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Straight talk about Twitter

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You may have noticed by now that we have a Twitter account. 260 of you have taken the step of following @privacyprivee – a remarkably optimistic and patient act on your part, as we haven’t been consistent or active in how we use that account.

Twitter poses an unusual problem for a federal agency charged with serving a country with two official languages. As a tool, it encourages the quick exchange of information, links and opinions. Most tweets look nothing like the traditional and often boring messages Canadians expect to get from the government, thanks to the use of #hashtags, @replies and shortened hyperlinks. A stream of tweets often looks like a thousand individual conversations taking place all at once, in public.

There are clear benefits in being active on Twitter. Among our 260 followers I can identify individual citizens, academics, journalists, privacy advocates, open government activists and others. Recent discussions categorized under hashtags like #privacy, #dpi, #dhsprivacy, and #crtc demonstrate that Twitter users share many of our concerns and are following many of the same issues. They are reacting quickly to developments in technology, changes in policy and the possible infringement of privacy rights the world over. Their Tweets often contain shortened hyperlinks to conventional reporting, first person accounts of events, copies of their formal testimony to legislative bodies, sophisticated technological analysis, and their personal observations.

Let’s be blunt. It’s hard for a federal agency to communicate this way. We’re not used to it. We don’t have the same freedom to comment on issues. We have to respect public service and parliamentary procedures. In our case, particular cases or issues brought up in the Twitter stream might be the subject of a formal investigation or an audit.

More importantly, it’s difficult for any organization to present a personal AND authoritative voice on Twitter. Many organizations choose to use Twitter as a broadcast tool, alerting their Twitter followers to the publication of relevant material on their other sites. Behind other @s, you will only find customer service staff or a lone communications staffer. Some organizations allow specialists to use Twitter and similar tools to communicate with their peers.

But how does an Office like ours represent itself well in such a fast moving medium? We’re advocates, but we also have legislated responsibilities. We are interested in a wide range of issues and policies, but recognize that there may be more authoritative voices than ours.

This brings us back to @privacyprivee. We’re still learning how to use Twitter. We’re trying to find a voice for the Office on Twitter that is reliable, authoritative AND respects government policies. We recognize that the tool is extremely useful, and that we should be using it more effectively. This will take some time. I thank you for your patience as we find this voice.

* A note on official languages: in order to respect our linguistic duality, our outgoing Tweets will be posted in both English and French. If a Canadian (or anyone else) decides to send @privacyprivee a message, we will respond in their language of choice. That’s to say, our official communications will be in both languages, our conversations will be in your chosen language (as long as it’s English or French. Otherwise, we’re turning to Babelfish)

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