New Language

While I may not have grown up with social media, I do everything I can to ensure that I stay hip. (I’ve got kids who will inevitably find me to be not cool, so I figure the more I can do now, the less out of touch I’ll be. I’ll keep you posted on that one.) That means that while I explore all of the new social networks and interact with folks all over the country and world, I get to see how folks talk. I try to pick up some of the verbiage, inside jokes and calling cards of what is, frankly, a younger generation.

I get memes now. I’ve got this great online voice now (very parenthetical, I’m told). I can butcher grammar rules like few others, just so I can carry on a Twitter conversation. And in my six years of doing this stuff, I’ve seen that being oneself online gets the best reaction and engagement. Government-ese is not welcome. Actually looking like you’re enjoying yourself is highly recommended.

So when I take my personal experience and try to infuse it with the work social media accounts that I manage, I get some push-back. We’re the Health Department, Jim, people take us seriously. (The unspoken part of that conversation is that I should take us more seriously, too.) (And that’s when I roll my eyes.)

The problem is that we in government are falling behind this emerging trend. This new language. Madison Avenue is long embraced the tongue-in-cheek, the slightly off-color, the inside joke. (And it’s not like they’ve been successful with any of that, witness the fact that no one smokes, diabetes is a scourge of the past and everyone uses a condom. Roll eyes again.) The public usually loves a good joke, but on social media, a good joke is gold not because it’s funny, but because it’s share-able. I can retweet Oreo’s joke about the power going out during the Super Bowl and now I look funny. (The term you’re looking for is transference.)

Now think of the last public health message you heard. When I retweet that, how am I viewed as a result of that transference? Probably like my kids will see me in a few years. Nagging, boring, out-of-touch, lame.

But I think the tide is turning (God, I hope I’m right about this.) Aside from Madison Avenue’s slick messaging, other forward-thinkers are starting to understand the power of the share-able message. To understand that being human is the best route to virality. For example, President Obama, when commenting on the impending sequester, chided the media saying he couldn’t do a “Jedi Mind Meld” with the Republicans to solve the problem. The geeks among you will have already seen the problem with that term (if you’re not that geeky, Star Wars and Star Trek references don’t go well together). Mere hours later, the official White House Twitter account came out with this:

This image does two things. First, it’s eminently share-able. If I retweet that, I look in-touch, wink-and-nod funny, hip. (Political leanings aside, of course.) Second, it addresses the underlying point. It’s about the sequester and the damage the White House says it will do. Take those two things, package them with quick approval, a distinct lack of legal watering down, and put it on a sharing network, and voila! Winning, as they say.

I have hope that we, as government communicators, can learn a lesson from this. Please, let’s loosen our collars a bit. Have a bit of fun. Be human. (Not half-Vulcan or whatever the heck the President was trying to do.)


2 thoughts on “New Language

  1. Jim, outstanding comments as usual. Very timely for me as I am currently teaching a course in writing for the web for government employees of a major government agency (8000 employees). It’s very difficult to make that transition–but essential to communicate with today’s audiences. Still, I worry, as I just bogged on Budweiser and its response, that the informal too quickly becomes snarky.

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