Social media: The military's mixed feelings

For all their popularity and apparent depth, the rules underlying social media market share are exceedingly simple. In short, there are two basic dimensions for a successful site: people and experience. If an application can accumulate people and getting them to reveal details that trigger interaction, then it can create a cycle in which more users join, reveal personal information, inspiring more users, and so on. However, there's one part of the potential user base for companies like Facebook and Twitter that can be difficult to maximize: the military.

In the United States, the Department of Defense has issued mixed messages on the use of social media tools. On personally-owned computers, there is nothing prohibiting military personnel from opening a browser and twitpic-ing the usual fare – from the mundane to the strange. In this regard, soldiers are, effectively, normal people. Yet, past this baseline for use, there is a labyrinthine standard derived from common sense, information technology policy and operational security.

It all depends, it seems, on where you are.

In the United States, things are relatively loose, but combat theater access is very strict. According to one of my sources on the ground in Iraq, social media websites -- such as Twitter, MySpace and Facebook -- are blocked on the official network. Chat utilities are prohibited as well, except through Army Knowledge Online (AKO).

And then there's Morale, Welfare and Recreation (MWR).

According to my source, "MWR is a separate thing entirely." The MWR centers, available to soldiers around the world, are intended to offer military personnel a place to go and relax, a break from the rigor and demands of military life in general. This is not merely a combat offering: when I was stationed in Korea, we had MWR centers, and a quick Google search reveals MWR offerings on military installations in the United States and around the world.

Though there are rules around MWR use, there are no active blockers – only a boilerplate warning about misuse and monitoring. "It is just an internet service provider ... basically the equivalent of having Comcast or Verizon or something," my source says. The computers and VOIP phones available in MWR centers are managed by Spawar, which leaves the networks open. The access of sites deemed inappropriate is effectively controlled by location, as the computers are offered in public areas. Some military units also sponsor their own internet rooms via Spawar, and the Red Cross offers Spawar-based internet access (at least, in Balad, Iraq) .

In Iraq, service members and contractors can secure personal internet access, either via satellite dish or through local internet service providers such as Tigris in Baghdad. Social media sites are completely available. For the contractors, office-based internet access and social media policies vary from one company to the next.

At times, all access -- both phone and internet -- is cut. "When a unit suffers a casualty," my source explains, "they will usually go on a communications blackout until the family is notified." This measure is designed to ensure that the family is notified properly, rather than find out through formal or informal media channels.

The Marines have taken a harder line recently. For the next year, it has prohibited social media site use. According to a memo released last week, these sites are considered "a proven haven for malicious actors and content and are particularly high risk due to information exposure, user generated content and targeting by adversaries." Further, it "provides an easy conduit for information leakage that puts OPSEC [operational security], COMSEC [communications security], personnel and the MCEN [Marine Corps Enterprise Network] at an elevated risk of compromise." Waivers to this policy are available based on "operational need."

The prohibition only covers access to social networking sites via the MCEN or virtual private network.

Despite these lukewarm acceptances of military social media use, there are signs of progress toward embracing this environment. The New York Timesrecently reported that the Army is using wiki technology to foster collaboration on seven field manuals. The goal is to harness the institutional knowledge contained within a large and diverse organization. Essentially, the Army has figured out that using a wiki for a traditional wiki purpose is pretty useful. The three-month pilot program in progress now could expand to 200 other field manuals.

The editing process is open to all soldiers and is overseen by designated editors; this is the same model used by Wikipedia. In a divergence from the Wikipedia model, however, anonymous contributions will not be allowed. So far, use hasn't been explosive. The editorial controls aren't enough to make some leaders comfortable with the approach. And, it seems, the pool of contributors is not ready to jump on board, as editing activity was slim for the first six weeks of the pilot.

To be realistic, however, it is important to note that any social media or software implementation effort takes time for adoption, especially if it entails a significant change from the norm. Over time, usage will increase, as will the flow of information.

Under the wiki program, 50 field manuals will not be open to collaboration. On the other hand, there are more than 500 in the Army library, offering plenty of opportunity for information sharing in the future.

So, the future of social media for the military -- not to mention the access that these companies will have to military personnel -- is complicated. The many restrictions in place suggest the blending of real-world security and control concerns. An evolving policy, however, indicates not only a resignation that the power of crowds will ultimately win but that the military itself can derive some value from them. It's almost as though the adoption of social media tools by the corporate world is being played out in slow motion, thanks to the military's unique blend of tradition, bureaucracy and serious security concerns. While companies like Facebook and Twitter are unlikely to be able to access the lives of soldiers to the extent that they've mind the experiences of the rest of us, it's evident that there is still plenty of room -- and opportunity -- for growth.

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