Social media in government is like riding a bike

When my son turned three, we got him a bike with training wheels. He did quite well, but when it came time to take off those training wheels, he violently refused. Even a three year-old knew that going from four wheels down to two would increase his chances of falling from zero to incredibly high. That’s because training wheels aren’t actually training wheels. They’re impeding wheels. They rob you of the chance to learn balance, which is the most important lesson in riding a bike. It doesn’t matter how good you can pedal or steer, you have little chance of success if you can’t balance.

So, my genius wife had the idea of getting a small bike with no pedals. You push off and glide along, then plant your feet when it gets too wobbly. Since it was low to the ground, my three year-old had no fear trying it out, and by the third day, was very proficient at gliding. He learned how to balance. Shortly after, we got him on a real bike without training wheels, and he took off like he’s been riding all along.

Why do I tell this story? Because I think government can greatly benefit from a “small glider bike” when first taking on social media. Too many agencies are reluctant to try not just because they’re afraid of falling, but because some mistakes lead to severe consequences.

So why not deploy a “transition” tool so the agency can learn how to “balance” before going public? Experiment privately within your agency; don’t open it up until you figure out how to ride proficiently.

Both Twitter and Facebook have settings to create private accounts/groups. Invite your agency (try getting as many people as you can, especially your skeptics) to participate and learn how to leverage these tools to add value to your customers. There are so many facets that take time to balance, such as:

  • frequency of posts
  • tone of content
  • when to respond to inquiries
  • when to delete a comment
  • how much time to spend monitoring
  • what types of information add value
  • when to use multimedia
  • how to minimize unintended consequences
  • how to write in 140 characters (short messages apply to Facebook as well)
  • when to promote other resources
  • how to train your personnel

And on and on. Yes, it’s okay to stumble sometimes, and chances are you will make mistakes. But you can cheat the learning curve by stumbling privately and finding that balance before you go public.

About Jon Lee

Trying to put the GO in eGOV for the Texas Department of Information Resources. Background in Sociology from UC Berkeley and Technology Management from University of Texas, Austin. Grew up outside of Los Angeles, lived in the Bay Area for a few years, and now a naturalized Texan, without the boots and gigantic eagle belt buckle. Connect with Jon on Twitter and his blog.

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