Knives, Listeria, and Drug Dogs: The Joys of Government Social Media

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Ready for the big game?? The USDA Food Safety Twitter account sure is.

It's one of the great paradoxes of the Internet Age: Social media has allowed for an unprecedented level of intimacy between friends separated by thousands of miles, between celebrities and their fans, between brands and their millennial consumers. It's also total bullsh*t. No one's Facebook, Twitter or Instagram account is an even remotely accurate representation of their lives, because the overall point of social media is to craft likability; you post things you've determined other people might want to see. (Whether or not you are old enough to instinctively understand this surely influenced your level of surprise around this recent, viral "story" about a teenage Instagram model telling it like it is.)

There's a veritable traffic jam of interesting case studies at this intersection of intimacy and bullsh*t. But today I'd like to pay homage to one in particular: The undercelebrated world of government social media accounts.

No, I'm not talking about President Obama getting a personal Facebook account. Of course Obama got Facebook. No one cares. I'm talking here about what the conversation must have sounded like in the office the day the USDA Food Safety program decided it needed a social media presence through which to share tips for proper poultry preparation.

A brief spin through this Twitter feed shows you the USDA Food Safety Social Media Person making very earnest work of what Social Media People are supposed to do: He or she jumps on trending topics, name-checks celebrities and the pop culture events du jour, and gets in line with holiday-themed and otherwise seasonally appropriate content.



Underlying the patently insane tone of most of these tweets is this blanket assumption that every business, every organization that wants to be successful absolutely must have social media accounts. That's where the kids are, after all -- might as well meet 'em where they live and teach 'em a thing or two about proper meat temperatures while you're at it!


The question of whether anyone has actually been saved from foodborne illness via tweet is, on the other hand, surely up for debate. Is a guy who doesn't know to wash his hands after handling raw chicken really a guy who's following USDA Food Safety on Twitter? Is an irony-appreciating millennial who might not otherwise be open to messaging about listeria going to sit up and pay attention because of the hashtag #Sharknado3?

The official Instagram account of the TSA, meanwhile, takes a more detached stance. This account delivers to its 374,000 loyal followers a mostly objective window into the assorted grab-bag of concealed knives, guns and narcotics the governmental body confiscates daily from travelers at airports all over the country.


Also, portraits of cute drug-sniffing TSA dogs.


Sometimes the photos are accompanied by tips and information about which items, exactly, are kosher to carry onto an aircraft (hint: no knives, guns, or narcotics), but mostly this account seems to operate from a place of gleeful voyeurism: Someone thought they were gonna get that onto a plane?


Connecting with customers is a key aim of social media, and these posts do that, to be sure -- but the wrench in these interactions is that federal agencies don't have customers. We're not choosing the USDA Food Safety regulations over some other available option; we don't compare prices and decide to get searched by the TSA, specifically, when we fly. So why do they care if we like them? 

Okay, so likability might be the wrong noun here -- we could say their primary motive is to simply humanize an otherwise sterile, standardized and thoroughly regimented chunk of government, and to show that they are in fact performing a useful function; in the case of the TSA, especially, you're talking about an organization with whom most of the American populace positively dreads interaction. Yes, they're helping to keep us safe. They're also basically the dentists of the government world -- ones that can get you thrown in jail. (Related: The U.S. Border Patrol's Twitter feed is similar, but methier.)


So: Is it working? Unlike brand loyalty, which can be measured by what products we actually purchase following a social media interaction, there's pretty much no way to track whetherJohn Doe is feeling more warmly toward his TSA agent during a full-body search at SFO than he did prior to following the agency on Instagram. And, again, it's not exactly going to affect the TSA's bottom line.

What we're left with, then, is a snapshot of a specific moment in our collective understanding of social media's purpose as it evolves. Side by side with landmark social movements like Black Lives Matter -- which arguably coalesced and gained steam predominantly in the online world, with an aim of affecting real change in the tangible one -- we have brick-and-mortar agencies that perform self-evident functions feeling obvious pressure to contribute something, anything, to the jumble of self-promotion and online noise that is social media, regardless of the value. No matter if a Twitter feed makes sense for your organization: Does your organization even exist, if it doesn't tweet? It's a vignette that I think will become more telling with time, as the first generation that has never known a world without Twitter or Instagram comes of age, and as businesses (hopefully) learn to wield social media as a tool without embarrassing themselves (or us) anymore than they already have.

In the meantime, if they're going to post it, we're going to enjoy it. And hey: once we surgically remove our palms from our faces, we might even learn something.