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What Does a Furlough Mean for Tweeting?

BY Nancy Scola | Thursday, April 7 2011

Politico's Ben Smith gets at a fascinating question: what happens to social media during a government shutdown?

Now, yes, of course, the truly important stuff here is what a shutdown means for the country, federal workers across the country, the state of American politics, and the like. But the idea of government cutting down to only employees who perform essential tasks does do the job of highlighting what it means to work in the service of the government these days.

Ben draws attention to Capitol Hill, and whether members won't have staff to post to Twitter or Facebook for them. But Congress is one thing; it's still nearly totally focused on the personalities of the individual members. Things are a little different and possibly more interesting when you thinking about the many thousands of people working in federal agencies. Say you're working in some capacity at the U.S. State Department or the Federal Communications Commission and you regularly tweet about your work during work hours. Is that an "official" Twitter account? Former State Department spokesperson P.J. Crowley used his Twitter account to push out messages that were certainly taken as work product by reporters, at the least. Was that an official Twitter account?

Or is it some sort of hybrid personal/private Twitter account? And if that's the case, does that mean that you can keep on tweeting while you're furloughed, as long as you don't talk about work?

This whole business isn't something that even agencies themselves have necessarily thought through. I emailed the State Department's press shop this morning to try to get some clarification about what's official, what's not, and whether the distinction has any meaning any more. When a State press person called back this afternoon, it quickly became clear to both of us that they're not real clear internally on how they're thinking about the matter. We nailed down that @StateDept is an official Twitter account. Beyond that, she pledged to follow up.

These are new questions brought into sharp relief by the fact that this would be the first U.S. government furlough in the new media age. "Faceless bureaucrat" doesn't seem to quite capture a world where every federal staffer has a personal publishing platform or two at the ready, and where they can be, to use a horrible phrase, building their personal brands while carrying out their work duties. Maybe that's a good thing, bad thing, or more mixed, but what seems more clear is that how we use these tools in the world of government has outpaced how we think about how we use these tools in the world of government.

If you're a government servant who's getting caught up in this furlough situation, let me know -- what sort of guidance are you getting about whether you can tweet?

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