Meet Alex Howard. He’s a journalist and Gov 2.0 correspondent for O’Reilly Media. We met a few years back at Steve Garfield‘s Boston Media Makers, and ever since, I’ve literally learned from Alex every day on Twitter. You can follow him to hear insights about the government and technology. You’ll learn about trends before they become such, and things you ought to – and probably will – read. Here are a few examples of follow-worthy tweets from Alex:
- Thank you, @rrichard09. I bought the Foreign Affairs with this @cshirky essay http://fam.ag/g0QfJ3 in (gasp) print last week.
- 1000+ people watching #PdFleaks livestream: http://t.co/cckXL8q @wikileaks has retweeted the link. Little Brother is watching.
- Delhi Police Use Facebook to Track Scofflaw Drivers http://nyti.ms/9eSdSO ”Cognitive Surplus at work”-@atul. #Gov20
- @bostonmarketer Sadly, I overwhelmed @apsinkus with volume. He said he transferred me to RSS, a shift I’ve heard from others, honestly.
- FYI: When I add PRT to the beginning of a tweet, it means it’s a Partial Retweet http://bit.ly/Ftomu | Important to signal modification, IMO
We spoke via email about his field and the ways he personally uses social networking.
1. In a recent talk (State of the Net Panel), you mentioned how U.S. policy for our own people may be different from what we are promoting in places like Tunisia. Can you elaborate those differences and their implications?
Good question, and a difficult one to answer. We’re in a dynamic historical moment, with respect to how quickly the traditional relationships between government institutions, citizens and media is changing because of disruptive technologies. The tools for publishing have been democratized and accessible to millions, from blogs to video to Twitter to mobile smartphones more powerful than early NASA computers.
The tension here, with respect to government, is that the same tools that enable distributed publishing, encryption or broadcasting that the State Department is supporting or funding for “Internet freedom” abroad under autocratic regimes can be used to gather and distribute information about the United States government that many in government do not wish to see made public. The motivations for those wishes vary from potential embarrassment to inefficiency to national security concerns. The State Department and Department of Defense have been challenged by that changing information environment, as the world knows well at this point.
The Obama administration made a statement about open government in 2009 by issuing an open government directive, which agencies have been working to address in the month since. At no point, however, have open government policies, pledges or support for connection technologies meant threatening national security or the radical transparency that some advocates urge.
That said, the default position has been towards over-classification or secrecy in many levels of government. There’s a middle ground here. Data or information that that shows fraud, incompetence, crime or proves otherwise embarrassing is naturally not something any institution wants to release. The challenge is the policy choices that United States federal, state and local government entities make with respect to open data, privacy, security or online identity can and will be seen by others around the world. If there is support for Internet freedom abroad, including protections or support for citizens sharing information about corruption or other malfeasance, that same policy should in theory apply within borders.
Every nation state has a strategic interest in controlling damaging information and exposing others. The issue is immensely complex and does not lend itself to easy analysis nor solutions. More thoughts on Wikileaks and open government here.
2. Citizens are becoming more influential through social networks and influencing their peers. Is this a good thing?
On the whole, yes. New research from Pew suggests that this is an important trend, with respect to our understanding of what it means to be a citizen and how our actions influence those of others. The role of the Internet as a platform for collective action is growing but the authorities that control the levers of power offline still matters immensely. Congress is using social media to talk, not listen. As Doyle McManus observed, considering the role of the Internet in the Tunisian revolution, “it’s nice to have Twitter, but it’s even nicer to have the army on your side.”
Revolutions aside, emerging research around how these new connections influence citizens is fascinating. The use and sophistication of these platforms is its infancy. If you look at emerging social media health trends, however, there are notable patterns around behavior, lifestyle and influence. Whether those trends extrapolate to more vibrant civil society or participatory democracy relies on much more than the social networks themselves. That means that digital and information literacy will become even more important, along with the evolving role of teachers and librarians in societies. The Knight Commission on the information needs of communities in a democracy drives home how difficult this issue is, given the massive disruption to traditional platforms for news. A crucial part of this story in the future will be founded in how communities collectively discover, share, filter and analyze social data.
3. Do you agree or disagree that geek culture online is being dismantled?
I disagree, although with caveats. There are many, many places online where geek culture is alive and thriving. Given that geeks build most of the most popular social platforms, the conventions of the culture are often literally coded into the conversation. What’s important to recognize here is that what used to be “geek” culture has been massively democratized. It’s no longer weird for someone to have a powerful smartphone, write online, upload video to the Web, meet a date online, watch Internet videos on a TV at home or play video games. These are the new norms. In many ways, it might be fair to say that we’ve met the geeks, and they have become us.
I asked Alex a few questions about his personal social media strategy. The word influencer is often overused, but it does apply to him. And I asked him to share his own strategies for engagement online.
4. Why did you decide to create an Alex Howard Facebook page? Good move?
When I created the page on Facebook to share my work, it was because I saw clear trends that supported the move, with respect to information consumption behavior and inbound traffic. I wanted to create a virtual space there where I could interact with readers without having to be their “friends.” I also didn’t want to overwhelm the friends I do have there with the volume my writing. So far, results from the move are a mixed bag. I’m extremely grateful to the 46 people who have “liked” the page, as it’s same to assume they really do want to keep track of what I’m working on. That said, I’m not catalyzing the level of engagement with the work I’d like to see. When you look at how a world-class journalist like Nick Kristof is using Facebook to report on Egypt, you can see how much further I have yet to grow!
5. How do you read? Do you use an RSS reader? Just read links shared links on Twitter? Are you constantly reading or do you set time to read?
We have a Kindle in the house, although I still prefer to read books and long form journalism in print, although I do read long articles on my laptop or iPhone using Instapaper.
How I read largely depends on the subject. For some topics, the Web is best. For, say, congressional testimony, that’s not always true. I still read a lot of books in print. Ditto magazines, especially the New Yorker, the Atlantic, the Economist or Foreign Affairs. I’ve shifted almost all of my ”newspapers” consumption to digital form, either on a tablet or laptop, though I still enjoy reading an entire Sunday paper in print over brunch.
I use Twitter to discover and share a lot of what matters to me professionally but still keep an eye on the journals that aren’t available online. I listen to the radio while I work as well. And yes, I still use an RSS reader to make sure that I never miss new content from certain sources.
6. Who are a few people whom you learn from on Twitter?
Look at who I’m following. I learn from all of them, plus my lists. Individually, I might include people like @MarcAmbinder, @SusannaFox, @TimOReilly, @SteveSilberman, @acarvin, @alexismadrigal, @BrainPicker, @MarkKnoller, @rmack, @ethanz, @mathewi, @JayRosen_NYU, @palafo, @TimOBrien, @NYT_JenPreston, @NiemenLab, @participatory, @louisgray, @evgenymorozov, @patrickmeier and @ahier, though I could list dozens of other people.
7. Do you have a favorite new social media tool or two you can recommend?
I’m trying out trunk.ly for links. I’m curious about pinboard.in. I’m now a fan of instagr.am.
8. Do you have a favorite historical moment that you shared on Twitter?
When my fiancee said yes to my proposal. Still the most retweeted tweet I’ve ever posted.
Make sure to connect with Alex (http://twitter.com/digiphile). I promise you you’ll learn something insightful!