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Web 2.0 Challenges Traditional Government Communications

Internet news sources reduce government's ability to shape public's view of events.

TLDNR - If you're over 20 years old, you probably have no idea what this means. It's an acronym for "too long, did not read," and text messaging users type it to describe most of the information that comes from traditional news sources. These young people want their information now, and they often want it in clusters of no more than 140 words.

Moreover, people under 20 generally don't get their news from daily newspapers or TV stations, not even from AM or FM radio. If they're interested in what's happening, they find out from Google, Yahoo, YouTube and other service providers.

Such services, often lumped together descriptively in the Web 2.0 category, are causing a revolution in the news business as the Internet increasingly becomes the delivery platform for news of all types. This has tremendous ramifications for government operations and government communication with citizens.

Let's look at a couple of examples. In the current Afghanistan war, we see a coalition of Western NATO nations pitted against terrorists who have been described as "cave dwellers." NATO Secretary General Jaap de Hoop Scheffer said, "The NATO coalition in Afghanistan is in the Stone Age when it comes to many aspects of using the media effectively to tell its story."

In support of Scheffer's statement, NATO Spokesman James Appathurai said, "NATO is beating the Taliban on the battlefield, but they are kicking our asses every single day in the media. They have Web sites, we don't; they release footage instantly, we take weeks."

When an incident happens in Afghanistan, the Taliban uploads a story immediately to YouTube and Al-Jazeera. NATO goes through a ponderous approval process that takes weeks - by that time the Taliban has won the media battle.

Isn't it interesting that "cave dwellers" are beating the world's most advanced nations by using the new media so effectively?

The Innovators
Innovative communicators have long recognized the need to get their messages out using the new technology. While The New York Times and The Washington Post struggle with falling circulation and loss of advertisers, new communicators are moving ahead in leaps and bounds.

One such innovator is, a user-generated social news Web site. The company is based in Vancouver, British Columbia, and was founded by Michael Tippett, Leonard Brody and Michael Meyers in 2005. In addition to user-contributed content, NowPublic has a content-sharing agreement with The Associated Press. Time magazine named NowPublic one of the top 50 Web sites of 2007.

Let's look at another: is a Web site for people to discover and share Internet content by submitting, voting and commenting on links and stories in a social and democratic spirit.

Voting stories up and down - called digging and burying - is the site's cornerstone function. Many stories are submitted every day, but only the most-dugg ones appear on the front page. Digg's popularity has prompted the creation of other social networking sites that feature story submission and a voting system.

The Huffington Post, three years old, was founded by author Arianna Huffington and has 4.7 million unique visitors per month. HuffPo was ranked as the most influential blog in the world by The Guardian.

Search engines such as Google and Yahoo have fundamentally altered how we seek out information; if you want to know something about a person, you "google" him or her.

Wikipedia is a free, multilingual encyclopedia project operated by the U.S.-based Wikimedia Foundation. Its name is a portmanteau of the words "wiki" (a technology for creating collaborative Web sites) and "encyclopedia." It's currently the fastest-growing and most-popular general reference on the Internet. It has become a main source for many young people when they want background information on a person, event or happening.

YouTube is now being used as a crime-fighting tool by police agencies posting videos of criminal activities that have been captured by surveillance cameras. The results are astounding and successful. On one occasion, a video of a convenience store robbery was posted and by noon that day, it had generated 16,000 hits, resulting in the arrest of one of the holdup suspects.

Meanwhile, The Salvation Army recently used YouTube to advocate that young people donate their time and money. This campaign generated awareness and interest in The Salvation Army among a group who wouldn't have known about its services because they don't read daily newspapers or watch evening TV news.

The U.S. Army uses the Internet as a recruiting tool with its amazingly successful game, America's Army, a virtual Web-based environment in which players can explore Army career opportunities and discuss military-related topics. Literally thousands of young Americans serving today in the military had their first exposure to the Army through this medium.

In Vancouver, the city police department created a virtual-life site as part of its recruiting campaign to hire "cyber-cops." It successfully attracted young men and women to the possibility of a career in policing who wouldn't have been interested in the traditional methods of going to job fairs with a booth, some pamphlets and uniformed personnel.

Print journalism is also adapting to this new media reality. Major newspapers nationwide now advertise their Web sites as the go-to place for up-to-date information. While papers still have printing and distribution deadlines, they're striving to use the new media to stay on top of stories. Citizens are encouraged to submit pictures, written reports and become "i-reporters" - Internet reporters - for papers. Columnists and beat reporters have blogs so they can stay in touch with their reading public.

Major TV networks are actively seeking viewers to serve as i-reporters. CNN now gives the i-reporter's name in the story and has developed a distinctive i-reporters logo to use with the TV clip. Extensive advertising has showed viewers how to upload pictures and videos so they can become network news reporters.


News is Now
Videophones let citizen reporters provide information from an incident before first responders are on scene and perimeters are established. Photos and videos now stream to YouTube in real time. There are no editors to decide what should be seen; images from around the world beam into homes without regard for media deadlines - news is now.

For example, the first images the world saw of the 2005 London train bombings, carried out by homegrown terrorists, came from the cell phones of train passengers. These pictures were uploaded to CNN, and within minutes the world was viewing raw images.

It's important to note that in 2005 - only three short years ago - many cell phones didn't have video capability. Now cell phones have several minutes of color video with sound. This is another example of how fast the technology is changing.

Last August, a hot air balloon basket caught on fire as it was lifting off from a community airport. An eyewitness had his videophone at the scene and uploaded the tragedy to YouTube in real time. The local police received a call from a citizen at home, who was checking YouTube, and he advised them about the tragic situation that was unfolding. This was the first information the police had about what was happening. Within four minutes of the fire, there was YouTube video of it.

We've already seen struggles between law enforcement officers and citizens, captured on videophones, in which the video story may differ significantly from the official police version that was first released before the citizen-video appeared. While this may make enforcement agencies more accountable, it's noteworthy that the video imagery

is only capturing one point of view.

Social networking sites like Facebook have revolutionized the way young people communicate. They text message all day, but when they want to tell their friends about forthcoming events, places they've been and what they've done, they post videos, photographs and text descriptions on their Facebook pages.

BlackBerrys not only send and receive e-mail, but also transmit pictures and videos, which are being used in innovative ways. The Chicago Fire Department has the floor plans for 12,000 buildings on its BlackBerrys. When trucks arrive at an address, they can find out how to enter and exit the building without going in blind.

Caution Ahead
What does this tell us as local and state governments?

First, we must recognize that there's some inherent danger in all this. We may digitally fissure our culture into so many personal and professional demographic silos that there will be no "norm."

We could drift apart even more from the people right next to us; we need a balanced approach to communications. However, if we rely on traditional media to tell the public what's happening during a crisis, it may be too late. We must use the new media more effectively or we may become irrelevant in getting our messages out.

We must set up our communications programs, becoming innovative i-communicators, so that we aren't outpaced by citizen reports, and so communications that are vital to citizens don't get lost as too little too late. Governments can't control the public's view of incidents the way they once did as the official voice of authority. But if governments don't embrace Web 2.0 technologies, their authority will continue to erode as youngsters become adults. Remember, in times of uncertainty, there are eight fundamental communication needs people seek from their state and local governments:

  • what's really happening;
  • how it will affect them;
  • what the government is doing;
  • what citizens need to do;
  • specific and detailed instructions - keep it simple;
  • when things will return to normal;
  • messages of reassurance - no blame; and
  • hearing from voices of authority they can trust.
As local-level government officials, with a wide range of responsibilities both every day and during all sorts of disasters or crises, your job is to ensure you answer these fundamental needs quickly by using the most effective new media to maintain your credibility.