Text Size

Beyond 140 Characters: Social Media@JSC

By James, McClellan, JSC Chief Technology Officer

NASA's Social Network
Right now, NASA has more than a million followers on Twitter, received more than 300,000 likes on Facebook and had the first person from space check in via Foursquare. But how did it start? From my perspective, it launched in 2008 when a group of NASA Johnson Space Center employees gave a presentation called "The Gen Y Perspective." One of the presenters thought it would be cool to tweet from space. At the time I didn't know what tweeting was, but realized it was something significant and Googled it.

NASA didn't have a social media presence then, but soon, the buzz landed on NASA's doorsteps. Characteristically, social media started off small – NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory led and then a few folks at JSC, like the Public Affairs Office (PAO), created accounts for Facebook, Twitter, Ustream, Flickr, and others – and the public loved it! Social media is everywhere and today, NASA's a leader in the social media sphere.

Socially Awkward: Challenges in Successfully Adopting Social Media
The group soon realized that social media was just another tool in the IT and communication toolbox-just like telephones and email. To address this, JSC developed a Social Media Working Group (SMWG) comprised of folks from PAO, the Information Resources Directorate (JSC's IT Organization and the one I represent), the Legal Office, Human Resources and other orgs to focus on issues and guidelines associated with social media.

The group soon realized that social media was just another tool in the IT and communication toolbox—just like telephones and email. Most of the existing policies worked with minor exceptions. For example, updates to NASA Policy Directive 2540.1 included replacing the word "teletypes" with "Facebook." That change, combined with other modifications, resulted in the current NPD 2540.1G revision that allows the use of government equipment to go to sites like Twitter and Facebook, as long as it isn't impacting your work duties.

Our working group also developed a comprehensive guidelines document by mashing up six or seven guidelines from other major corporations and government entities with NASA-specific items. The resulting guidelines were ultimately adopted not only at JSC, but by the OCIO for the Agency: http://insidenasa.nasa.gov/ocio/information/social_media.html.

Balancing Act
But who should use social media at work? And, when is it appropriate? Those questions drove us to develop definitions for "official spokesperson," "professional,"and, "private individual" in our JSC social media policy. Official spokespersons are charged with representing the Agency (e.g., Public Affairs Office, associate administrators, etc.). The general public and employees (not on the clock) fall in the "private individual" category, which means they are expressing a personal, individual opinion, and not the Agency's. In between is "professional," who uses social media technologies in the performance of professional duties to support NASA (i.e., communications made in a business or professional capacity).

Social Media Inside the Firewalls
Social Media has proven it's not just a fad—it has fundamentally changed our culture's behavior in the way we communicate and interact. It's bound to also change the way we work together and collaborate across the center, and, across the Agency.

Over the past several months the JSC SMWG has been working to formally adopt a social media tool that can be used internally. The tool, called Yammer (initiated by our friends at Langley), is a Twitter-like tool, but it's not limited to just 140 characters. Yammer connects those with a "@nasa.gov" email address, and, it's also one of the "approved" apps that the U.S. General Services Administration has developed Terms of Service Agreements with to address IT security issues such as advertisements.

Yammer also helps us follow the agency's guidelines on the use of social media, especially #17: "Do not use a public social media service for a NASA-related activity or discussion that is not meant for total public access. If the topic is not for release to the public, use an internal social media tool." Using Yammer instead of Twitter affords us the privacy of an internal tool, but enables collaboration and helps unlock information silos. It is not for Sensitive But Unclassified (SBU) type information, but Yammer does allow you privacy to communicate with fellow employees in a more open environment without the concern of 6 billion people on the planet reading your conversations.

JSC just kicked-off an 18-month pilot of Yammer, and has presented it to NASA's Chief Information Officer, Linda Cureton, for formal adoption. The kick-off is in conjunction with the center's Innovation 2011 event on May 4. Innovation 2011 is a center-wide event that aims to foster an environment of creativity and innovative thinking by exposing the workforce to ideas, issues and perspectives expressed by JSC and White Sands Test Facility colleagues outside their normal circle of associates. We hope the use of Yammer will further enable collaboration throughout the event and beyond.

If you're on Yammer, you can follow me at @jamesbmcclellan.