memo released yesterday, the White House made it significantly easier for federal agencies to use everything from social networks to online forums. But with the newfound freedom comes a surprising caveat: User ratings and rankings on those services, the new guidelines warn, "should not be used as the basis for policy or planning."In a
In other words, a million Americans can Digg or retweet an important blog post, but government officials shouldn't use that popularity as an indicator of the post's value.
That's not always a bad thing considering that a dedicated group of like-minded people can game a casual voting system. But the voice of a social network corresponds to real people in the real world. A recent study, for instance, found that Twitter chatter accurately forecasts box-office revenues.
As a whole, the new guidelines [PDF] were sorely needed. Social media and other online activities fell under a law that arduously dictates how agencies handle written materials. Under the new guidelines, online activities are now considered a "public meeting," which gives agencies much more freedom to blog, hold virtual meetings or even run contests.
That freedom comes with a stipulation. The memo was written by the White House's Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs administrator, Cass Sunstein. In it he explains that agencies should "exercise good judgment and caution when using rankings, ratings, or tagging" because they aren't "statistically generalizable."
That's true, but it doesn't mean they're worthless. John Zogby, founder of polling firm Zogby International, told us last year that if you keep in mind that social networks don't necessarily represent the entire scope of the American people, then the data from them has "tremendous, tremendous value."
At least 66% of all federal, state and local governments now use social media. It's still early in the current midterm election cycle, but candidates are already investing heavily in social media; Facebook, Twitter and YouTube are the rule, not the exception.
Those candidates will take their online communities with them to Washington when elected. Where else would they expect to get input on public policy than from that same community of voices?
Photo by Dominik Gwarek.