From a Tweet to a Thunderclap

Latest social media site approved for government agencies suggests a new focus on advocacy.

Monday brought the newest addition to the list of social media sites approved for federal use: Thunderclap, a tool that claims to “amplify” Twitter campaigns by timing 100 or more tweets for simultaneous release.

Each Thunderclap campaign is started by a single user who schedules the tweets for release one or two weeks hence. The campaign organizer must then sign on enough co-tweeters before that date -- having committed to 100, 250 or 500 people, depending on the scale of the campaign -- to ensure the tweets go out. The resulting barrage is more likely to be broadly noticed and to make it onto Twitter’s trending topics list.

The White House used the platform to add public pressure to the congressional fight for new gun control laws in April. Other popular Thunderclap campaigns highlighted on the service’s homepage include a race in London to raise money to prevent gorilla extinction and a public awareness campaign about child sexual abuse.

The government deal with Thunderclap is interesting for a couple of reasons.

First, most of the 66 social sites the government has negotiated federal-friendly terms of service with focus on information gathering, information sharing and public engagement. Thunderclap’s focus on advocacy campaigns represents a shift for government social media, at least at the platform level.

Advocacy campaigns are a natural fit for the White House, which takes strong public policy positions as a matter of course. It’s a more awkward fit for many agencies, which have much less leeway to take sides on controversial issues and are wary of drawing Congress’ ire.

That combination could produce some pretty innocuous Thunderclap campaigns. (Join The @Interior Department in celebrating #EarthDay! The @USDOT wants to be 100,000 strong for child safety seats!).

I can also imagine some very interesting public education campaigns coming out of the site, though.

To take the very top level, the Veterans Affairs Department could use the site to spread the word about under-claimed benefits. The Justice Department could also use the tool to urge more people to bring “citizen lawsuits” under the Clean Air Act and Clean Water Act. Or the National Archives could use Thunderclap to encourage more people to become citizen archivists.

And that brings me to the second reason Thunderclap is an interesting social site for government. The mantra of the General Services Administration’s social media gurus lately has been “if you can’t measure it, it doesn’t count.”

Thunderclap, with its single sonic boom of advocacy, designed to change the public perception of some issue in a single instant, should offer the clearest, cleanest data I can imagine about whether and how well the tool is working -- especially if the Thunderclap is aimed at producing a tangible, measurable result such as signing more people up as citizen archivists.

So here’s hoping in six months agencies aren’t just producing Thunderclaps but also producing public after-action reports about the effect those Thunderclaps produced and whether the investment was worth the effort. 

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