The rapid growth of new media – the Internet, social media tools, smart phones, apps, etc. – and the steady flow of emergent technologies continue to have an impact on how we access information, understand the world, and relate to each other. It is an exciting time for people who are into reading Wired and are heavily engaged with cyberspace and the blogosphere provided through smart phones and iPads. It is also a challenging (if not baffling) time for those who are trying to sort out Facebook from Feedly and figure out if either is a blog. In this installment of Anthropology in the Public Sector I want to introduce a project I have been working on that evaluates the first official VA blog and the VA’s broader effort to engage new media.
With the support of the VA’s Office of Rural Health (ORH) in Washington D.C. and the Veterans Rural Health Resource Center-Central Region (VRHRC-CR) in Iowa City, my team and I systematically tracked the inaugural year of the first official VA blog: VAntage Point. A VA blog is not just a step in the new media direction, it is also a major deviation from all conventional channels of communication in a complex national system. The VA is a massive bureaucratic machine and it is not known for offering direct access to the people with answers or for providing fast response to questions. On the VAntage Point About page it starts with: “Engaging. Not a word which many Veterans typically use to describe their relationship with the Department of Veterans Affairs. A more common word associated with VA and its interaction with Vets? Adversarial.” New media may be one avenue to changing this perception.
VAntage Point established an access point to direct communication with blog contributors. In addition to the blog team, in the first year there were 145 guest posts from 101 people, many of whom are high-ranking individuals or key personnel who are otherwise hard to access. For example, Tammy Duckworth, VA’s Assistant Secretary for Public and Intergovernmental Affairs (at the time of posts) and now US Congresswoman from Illinois, responded directly to comments to her February 1, 2011 post about outreach to Tribal Governments.
The push for the VA’s engagement with new and decidedly social media can largely be attributed to Brandon Friedman, VA’s director of online communications until this year. In addition to launching blogs, a VA press release in December 2011 outlines the establishment of Facebook and Twitter accounts for all 152 of its medical centers nationally. Whereas the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs Facebook page has over 275,000 likes, the use on a facility-level or at the VISN (Veterans Integrated Service Network)-level has considerable variation. As part of our analysis of VA new media data, we created Wordles (above) and explored interactive modes for presenting findings. These are examples of visual representations using tools from infogr.am for the number of Facebook sites by VISN, alongside the average number of Likes for those same territories. If you move your cursor across the colors, additional information is provided.
The impact and utility of new media in the VA context is still being explored and debated. VA is making efforts to change its pattern of fraught communication and the associated expectation by Veterans through the use of new media. I use the term new media because it seems to be the most all-inclusive option, an umbrella term for specific tools, including social media. Social media is a subset of new media because social media rely on the tools and technology that are new media, but not all new media is social media. Social media involves internet-based tools and is by most definitions inherently interactive. This relationship, and the participation involved, is different than that of a performer and an audience. With social media it is not enough to just watch, read, or follow – that is the mode of old media (newspapers, television, books, etc.) – there is an element of active engagement required. Some it feels like splitting hairs, so here is an example of the distinction: whereas VAntage Point had over 5,600 comments in the first year, the second VA blog launched garnered 2 comments in the same timeframe. Both are blogs, but the one without commenters and exchange is – arguably – not social media. The language around new media is complicated, if for no other reason than it is so abundant.
In the VA, people are still getting up to speed, or trying to keep up, with new media in both research and operations. It is not unlike in anthropology where the use of new media is impacting our practice as researchers and the circulation of our ideas. As much as I want to argue that we take the leap with both feet into this new terrain of possibility, I also run into barriers that undermine my own argument. A colleague on my blog project made the figures linked to above in the course of developing a paper presentation, only to realize that they do not translate to a 2-D medium (a poster), or a manuscript in hardcopy. In trying to include the same interactive graphics in an online column (this one), I encountered problems when it came to interfacing infogr.am with WordPress , a blog-facilitator and the mode of submission for AN. Sure the emergent options for visually representing data and engaging social media are out there for all to use, but the grip of How-It-Is-Done and it’s sidekick, What-Is-Accepted, is a strong one. We are creatures of habit and often feel confined to accepted modes of communicating about our work. Then, there is the practical problem of getting the tools to work with each other.
While it can be discouraging I will still argue that new media provides exciting developments and holds amazing potential for public discourse, for VA communication, even for the practice of anthropology.
The views expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the position or policy of the Department of Veterans Affairs or the United States government.
Sarah Ono, Heather Schacht Reisinger, and Samantha L. Solimeo are contributing editors of Anthropology in the Public Sector.
We are creatures of habit and often feel confined to accepted modes of communicating about our work.