Last week I had the pleasure to read this new study, Social Software and National Security: An Initial Net Assessment, by Mark Drapeau and Linton Wells II from the National Defense University. It was refreshing to see such clear headed thinking on these topics. What's more useful is that while some of the information was government oriented much of the assessment applies to non-government use.
The study is a bit Twitter heavy on the examples, however, an interesting pattern emerged. In most examples Twitter was the primary tool for situational awareness and communications, followed by the use of visual media (photos or video) as supporting material. The other parts of the social network, profiles, chatting, blogs, etc. became secondary tools for more in-depth collaboration and coordination, but in general microblogging ruled the examples.
I think one item that wasn't stressed enough in this study is the need to get Identity right early on. This is especially true for government where administrations and posts change so rapidly, but in general it's a big concern with social software overall. In the social world who am I? Karen Hobert of Boston University, Karen Hobert of Top Dog, or Karen Hobert? In general, social software revolves around identity and a user profile. If I move from one position to another I am still Karen Hobert and would want to take my identity with me for many reasons such as reputation, login consistency, and maintaining my social network. Yet many social solutions are being built as grassroots efforts creating walled identity gardens that don't allow users to take their identity with them.
I went through an "identity crisis" when I left my last company. For many sites I couldn't reuse my login since it was tied to a dead email address so I had to create a new login (not easy in some cases), obliterating all my previous social network and work. In some cases that's good - like a corporate network - but in more public networks it's resource intensive and defeats the whole purpose of joining a social network in the first place.
Another interesting facet of social software was highlighted in some of the examples, that is how social software disrupts the middle management of hierarchies. Many middle managers serve as go-betweens disseminating information to and from the ranks and the upper management. It can be a powerful job acting as a filter and a buffer of information. I’ve found that many in middle management fear social tools since they reduce the barriers of communications and collaboration. Some managers have gone so far as to deliberately prevent use of tools because it waters down their power. I imagine this would be a problem for government, especially when it comes to rigidly hierarchical groups like the Department of Defense. Yet it also seems from the examples, that breaking some of those barriers (with safety in mind) has proven extremely helpful.
Which brings me to the one of the most realistic points of the report; government workers will use social software no matter what. Why? Because social software exists in the commercial world and they like using it, especially since it comes at such a low transaction cost. This spins the technology development equation on it's head compared to how things operated in the 20th century. Until now the USG has been accustomed to buying proprietary systems to support their IT needs, usually because nothing else existed. Today we're in a post-military industrial complex where commercial off-the-shelf solutions supersede proprietary solutions not just because they are more cost effective but that they inter-operate with other systems using standard technologies. This is a powerful paradigm shift that is still being worked out in Washington, D.C.. At least now there's some more awareness of the benefits of this change.