Twitter takes wing
Feds discover that short messages can have an unexpected reach
When Veronica McGregor, manager of the NASA Jet Propulsion Laboratory's news office, signed up for a Twitter account to send dispatches on behalf of the JPL's Mars Phoenix Lander mission, she thought the blogging service might attract a few hundred followers. Though the audience would be small, she reasoned that issuing progress reports on Twitter might be worthwhile, and because the text messages had to be short, it would only take a few minutes each day.
“We didn't think it would take a lot of time to do," McGregor said. Twitter seemed simple enough and since she was head of the office, she could write the dispatches herself.
What she didn’t count on was the account’s popularity. It attracted more than 41,000 followers. It also ended up becoming a major educational conduit for explaining the mission and interacting with the public.
At first glance, Twitter’s so-called microblogging service, which started in 2006, seems like a curious, if minor, convenience. You sign up on a Web page for the ability to send short messages to other users who subscribe to the service. Twitter limits the length of messages to 140 characters or less and can include hyperlinks to Web pages. Users can read the messages on a Web site or opt to receive them on a cell phone.
But this simple conduit has become a platform for a lot of conversation. According to a survey by research firm CommStat, almost 10 million people were using Twitter’s service as of February. Although 10 million is still small potatoes compared to, say, Facebook's nation of 200 million users, the number of Twitter users has increased 700 percent from a year ago, included a variety of high profile users in government, business and media.
NASA has historically looked for effective ways to communicate its discoveries about space and is known for embracng new forms of media. The Phoenix mission provided plenty of new material. Since landing on Mars in May 2008, the expeditionary vehicle has sent back 25,000 images and other scientific data. Previously, the news office had tapped its scientists to write blog entries that describe various missions, but the idea proved to be time-consuming. Twitter’s service emerged as a natural alternative.
"We thought we were going to just push information out to Twitter,” McGregor said. Instead, “we ended up having a fantastic dialogue with people who had questions about the mission. It really evolved as we discovered there was an audience out there."
Twitter occupies a new, and perhaps essential, space in electronic communications. It is used for short text messages, much like cellular phone messaging, instant messaging, chat rooms and Internet Relay Chat. But the messages are not limited to selected individuals. It goes to anyone who is interested on the assumption that sometimes the information you convey might be of interest to other parties. Except for the messages in those accounts set to private, anyone can find anybody else's messages by searching through Twitter.
Much like using mailing lists, users can gather to discuss topics of shared interest. But Twitter is looser than mailing lists. You don't have to join a subject group, for instance. Rather, you simply append your message's keywords with the appropriate hash tag (#), and other people who are interested in that subject follow the hash tag. You can also send messages directly to another person, either privately or in public. To send in public, you simply put a "@" prefix in front of their Twitter handle.
Although the limited character count of messages, or tweets as they are called, might seem short, it offers users the ability to send concise, timely statements. The Twitter feed for Phoenix Lander, which lasted 152 days, provided more than 600 updates during the vehicle's mission.
"Temps this week hovering around -40C/-40F (the high) and -95C/-139F (the overnight low)," read a typical update, answering a question submitted by another Twitter user.
McGregor found it helpful to save space in the messages by phrasing the Lander tweets as if they were coming from the vehicle, starting messages with "I" rather than the much-lengthier "Phoenix is." She wondered if people might think anthropomorphizing a space vehicle would seem silly, but followers of the feed seemed to embrace the approach, based on their replies.
However, McGregor also discovered that despite Twitter's ease of use, it also could take up a lot of time. A single Twitter post could lead to a dozen or more comments or questions that often needed answers.
Nonetheless, the messages proved to be an important part of the mission’s success, McGregor said. Some of the questions involved technical aspects of the mission that the office's press releases wouldn't routinely cover, for instance. Other questions came in from grade school children.
"Because we were able to answer their questions, I think it really made them think about what our missions are doing," McGregor said. "It was nice to be able to reach these different audiences instead of putting out the same old style of information day after day."
It didn’t take long for NASA to grasp the lesson of Twitter: It offered an engaging way to help spread the word about the agency’s work. The agency has set up more than two-dozen Twitter feeds for other missions and aspects of the agency. To view them, go to www.nasa.gov/collaborate/index.html.
"The minute we started replying to individual people on Twitter, [participation] exploded," McGregor said. "That was the key moment for it."
NASA not alone
Who else tweets in government? A surprising number of folks, it turns out, and they are using it for all sorts of reasons.
Agencies that must communicate with the public are finding, as NASA has, that Twitter can be a valuable way to get the word out. The National Institutes of Health has begun posting health-related dispatches on Twitter. The U.S. Geological Survey has used the service to post earthquake and tsunami warnings. And the Food and Drug Administration is using the tool to post updates on food recalls.
Perhaps more importantly, government workers are using it as a way to trade ideas and thoughts about improving government. As long as it can be stated in 140 or fewer characters, it can be added into the ever-flowing stream of tweets that define the day.
Bev Godwin, director of USA.gov and the White House's new-media guru, used the format to report on some of the sessions at the recent Government 2.0 Camp. NASA astronaut Mike Massimino is chronicling his training for the fifth and final space shuttle Atlantis mission to service the Hubble Space Telescope, according to NASA. And Dan Mintz, former chief information officer of the Transportation Department, is a dedicated observer of all things tech through his feed.
Congress has taken to tweeting in a major way, with 19 senators and 50 members of the House using the service. Two volunteer-run sites, the Congressional 140 site and TweetCongress, capture the latest posts from all these elected officials.
Last fall, seeing a growing number of individuals from the federal community Twittering, BearingPoint public relations executive Steve Lunceford started a directory, called GovTwit, of their Twitter names and affiliations.
"It took me a little convincing to see that people were using this for a little more than 'I just ate a hot dog.' But once I started using Twitter, I found some really interesting folks to start following," he said. There were "a number of rich conversations going on in the government space."
The page debuted with 150 names. Now it has more than 1,000.
Agency public affairs departments have taken to using Twitter to spread public announcements, though the service is also frequently used by individuals within an agency, too. "They are not always speaking on behalf of their agency, [but] they are still having a lot of meaningful conversations," Lunceford said.
"You have some really valuable conversations — we did this at our agency, and here is how we crossed this barrier — those types of conversations are very valuable," Lunceford said.
Steve Ressler, who runs the popular GovLoop government-oriented social-networking site (see page 30), has found that an increasing number of GovLoop members are using Twitter to talk about their activities.
While the federal community is excited about this new form of communication, information technology managers might want to start thinking about the long-term use of this technology.
Evan Prodromou, head of microblogging platform vendor Control Yourself, likens the state of social-networking applications, such as MySpace or Twitter, to the early days of the commercial Internet services, such as CompuServe and America Online. These are fiefdoms in which data you submit to the system becomes controlled by the system.
Though Twitter is important in the way that it has attracted a large community, it is also problematic for official use, and not only because of its history of system downtime. Its reliability as a long-term business platform is still unclear. Twitter’s operation is being fueled with venture capital money, and the service has not made clear how it plans to make money. That hasn’t always been an obstacle for online start-ups. But whether Twitter can capitalize on its popularity the way AOL did in the mid-1990s remains to be seen.
In the meantime, Prodromou notes that, for agencies, Twitter is best for "light public relations" and other interactions with the public, such as feedback and polling. Twitter is where the people are gathering, and the government needs to be in that place, he said.
For other communication uses, such as project management or internal communications, the use of Twitter could be more troublesome, he warned. Twitter makes no guarantees to deliver a message within a set period of time. The service also can't guarantee that messages would be archived or that unwanted parties won't be able to view messages. The ability to search the feeds or carve the streams into specialized usages would be limited, too.
Eventually, agencies might start thinking about running private, internal Twitter-like microblogging services. Already, packages are popping up that allow organizations to do this, including Yammer, Present.ly and Prodromou's own Laconica.
Laconica resembles Twitter, except that it can be run on an internal network. Based on the open-source LAMP stack — Linux, Apache, MySql and PHP — it should be fairly easy for any Unix-savvy administrator to set up. For those organizations wishing to try it without installation, Control Yourself will unveil next month a hosted service, called Status.net.
The company also has spearheaded a new standard OpenMicroBlogging, which would allow microblogging platforms to share information such as updates and friend lists. To some extent, Twitter offers these capabilities through its application program interfaces, but the goal of OpenMicroBlogging is to make the format as open as, say, e-mail.
Deploying Laconica within an enterprise can help employees from different parts of the organization share information, Prodromou said. The software can partition different user groups for collaboration or encourage users to communicate with the public — or others within an organization.
Organizations can also set up conduits to personnel at other organizations running their own microblogging services.
However, Twitter and microblogging services like it are creating whole new online communities that defy traditional organizational boundaries.
"It is up to IT managers and decision-makers within the government to make long-term plans of how to participate in their networks, rather than what is happening down the road," Prodromou said.