Federal government and large enterprise communication managers alike are pulling their hair out. One of the most sensible strategies for communicating to an audience, whether they be customers or constituents, is to speak where they are listening. With Web 2.0 sites now clearly out of the “quirky trend” phase and moving into mainstream adoption it is becoming important for all serious communicators to establish a presence in places like YouTube, the bloggosphere, iTunes, etc etc. More and more people are using the sites like this as primary sources of information. No one feels like they have the first clue how to both use these sites to reach their growing audience and also follow the best practice methods that are enforced upon federal websites.
One of the things that gives federal government content managers the biggest migraines when planning for using this new media is that on 3rd party sites they do not control the whole page. Is it really appropriate for a federal agency to disseminate information in a YouTube video when the rest of the page is going to have god knows what on it?
Look at a YouTube page that an agency might use to post some information. They are allowed to control:
- The video itself
- The About This Video section
- The More From section
Places on the Page that they can’t control abound.
- Comments – There is no telling what will wind up here. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture how these could turn south in a hurry.
- Related Videos – This is controlled by a search algorithm and not a human eye. Anything could potentially wind up here.
- Featured Videos – Safer but still problematic.
- Next up: Ads – As big a jackpot as comments. Would it really be a good thing for agency data to be laid out next to an ad for a political campaign?
Does the fact that any use of a 3rd party medium like YouTube threatens to place an official communication next to inappropriate material mean that the site is a no go? I think that the answer to that question depends on how much you understand about Web 2.0.
To a more traditional content manager the rules are absolute. The guidance that demands exactly what can and cannot appear on a .gov domain are not simply “good ideas” but best practice methods backed up by laws. For the last 10 years violating these rules gets you fired or lands your department in a story on the cover of the Post. Therefore the math is simple: if we can’t control what’s on a web page, we don’t use it.
However, if you are someone that is familiar with how these sites function you will not be nearly as alarmed. These sites have a transparency of process. People understand that on this particular site when you submit a video that you are responsible for the video alone. The rest of the contents of the page are not generated or controlled by you but rather by the program running the site.
Understanding the difference really gets at how well someone understands the difference between Web 1.0 and Web 2.0. Web 1.0 sites are static documents that are laid out like print material and then zipped down a series of tubes to a web browser. Web 2.0 sites don’t contain documents at all, they are applications. They take a piece of data form one place and combined it with data from another place, and then mash it together in a predetermined way to output to a web browser. Visitors to YouTube intuitively grasp that “predetermined way” even if it is in a non-technical sense. They know who was responsible for what.
Web 2.0 aside, there is a place that official government communications appear thousands of times a day next to what content managers would deem horribly inappropriate material: they are called newspapers. If some government authority is interviewed in an article in the New York Times only to be followed by someone disagreeing with them by telling a whole different story and the entire article appears next to an add for a political campaign… no one objects.
It’s because the process of the newspaper is transparent to its audience. They understand how the newspaper functions: a reporter got a quote from a fed communicating to the public, got a quote from someone who disagreed, and then wrote an article that was placed on a page wherever the newspaper felt like putting it. The audience will hold the agency responsible for what they know to be the only thing that the agency contributed: the quote from the fed.
True, not nearly as many people intuitively understand the functioning of YouTube as well as they do that of the Times, but they will. There can’t be many serious arguments left that would say that some version of user generated content won’t be an increasing primary source of information for people. At the end of the day not even close to all data will be apropriate to be shared in contexts where people can comment – but that really gets at the question whether you want to talk “to” the public or “at” them. If you want to talk where people are listening – come to terms with using these sites, help educate the rest of the public about how these sites work, and throw up some disclaimers in the mean time.