Like other big, risk-averse organizations, the U.S. military's first encounter with social media was marked by outright rejection: Just thinking about all that unstructured, chaotic communication probably gave some senior officers a rash, especially when it carried with it the possibility of security breaches. But in another sign that there is social media hope for even the most curmudgeonly of institutions, the military has changed its tune, according to the Frederick News Post (located in Frederick, Maryland, just a few miles from the U.S. Army's Fort Detrick).
In February the Department of Defense embraced the possibilities of social media for communicating with DoD employees and spreading military-positive messages to the civilian population. The Frederick News Post reports that Pentagon officials issued a memo outlining new rules for Internet use by employees, which directed that non-classified networks should henceforth allow access to social network sites -- with provisions, of course, for a shutdown in case social network activity threatens a security breach.
There are already at least 800 military accounts on Twitter, using either home accounts or some variety of less-regulated DoD Internet access (after getting the Internet rolling, the Pentagon hived off its own secure network in 1989, but still maintains several different security levels of regular Internet access as well). Meanwhile the Maryland National Guard is using social networks to communicate with its members; the MNG's Facebook page has about 1,100 fans, and is connected to Twitter and Flickr accounts maintained by the Web-savvy Guard.
The Frederick News-Post quoted MNG Lt. Col. Charles Kohler explaining, "The biggest advantage is getting to reach out to our own people, the Guard itself," adding, "This is a really dynamic tool. We have to adapt or become irrelevant." But it's also useful for connecting with the civilian population during emergencies. According to Kohler, over 300 people became "fans" of the MNG during Maryland's recent crippling ice storm.
Meanwhile the Military Health System began using social networks to reach Web users under the age of 25 -- a group representing the majority of service members, which was however conspicuously absent from the Web traffic for the official MHS Web site (where just 8% of visitors were under age 25). The MHS joined Flickr in April 2008, MySpace and YouTube in October 2008, Twitter in March 2009, and Facebook in April 2009. Four full-time staff are in charge of the accounts, and in addition to posting information handle about 20 questions per day.