Is the government more social than the media?

The latest spate of Australian social media catastrophes has journalists worried, bystanders amused, and others questioning the benefit of Twitter in the great meta-narrative that is current affairs. From the dumping of former Age columnist Catherine Deveny to Miranda Devine’s gerbil-rogering rants, it’s understandable that these high-profile accidents have fellow colleague Helen Razer running for the hills.

IT journalism isn’t immune from these escapades either; we have had our share of those who find it irresistible to incite outrage via Twitter, or whose comments have simply been misunderstood. There are also those who have taken it upon themselves to describe the minutiae of daily journalistic life, even when under banner of their respective publication.

Why, then, are publications – the supposed bastions of open communication and discretion – so tight-lipped when it comes to social media? Sure, they all have a Twitter account and fan pages –Computerworld Australia unashamedly included – but, as a whole, we seem averse to the notion that we tear down the websites and paper behind which we hide, and communicate directly with the public.

It is almost ironic that journalists – the “Fourth Estate” and guardians against those of Parliament House – shut themselves in tighter than the members of government they are charged with guarding against.

While the Federal Government is easy to criticise when it comes to touchy topics like Internet filtering, it has arguably made great strides when it comes to being more open. It agreed to all but one of the recommendations made in the Government 2.0 report (having deferred one for later re-assessment) and, despite the lack of definite timeframes, we can already see some results.

The AGIMO blog is expected to be the first of many centrally hosted blogs for government agencies and departments to announce initiatives and communicate directly with the public. Better yet, comments are published directly without preliminary moderation; some publications can hardly argue the same. The blog has quickly become an open forum for public consultation and even direct communication between government agencies as to how they can better consolidate standard practices. 
Last week’s Budget was released under a Creative Commons BY license – a direct result of Government 2.0 initiatives – which effectively allows anyone to use the included data as they will, provided they attribute the source. 

Government departments have been relatively quick on the ball when it comes to social media policies too; both Immigration and Finance have rolled out overarching policies outlining proper use, and the Australian Communications and Media Authority (ACMA) has expressed keen interest to take part.

Of course, not all government-run social media plays are entirely successful; in fact, the worst example so far – the NBN Implementation Study wiki – was ironically set up by the Department of Broadband, Communications and the Digital Economy. However, several departments have made an honest attempt at cracking through the wall of bureaucracy to actually communicate with those who fund their salaries.

That’s more than can be said for the publications who pass off opinion pieces as “blogs” and RSS feeds as a Twitter account. Everything else must come under lock-and-key, away from the innovation and new technologies that will surely doom us all.

Computerworld Australia doesn’t claim innocence or naivety, but perhaps it’s time to take a leaf out of the government playbook, and actually have a crack at open communication.

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Jim Love, Chief Content Officer, IT World Canada

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