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Real LIfe Meets Virtual Life (Opinion)

Physical and virtual activities are closely intertwined for many citizens, so government is taking up more social media.

Last month, I was reminded how firmly social media has woven itself into the fabric of our society. I was in a group of prospective jurors for a criminal case in the Sacramento County Superior Court. The judge warned us that, if chosen for the jury, we were not to tweet or post to Facebook any information revealed during the trial.

About the same time I was in that Sacramento courtroom, The Boston Globe reported on a Massachusetts Appeals Court ruling that said trial judges need to ensure jurors understand that the standard warning against discussing court testimony with outsiders also applies to information sharing via social media. It seems that for many people, tweeting or posting events of their daily lives — including jury service — have become so automatic that they don’t even realize they’re violating court rules.

“Jurors must separate and insulate their jury service from their digital lives,” said the appeals court, ruling in a case where jurors commented on Facebook during a trial.

I wasn’t selected for the jury, but the experience made me think. While courts necessarily are trying to separate jurors’ real lives and digital lives, other areas of government are adapting to the idea that physical and virtual activities are closely intertwined for many citizens. Recently I interviewed state and local IT officials on social media’s future, and a few things stood out.

San Francisco CIO Jon Walton said social media — particularly the city’s popular 311 Facebook app — has become a key channel for citizen service requests. “Most people in San Francisco are logged into their Facebook account 24/7, and that’s how they want to interact with us,” he said.

And in Utah, social media channels are challenging the dominance of email for citizen-to-government communication, said Bob Woolley, the state’s chief technical architect. “Right now we aggregate nearly 2,000 social media feeds into our state portal, and those seem to be things that get a lot of traction — YouTube, Flickr, Twitter, Facebook. Those seem to be things that are speaking to our audience, so they’re important to us.”

Survey data from GovTech Exchange, our online community of senior-level state and local IT professionals, also shows that social media is making inroads in government offices. Almost 60 percent of respondents said their agency permits use of LinkedIn at work; 45 percent allow YouTube and Facebook usage; and 41 permit use of Twitter. Opinions were mixed, however, on social media’s usefulness. Nearly 60 percent of respondents rated social media as somewhat to very useful, while 32 percent said it’s not very useful or not useful at all.

The latter piece of data probably reflects the reality that governments are still figuring out how to apply social media to central tasks like delivering services and improving outcomes. But that’s OK; we’re getting there.


Miriam Jones is a former chief copy editor of Government Technology, Governing, Public CIO and Emergency Management magazines.
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