thoughts. As well, thanks to a more thorough review of materials posted on, I think I now have a better understanding of what terms like web 2.0 and social networking and social media, etc. mean, concretely.

    For the neophyte like me , even something as simple as language being used can be daunting and … well … downright overwhelming at times. Where does one start his or her learning process—especially when there appears to be no “beginning” or “end” points to the learning process itself—or, at least, not in the traditional sense of these terms. For right, wrong, or in between, I myself, started everywhere and all-at-once. When I finally surfaced—in an admittedly befuddled state—I reviewed this article and the following brain burps exploded in my mind. I share them, here, in the hopes that they will be coherent and of some interest.

    One passage in this week’s article resonated most deeply with me:

    But the truth of the matter is this: the proliferation and expectation of instant communication as facilitated by services such as Twitter and the multi-layered communication approval hierarchies of government just don't mix. One of these things is going to collapse, and my guess is that it will be the latter. Until then, rigid communication policies will ultimately hamstring departments and agencies looking to engage citizens via social media.

    Why did this passage resonate with me? I think because it reminded me of something I came across a few years ago when doing research on another matter. In brief, a 2005 Assistant Deputy Minister Forum was devoted to the challenges associated with achieving just the right balance between innovation and risk and control. The following text is excerpted from a description of the event in question.

    Can we meet demands for much more transparent and accountable governance and, at the same time, deliver more flexible, more timely, less costly and less regulated programs and services? Can we deliver bold and innovative initiatives in an environment of ever-shrinking tolerance for risk and failure (and for public servants who are seen to have failed)? Will the multiplication of verification, evaluation and audit regimes diffuse personal accountability and value-based professional self-regulation, as well as impacting negatively on the recruitment and retention of the public service of the future? What are the risks that this new reality brings with it, across the whole spectrum of our work and responsibilities –from recruitment and retention all the way to results? How do we, as senior public servants, navigate these potential contradictions?

    As much as I like the passage cited above, I REALLY like what follows next. Briefly, in speaking to Forum participants about the state of affairs in the public service, a former deputy minister, Mr. Harry Swain, began with a review of past challenges the public service has overcome and put the current challenges into perspective by highlighting that the pendulum of change tends to swing from left to right in response to many factors and forces occurring in our environment. As is clear from the following excerpt from Mr. Swain’s speech, his thesis to participants was that the strength of the institution flows from the extent to which all members work together to nudge the pendulum back to the centre.

    The pendulum will swing. Your job is to nudge it along.

    Increasingly your success at delivering results will depend on people you have to persuade, rather than direct. This is a normal, well-known phenomenon that has been creeping up on us for half a century now. Most of you are rather good at it. Now you will just have a few more people in that circle who need to become as imbued with the same urgency you feel for your program and your clients.

    This is another way of saying that how you do the job is as important as the results; but by this I don’t mean being slavish about foolish rules. I mean something deeper. You are the leaders of the public service, and some of the most important leaders in the whole country. Your behavior, your comportment, your visible commitment to civility, probity and fairness are critically important.

    Sooooo what’s it all mean? What’s this got to do with the May 1st post and the paragraph cited above? In a nutshell, I agree with everything conveyed, therein. The more quickly government can get organized around expanding the venues and tools through which it reaches out to it’s constituent public—especially in times of crisis—the better off we’ll all be. Having said this, a few additional thoughts also pop in to my mind:

    1) Television and radio (the traditional and longstanding communications venues) continue to exist even with the introduction of Twitter and its fledgling predecessors (like Facebook and LinkedIn). Thus, some might suggest, and I would agree, that a lack of intense presence by government on social media tools is not tantamount to a total lack of communication in times of crisis. In fact, my personal hope would be that anyone who is tempted to feel stressed or frightened by commentaries they are seeing via social media tools will bear in mind the source of the information … in this regard, I’m reminded of the Tsunami wave buzz of a few years ago … if memory serves me correctly, knowledge that it was in fact a hoax took very little time to spread through the same networks of individuals who had, at first blush, believed it to be “true”. In short, if I’m looking for 100% reliable information, I make 100% sure that the source I go to is 100% trustworthy … all other information, I treat with what I like to call “skeptical interest” … in other words … “time will tell ”. With respect to the Swine Flu, I, myself, felt well informed by information available through regular newscasts and would have been shocked to find regular updates on Twitter given how very new Twitter is.

    2) This is NOT to suggest that Twitter and other social media tools would not be tremendously useful social engagement tools … quite the contrary. The more I learn, the more I like what I see … when I’m not completely and totally befuddled, that is . I’m including here a link that you shared in a tweet this past week because I REALLY like it … strikes me as a very innovative spin on Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This, no doubt, explains why it is entitled Maslow 2.0: A New Hierarchy of Needs for Collaboration. I know nothing of the source and, of course, some might say that the ideas put forward are flawed if the source is unknown and/or of unproven credibility. Here’s what I like about it:

    o The ideas themselves, of course … intriguing way, I think, of aligning technology to human behaviors and needs … “how to” harness the former to address the latter? That’s powerful stuff;
    o The author asks what people think … in essence, walking the talk/practicing what he preaches social-engagement-wise; and,
    o It strikes me as a very simple framework for harnessing the power of social media technology … in essence, bringing form/organic structure to social engagement … if so, that’s powerful stuff, indeed … !

    3) My third and final brain burp is more of a question than a statement in that I wonder whether the orchestrators and attendees of the ADM Forum mentioned above could have guessed—in their wildest dreams—that a mere 3.5 years after that Forum the challenges they were discussing that day would be compounded many times over by a veritable explosion of communication/social media tools? My guess is: hmmmm … NOT! I can certainly say that I never would have guessed that Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, etc. were just around the corner or that their mere emergence would create such a buzz. And yet, here we are … we’ve arrived …. Hmmm what to do …? I’m tempted to quote, here, one final time, from Mr. Swain’s speech (I like it A LOT!) and to point to something on the site …

    The pendulum will swing. Your job is to nudge it along.

    The reason I’m also tempted to point to the is that, I believe that, while this speech was delivered to ADM’s, it really applies to everyone. Part and parcel with “nudging the pendulum of change along” is celebrating and sharing successes along the way. I like that does just that: I, myself, was surprised at the number of entries from different departments that spoke to external to government use of wikis … that’s progress, for sure. True, that there are always opportunities for improvement; good, I think, that you provide a venue for tracking and celebrating these successes along the way.

    Thx a bunch, for that and for stimulating dialog on issues that matter so very much to public servants and to our clients.

  2. Thanks kathoco, your comments are always appreciated.