Commentary

DoD Launches Social Platform for Developers

The Department of Defense is moving -- slowly, cautiously, and securely -- to adopt social media for a number of purposes, including communicating with civilians, recreation for military personnel, and now online collaboration by software developers working for the military (needless to say, all replete with elaborate online security measures that someone will probably figure out how to hack anyway).

In the latest offering, the Defense Information Systems Agency has added a social feature, called "Community," to its Forge.mil platform for online collaboration, using Drupal Commons, an open-source social software platform, according to InformationWeek. IW says the White House site is already using Drupal. In the military iteration, the Forge.mil Community lets lead developers track the progress of projects, discover others working on similar projects, and share information, best practices, and plans with relevant parties.

This is the latest step in the military's maddeningly slow (or remarkably fast, given the institution involved) acceptance of social media. The federal go-ahead for social media came in December 2009, when the Office of Management and Budget issued a memo which waives cumbersome paperwork requirements for government communications that solicit or enable responses or feedback from private citizens. The waiver specifically exempts Web-based interactive technologies that enable "unstructured" feedback from the public -- a category that includes visitor comments on Web pages, as well as online initiatives from Federal agencies using sites like Facebook, Twitter, and so on.

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Then in February 2010 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.

Of course some part of the DOD were ahead of the curve. For example, the Military Health System began using social networks back in 2008 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.

Meanwhile some classified networks behind the military firewall are allowing commanders in the field to share crucial information: one proprietary DoD social network, CompanyCommand, allows captains to share information that would otherwise have to go up (and back down) the entire chain of command. At the upper levels, the DoD also launched a Strategic Knowledge Integration Web, which provides senior commanders with real-time command status, news, and information feeds, as well as a blogging function.

In September the DoD launched a military-wide Facebook-like feature called MilBook, accessible to all military personnel. Subsequently MilBook was joined by MilWiki and MilBlog, all of which replicate functions of their general purpose namesakes behind the military firewall.

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