Is Twitter the New Telephone?

A Seattle resident recently tweeted the local police department to make a records request, just one event in a string of public devotion to the platform.

by / May 9, 2014

In 2014, Twitter is turning a profit for the first time, perhaps because people are starting to take the platform more seriously. It's a legitimate mode of communication for organizations seeking new employees; governments are archiving tweets alongside the rest of its public records; and now people are using it to make public records requests.

On April 29, Twitter user @sleepylemur contacted the Seattle Police Department via Twitter requesting an archive of each officer’s Twitter feed. Seattle Police Department runs a program called “Tweets by Beat” that allows the public to follow the arrests and leads of police officers throughout the city. The department is using Twitter as a kind of new age police blotter. Noticing gaps in the tweet history, @sleepylemur tweeted the Seattle Police Department:

The user was then instructed to follow traditional methods:

But the incident demonstrates the mindset of a new generation. It seemed reasonable to @sleepylemur to request information via Twitter -- a platform that was founded eight years ago, meaning there are young people alive today who have never lived in a world without Twitter. And in a few years, those people will be teenagers who will then become young adults -- who may expect organizations like the Seattle Police Department to conduct business using a platform they’ve known their entire lives.

Realistically @sleepylemur knows government isn't quite there yet. In an interview via Twitter, he said he didn't expect his public information request via Twitter to work, necessarily. "I expected they'd say, 'Get thee to a fax machine,'" he said, adding that the department does allow the official form to be emailed, so that's what he did.

As for whether Public Records Act requests via tweet is something agencies should start working toward? "If they support requests via email, why not Twitter?" he said. 

And it does make perfect sense for governments to embrace Twitter, because it’s an established platform of communication that people know how to use, said Anil Chawla, founder and CEO of ArchiveSocial – much like the telephone, Twitter is becoming a common, understandable and simple platform that can be used to reach anyone.

“I think social media has become a natural component of our lives,” Chawla said. “I think it speaks to how social media impacts government in general and why governments need to embrace social media and be active on it. It’s because it’s where citizens are and it’s what’s most convenient for them."

One of the best examples of this, he said, is cities like San Francisco, New York and Kansas City integrating Twitter with their 311 help center.

"It used to be a pain, where you’d have to go back to a computer and find the website for the city, find the right number, find the right form, and not many people would do that," Chawla said. "But now that it’s just a Twitter feed, if I know there’s a problem, I can just tweet to them -- and that’s completely natural way for us to operate in this day and age.”

Colin Wood former staff writer

Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.

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