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A View from the Inside — State Legislators and Social Networking

Last week I attended the National Conference of State Legislators spring meeting here in Washington, DC.  One of the panels was called “Social Networking 101”, and it was an interesting inside discussion centered on how legislatures and legislators are using Facebook, MySpace, Twitter and other social networking tools. Presenters were Sharon Crouch Steidel (Dir of IT for Virginia House of Delegates), Rep. Steve Harrelson from Arkansas, and Pam Greenberg of NCSL.

Rep. Harrelson described three main reasons for legislators to blog: (1) Immediacy – can get in front of the media story; (2) No filters – can tell the story how you want to, and can tell the whole story; (3) Transparency – tell constituents reasons for votes. His blog is amazingly complete.

According to Harrelson, his blog readers care more about politics, not policy issues. Reader traffic spikes when Harrelson talks about who was at what dinner/social event, or who is running for what seat, or committee maneuvering.  One consideration is whether to allow readers to comment and if so, do you censor? Harrelson does not censor, and wonders whether it would be unconstitutional for him to do so using a state computer on state time.

Speakers complained about a flood of email. Policymakers hate canned email and they hate it when they can’t tell if email is actually from a constituent. Legislators and IT directors struggle with how to use social media for effective dialogues, not just emails that say “I support HB 555” 30,000 times. They also want technology that forces users to input their addresses, so they can have constituent mail readily identified.

Virginia is moving toward the use of Wikis for current bills. For example, if a bill is tabled, the wiki will explain what this really means, and what can still happen in the future. The wiki will not allow for user generated content. Virginia is also considering a redesign of members’ webpages to link to a members personal blog or social network page, and to even allow constituent interaction on the members site itself.

I asked Harrelson if he’s used his blog or other media tools for specific bills or issues, not just general day-to-day interaction. He described how he and the majority leader helped whip up a supermajority vote in the House – his legislative colleagues read his blog too.

Apparently Utah is the most advanced state in terms of the number of members and the caucuses who use a variety of social networking sites. Ning is a site that can be useful because it allows users to create their own communities. Google Moderator is also beneficial as a forum for legislators to post questions or issues and allow users to vote on the most popular ones, that then rise to the top of ranking on the list/page.

– Braden Cox