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Who tweets in government?

It's official: Twitter has made it to the top ranks of government. Yesterday, the head of the U.S. Armed Forces, Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, started tweeting.

According to a survey by research firm CommStat, almost 10 million people were using the microblogging service as of February. While 10 million is still small potatoes compared to, say, Facebook's small nation of 200 million users, Twitter's increase in users is quite impressive, up 700 percent from a year ago.

Moreover, "Tweeting" is not just something that the kids are doing: The majority of Twitter users are older than 35.

Who tweets in government? A surprising number of folks, and they are using it for all sorts of reasons. As part of its Twitter Grader service, marketing firm HubSpot compiles the numbers of Twitter users in major cities around the globe. If these stats are accurate, D.C. seems to be catching on to the phenomenon, right behind the digerati in other tech-savvy cities such as London, San Francisco, and Austin, Texas.

"We never thought we'd say this, but some of the best and most innovative new media experiments going on right now on the Internet are coming from the U.S. federal government," Business Insider's Silicon Valley Insider blog gushed not too long ago.

We suspect that Mullen himself will not be tweeting his deepest, darkest middle-of-the-night worries about, say, Iran or North Korea. Thus far, his tweets seem to official announcements from the Joint Chiefs of Staff office. And, given Mullen's daily schedule (we understand he is touring India and Pakistan at the moment), we wouldn't be surprised if a ghostwriter may actually be posting them, a favored tactic among busy celebrities.

But official use works, too. The format is flexible enough that it can be used for a wide variety of communiqués — from the official to the personal. As long as it can be stated in 140 characters or less, it can be added into the ever-flowing stream of tweets that define the day.

The Defense Department is not the first agency to use Twitter. NASA's Jet Propulsion laboratory found the service a great way to provide updates on the Mars Rovers. More than 43,000 Twitter users have signed up for updates from @marsphoenix account. Elsewhere, the National Institutes of Health posts health-related dispatches. The U.S. Geological Survey posts earthquake and tsunami warnings, while the Food and Drug Administration posts updates on food recalls.

At the state and local level, the Los Angeles Fire Department posts updates about its calls on Twitter. Both the New York State office of the Chief Information Officer and the Utah State Library Digital Library Services post about the latest computer services that their states offer, to offer two examples.

Congress has taken to Tweeting in a major way, what with 19 senators and 50 members of the House of Representatives all using the service (two volunteer-run sites, Congressional 140 site and TweetCongress, capture the latest posts from all these elected officials).

Twitter is also used by government personnel as a way to explore and document their respective fields. Bev Godwin, the 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, the former the chief information officer of the Transportation Department, is a dedicated observer of all things tech through his feed.

And this is just the tip of the seemingly ever-growing iceberg. Bearing Point’s Steve Lunceford compiles a list of government Twitterers in government agencies and the government contracting community, called GovTwit. At last count, 1,060 names are on the list.

Steve Ressler, who runs the GovLoop government-oriented social networking site, started a discussion thread asking everyone to name their favorite government bloggers. Increasingly, conversations that used to take place by e-mail or around the water cooler are ending up on Twitter.

"The main source of most of our new traffic is from Twitter," Ressler commented in an interview with GCN affiliate publication Federal Computer Week.

Posted by Joab Jackson on Apr 09, 2009 at 9:39 AM


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