Sunday, May 1, 2011

U.S Air Force takes social media seriously, and for good reason

The United States Air Force take social media seriously.

So seriously the Air Force Public Affairs Agency has devised a 'Posting Response Assessment' to assist those contemplating commenting on people's blogs.

The flowchart looks like something straight out of a personality test found in Girlfriend magazine. Are you a morning person? If yes, progress to the question on the right, if no, answer the question on the left.

It is quite quaint and considered, and recognises the various things that motivate people to comment on news sites and blogs.


Beyond supplying colourful posters that Airmen and women can pin up on their computer desks, the U.S Air Force have gone one step further.

They have created a new role, Chief of Emerging Technology, whose responsibility is to develop effective communication strategies to engage Airmen and women and the general public in meaningful and informed conversation.

One such strategy has been "counter-blogging," where defense personnel counter negative opinions about the US government and the air force in the blogosphere by relaying their own experiences on the field.

The Royal Australian Air Force has an internet presence as well, with Twitter accounts, YouTube channels and RSS feeds, but I think the USAF's 'commenters guide' takes the cake.

As much as you could joke about government's being clued on to trolls (despite how much trolls seemingly take pride in the belief other people are oblivious to their stupidity), I think active online engagement with the general public is an essential communication strategy for government departments in the current digital environment.

More and more people are flocking to the internet to have their opinion heard as engagement structures within political parties whittle away.

Yet despite this glorified re-birth of the public sphere via digital information technologies, there has been much scholarly criticism of the poor quality of debate online.

John Downey in "Participation and/or Deliberation? The Internet as a Tool for Achieving Radical Democratic Aims" notes that more often than not, people seek out and find comfort in online communities who toe a similar line to them.

In these instances, the quality of debate and range of views presented is significantly low.

Scholars Van Alstyne and Erick Brynjolfsson go so far as to label this activity in the blogosphere as a cyberbalkanisation, where individuals glue themselves into electronic enclaves that reflect their initial preferences and find confirmation of their beliefs.

This is arguably just as unhealthy for democracy as the often bipartisan bias you find in the mainstream media.

The USAF's strategy for emerging communications is an important one.

By directly engaging with the community in online forums and blogs, official government bodies can cut through the stuffy rigmarole of their PR departments.

In doing so they not only give defense personnel the opportunity to create a little transparency in what they do and quell persistent unfounded rumours, but, perhaps most importantly, they actively educate the general public.

People don't want to be spoken 'down' to by high and mighty government departments. Instead, messages have a greater chance of hitting their mark if they are delivered in a more personal and relatable way.

Read more about the theories of online engagement here:
Downey, John (2007). "Participant and/or deliberation? The internet as a tool for achieving radical democratic aims," in Dahlberg and Siapera (eds) Radical Democracy and the Internet: Interrogating Theory and Practice. Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan.

Brynjolfsson, Erik, and Marshall van Alstyne (2005). "Global Village or Cyber-Balkans? Modelling and Measuring the Integration of Electronic Communities," Management Science, 51(6). Pp.851-868.

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