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Mr. Social Media Goes to Washington

By Sander Biehn | Dec 16, 2013

I just returned from a strange land.  Mobile devices were curiously absent, newspapers were being read and people were (gasp!) talking to one another in coffee shops and  bars. This is the retro world of Washington D.C., where some government buildings even forbid mobile devices for security reasons.  The amazing thing is that everyone seems to be getting along just fine. How can this be?  The federal government is the largest US corporation and they aren’t “on Social”!

The key is that everyone you need to know to make or break your career in Washington is sitting day in and day out within several miles of you.  While corporate types wear travel as a badge of dedication and devotion to their jobs, staying inside the Beltway for years at a time without ever leaving, appears to be the best way to raise your currency in Washington.

I was a fish out of water. I strolled down the street talking and texting as usual, but I suddenly got self conscious. I felt like people were looking at me and wondering what my problem was. Couldn’t I find a lunch date with someone important? Likewise, what kind of losers were talking and texting with me? Couldn’t they find a lunch date either?

Normally, I would launch into a few hundred words on how social media can save these poor souls, but honestly I am feeling a bit uneasy about making recommendations to a federal government as successful as the United States. After all, I spent a couple of weeks in the Italian capital, Rome, this summer where mobile devices seem to grow out of smartly dressed politician’s heads. But for all the technology, I dare say the United States ruling body has the higher ground in almost every significant measure, including efficiency.

It does appear that a culture of garnering a reputation by being physically (not digitally) present pervades Washington. Twitter is used like an afternoon edition of the Washington Post for reporters to get politicians feedback. The press responds by heading in droves to hear the politician speak in person, whether on the House or Senate Floor or elsewhere. Very few stories unfold entirely on digital media here. Compare this to Russia where government officials make their thoughts and ideas known to the press sometimes exclusively by Twitter like we saw with the Ed Snowden story from last fall.

Perhaps the Beltway Club will be the last place to convert to the silent tapping of social media. Maybe they will be the last to ever find a kindred soul on the internet. They are fortunate enough to have everyone they ever need to meet or influence within a few Metro stops of their office. Chance meetings at a coffee shop or black tie event are frequent enough to leave them satisfied.  I am sure they could benefit from the speed of social media and the ability to influence behind doors currently closed to them based on their title or position.  But this will require that the influential also come up to speed on using social media to find good ideas. This will mean that getting thought leadership from inky newspapers and colleagues you meet for lunch will have to be…replaced.

Due to the size of global markets, there is no chance that private sector business could operate like Washingtonians. You decide who has it better, but I will leave you with this vignette.

I stumped in from the snow and cold last Thursday to a cozy pub in the heart of D.C..  My only companion was my smartphone and I was famished. As I ate my chili at a small two person table all alone, I people watched in he bar. It was jam-packed with young and old alike, all dressed to the nines. They were laughing and swilling down Martinis. Two women were having a serious discussion in the corner that looked to be about work. A young man flirted with two older ladies who wore what looked like matching, dangling bracelets. The large oaken bar behind them glowed in the dim light. I could see the bartender look out at a head that I could only see the back of. I could read the barkeep’s lips from across the room, “What can I get cha?”


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