The Obama White House is no stranger to the tools of civic engagement. Its social media hub page, titled "Engage and Connect," offers easy access to its Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, Scribd, Flickr, Slideshare, LinkedIn, FourSquare and even GitHub accounts.
But the new kid on the block, Pinterest, is so new to the White House that it doesn't yet have a space or icon there even though the White House started pinning a month ago. Reportedly, they started with this very visual tool because they see themselves as wanting to "make this the most open White House in history." Let's hope they remedy the absence of the "P" icon soon since, as you'll see below, Pinterest appears to be 2013's black for the public sector. There's even hope that the Pinners That Be might be forced to include a "Politics" category, currently still absent from its pre-set list from which subscribers can choose.
The White House page, Image Credit: Pinterest
Before we get to whether this outreach is a good or bad thing for the pinners, the voters or the subjects of the pins (can you imagine what former New York congressman Anthony Weiner's Pinterest boards might have looked like if he used it in conjunction with Twitter?), let's take a look at Pinterest's growth with those already governing, those who would like to be governing and those who like to advocate about those two groups and politically relevant issues.
It all started with Ann Romney's foray in February 2012. Michelle Obama's account came into view four months later (although her husband's campaign Pinterest started in March 2012) and, inevitably, so did hoax sites. As TechPresident wrote,
The medium seems custom-fit to the need of an organization — or a satirist — to create a visual representation of a brand: Take, for example, the many fake accounts for Barack Obama, Rick Santorum and a (potentially fake) Newt Gingrich.
When Susan G. Komen for the Cure announced a rules change that would suspend funding to Planned Parenthood for breast cancer screenings, online organizer and "The Networked Nonprofit" co-author Beth Kanter started up a pinboard called Komen Can Kiss My Mammagram.
She used a collaborative board and had a team of perhaps 20 volunteers pinning items to it in order to keep the board's material resurfacing for Pinterest users to come across, she told techPresident at the time.
Indeed, the first return when I searched for "White House on Pinterest" was not the official page (and I actually don't even see a link for the official page anywhere on the first page of search results - they need to get someone on that!). That unofficial page had the "f" bomb in the very first row of images. Ah yes, the pitfalls of social media, especially if you're not constantly curating.
Which of course is part of the problem with any engagement tool. Ann and Michelle's content stopped getting updated more than nine weeks ago, once their husbands ceased to be candidates. Similarly, the White House will remain in need of occupants, but the Obama administration won't be there. Of course, the other side to this reality is that once you create engagement expectations, those who rely on that flow of information like to see it continuously refreshed. Getting rid of that info stream is rarely looked upon kindly by the public.
While Pinterest might be great for a campaign, a candidate or an incumbent hoping to stay that way, many other types of government-oriented pages are taking shape. For starters, you can find Politics and Politics on Pinterest pages, the latter run by PBS NewHour. Nationally, the Government Services Agency just approved Pinterest for use by all federal agencies. Imagine what this could mean for entities like the Department of Education or the Environmental Protection Agency among many others. They can join their brethren branches - the Army, the Navy and the National Guard - all of whom have been pinning for almost a year.
In the advocacy world, you can check out U.S. Senator John Cornyn's "I Built This Mr. President" board. The think tanks also pontificate through pinning: the conservative Heritage Foundation and the American Future Fund (including its board of “Obama’s Empty Chairs” and 20 “stunning and exclusive” golf courses upon which the president has played) are two examples. Not to be outflanked, the AFL-CIO and Think Progress stick up for their principles via Pinterest too.
California and Utah offer state websites with considerable Pinterest engagement. And on the local level, police departments are some of the most active users. In particular, they're using it to help find criminals. However, I want to note that, in terms of local electeds, I checked in with my three favorite civically engaged council people's websites - Faith Winter in Colorado, Mike Rasor in Stow, Ohio and Ari Herzog in Massachusetts. None of them appear to be using Pinterest in conjunction with that work at the moment.
The ultimate question is: do you, as a voter or taxpayer, want these folks and organizations pining, er um pinning for you? It's nice to know that they're where the voters are and not opposed to engaging with people in a new, different and potentially useful way. But there's a limit to the value in campaign-like material and so I think there could be big pressure to make Pinterest pages distinctly useful. Something we - the social media savvy and civically engaged - can help make happen.
The White House actually asked for input concerning what people would like to see on its boards. And you can have the same impact with any other government or politics-oriented Pinterest account. Check out the long list of suggestions in this blog post, "Why the government should take in interest in Pinterest."
In the end, the reason why government should want to be on Pinterest is the same reason why future brides should be on Pinterest. As [e-Government Business Analyst Jon] Lee puts it, "It's a great way to be inspired, discover new ideas and build relationships."
Given the intersection between the extraordinary growth in use of Pinterest, its overall use by women and the heft of women's numbers in the voting booth, there's every reason to see politicos of all types getting stuck on Pinterest.
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