Why Posterous Is a Smart Tool For Informal Government Blogging

For a few weeks, I’ve been testing a tool called Posterous, and I’ve come to like it a lot. You can see my account here. If you’re not familiar with Posterous, it is essentially a very simple blogging platform. It may in fact be the most simple one; yet it is very feature-laden. And it has one relatively unique feature that could make it the most powerful tool for informal blogging by government employees.

That simple, amazing, singular feature is email as a primary interface. In other words, you can post blogs simply by emailing post@posterous.com or a similar address – you don’t even need an “account” or a “login” or a “password.” Even in the private sector, this is considered a cool feature. But for government employees, it could be a breath of life in an otherwise locked-down state of cybersecurity affairs.

You see, many government computer systems block domains like YouTube.com, Facebook.com, Twitter.com, and so forth. There’s a current debate about the degree to which government employees can access such sites because of cybersecurity and other reasonable concerns – after all, there have been some very recent instances of bad things being passed through these social media tools and onto your computer. But when you can interact with a blogging platform through email – and in principle even through your official government email account accessed through a traditional program like Microsoft Outlook – you can get the functionality without the risk, and without needing permission from the IT shop.

As information is more decentralized and as more computing is done on mobile devices, quickly communicating information will be more commonplace – and more in demand by consumers of it. So to citizens, government content will still be king, but the speed at which it travels to them may be queen. And being able to blog on-the-go can increase that speed. Recently I’ve experimented with blogging while walking eight blocks to a date, blogging incredibly fast in reaction to breaking news, and blogging during a conference and posting my “journalism-style” article precisely at the end of a talk. There are innumerable other tactical applications of this tool.

Posterous has a lot of great features that I like. Perhaps most important among them is that links to the content you post can be instantly pushed to other social services like Twitter and Facebook – even if they’re blocked in your office. Another great feature is that if you attach photos, videos, or documents to your email, Posterous automatically embeds them in your blog – and will also push them to services like Flickr, YouTube, and Scribd (which may also be blocked in your government office). Still another great feature is that multiple people from multiple email addresses can contribute to one Posterous page (say, for an office), and conversely one email can be associated with multiple Posterous pages (say, a formal public affairs page, and an informal tech thoughts page). In brief, you can be very powerful from your BlackBerry.

Posterous has been described by a Mashable writer as “unremarkable,” but frankly, that’s what a lot of government employees are interested in. The government has a lot of outstanding content, and their primary mission in many cases is to get it out; customizing the blog theme is definitely secondary. A standardized, simple blog platform controlled through email sounds like just what the doctor ordered, and it offers numerous advantages over something more complicated like WordPress; for example, it’s easier to teach people how to use! Oh, and did I mention it’s free?

Posterous would probably love it if people in the government wanted to jump on this bandwagon in a more official manner, too. If I understand the numbers correctly, Posterous currently only has about one million unique visitors a month – total. The U.S. Government has more employees than that. I’m not picking on Posterous – it’s only been available since June 2008 and has some tough competition in the blog platform world – but my guess is that they’d be very willing to work with the General Services Administration and other appropriate people (as have companies like YouTube) to make Posterous work with official government interests and missions. And the same goes for local and state government employees too, who often deal with IT situations similar to those of their Fed counterparts.

Many agencies are working on social media policies and guidelines for employees, and education and training are no doubt part of successful use of tools like blogs by government employees. But assuming that people are trained and empowered to create online content, can you imagine if even 5% of Postal Service or FEMA or Army employees had a Posterous blog, and citizens and journalists could mine that information about what was happening in the country, or the world? It would be amazing.

So, for the 99% of government employees that can blog in their private lives and informally talk about their careers and more generally about their lives, I recommend getting a personal Posterous account. And because many of the things I said about the government also apply to large corporations, I think there’s a huge opportunity there, too. Everyone’s workplace has different rules about what you can and cannot use your computer and mobile devices for, and you shouldn’t break them. But if you can interface with Posterous via email and help to achieve workplace goals by mobile live-blogging of conferences you attend, or posting photos of critical emergency situations, or provoking discussion over the issue-of-the-day, I say: Go for it.

(If you work in government or closely with it and use Posterous, I’d especially like to listen to your feedback as I help prepare content for the upcoming Gov 2.0 Expo in May 2010.)

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  • I don’t think Posterous would work for the majority of the government agencies out there. One of the main features of Posterous is to post to different platforms, and many government agencies can’t have such an open platform like that. However, it could probably work for USPS or the White House.

  • I think the bigger issue here is why do government organisations block so many sites to employees? But I agree, Posterous is pretty cool. Although I don’t think I’ve taken advantage of all features yet.

  • Charles Greer

    I think you’ve hit on something very important here. Government employees need new ways to express themselves without having to get permission to do so. In private enterprise, ‘ask for forgiveness’ is de rigeur, but government IT is so good at locking down the public interface that a simple, uninteresting, disruptive and revolutionary tool like posterous is exactly what civil servants can use to become effective public servants too.

    You don’t address however the core issue of why IT in government is locked down. Government has to be extremely paranoid about privacy and litigation. Goverment+posterous is in this light very risky, but I’d agree, with education can increase public participation and decrease fear from inside.

  • I love Posterous too with two caveats: (1) there’s no way to know right now what the limit is to file storage and (2) the details of the commercial for-fee version have not yet been made public. Till then, I am using it only to host my “other web site” where I post photographs and nature related items. I keep most of my professional information on my Squarespace-hosted web site (http://www.ddmcd.com). But I agree – the ease with which you can post updates, even with tags, is quite nice.

  • Fair enough Dennis, precisely why I put “Informal” in the title – something to experiment with but not necessarily to replace “official agency blogs” or similar.

  • meznor

    I wonder if Posterous would be useful to get government news/information out there… the internal climate needs to support civil servants blogging things and being (what you’ve called) brand ambassadors.

    I think Charles Greer is correct mentioning the paranoia that exists within government to allow employees to freely distribute its messages.

    If internally, a government agency or ministry already supports its employees and has policy in place for using a tool like Posterous, then I would agree it’s probably the most simple and efficient way to carry government news beyond traditional channels like news releases or web site updates, and without running into IT security issues.

    On the other hand, IT could easily find a way to block emails sent to the posterous accounts, anyway. I think the point is we should work with IT/managers to create the social media policies that would empower employees to use social media tools (though the rebel in me always appreciates clever new ways to get around their sometimes oppressive rules).

  • I’m not sure about the federal retention laws, but many states and local governments have laws requiring that official written communications be archived for a specific amount of time. This constantly impacts discussion about the tools we ‘officially’ use at work. One great advantage to posterous is that all content starts as e-mail. There are other blogging platforms that have this feature, however, the integration in posterous is flawless. Items including text, video, photos, and podcasts can be archived by government email systems. Comments on posterous posts also become email.

  • Justin – Very smart comment, I think you’ve got something there! (Also, it didn’t accur to me that one could also cc: appropriate pople at the time of blog posting, too – handy!).

  • I just learned that Posterous is an open-source Drupal project? http://drupal.org/project/posterous

  • David Hume

    The other hitch is that, if you’re going to get government folks blogging, citizens ought to be able to easily find them. I’d argue government would likely want to set up its own blogging URL so that citizens have a more coherent user experience in navigating government blogs (imagine blogs.us.gov). If you’ve got a ton of government blogs all over a bunch of different services (blogger, wordpress, posterous), then it will be hard for individuals to know what to trust.

  • David: I like that. Posterous and others have support for redirecting URLs like that.