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Defense asks the public for help forming social media policy

How do you develop a policy for using social media in the Defense Department that balances security with the strongly held desire to communicate with a deployed family member?

The answer is simple, according to Jack Holt, senior strategist for new media in the Pentagon: Start a blog, the first one Defense has set up to discuss a major policy decision.

Holt said the Pentagon set up its Web 2.0 Guidance Forum last month to ensure Defense Secretary Robert Gates received a range of input from the public as he develops a new policy for use of social media sites and applications, such as Twitter and YouTube.

Analyzing the effects of social media is driven largely by security concerns in areas where the military is deployed and the potential risks posed by the sites, if, for example, troops post information that could be exploited by the enemy.

Defense must balance security concerns against the desire of deployed troops to use the sites to communicate with their families, said Steve Lunceford, a consultant with Deloitte in Mclean, Va., who specializes on the use of collaborative technologies in government. Social network sites help alleviate the family strain caused by deployments, said Lunceford, who also founded, which tracks government twitter users.

The Defense Web 2.0 Guidance Forum has solicited opinions from military families, and it will provide Gates with external feedback, Holt said. The forum is a pilot project developed under the Obama administration's open government initiative, he said.

Defense decided to launch the Web2.0 forum after Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn ordered a policy review of social media Web sites. The White House asked the public on Aug. 7 to submit ideas to the forum to develop policies for the "responsible and effective use of emerging Internet-based capabilities."

Lunceford said the Web 2.0 forum is a "new way to shape policy" and a focused use of one kind of technology -- blogs -- to frame the debate on the use of other technologies such as social networking tools.

Responses from the public are skewed against banning social network sites and point out their value in not only bolstering family communications but also advancing the image of Defense and military personnel worldwide.

One comment noted social network sites make "every soldier, sailor, marine, and airman a public affairs representative. . . . It will provide our perspective on the narrative of events instead of the often one-sided perspective provided by our would-be enemies (or in some cases, our enemies who quickly discount our actions as malicious in their public affairs campaigns)."

Another commenter urged Defense leadership to understand that dispersed families no longer communicate using e-mail, but rather social network sites. "I have a wife, a daughter, two parents, an aunt and several uncles who all communicate now through social networks," the commenter wrote. "In fact, I don't think we've used 'normal' e-mail in several years."

This commenter added, "For me, these tools go far beyond useful, although 'critical' is an awfully tough word to justify. One thing missing from e-mail is the humor and emotional content that is available on social networks.

"I am an avid Facebook user (not so much MySpace) and sometimes my daughter can see that I am thinking about her when I send her a 'gift' like a heart or a flower. Sure, they're just icons, but how old does 'I love ya' get?

"My wife has a very very hard time of dealing with my absence when I am deployed and e-mail helped, but it isn't the same as phone calls or some of the unique interactions you can get on Facebook, Flickr, or YouTube. A picture or funny message is worth more than a plain text e-mail any day!"

Gates will factor the comments into his decision on the use of social network sites, and Holt urged the public to continue to contribute to the forum until Aug. 20, when it will stop accepting comments.

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