WASHINGTON — Government officials responding to the Gulf oil spill have been checking Facebook a lot while at the office, and that's okay with U.S. Navy Lt. Cmdr. Jim Hoeft.
He and his team aren't looking for their friends' status updates, but instead are part of one of the first government initiatives to use social networking sites from Facebook to Twitter to YouTube and RSS feeds to spread public awareness about the Obama administration's positions on a major crisis.
Hoeft also monitors blogs and posts comments to speak "with one voice" as he described it, on Government Computer News.
Since Hoeft and his colleagues joined the online social networking scene, they've written 131 notes on Facebook, uploaded 55 videos to YouTube and tweeted 910 times.
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The public has responded, with 32,000 users who "like" the organization on Facebook and more than 2 million views on YouTube. This is roughly the same number of users that who "like" the nonprofit organization Oxfam and rapper P-Diddy.
Hoeft said the government also is gauging public response. He said that his team monitors comments left on the group's pages, and then responds.
"The response has been positive in that (the public is) appreciative of the open lines of communication," said Hoeft, who's known officially as the social media coordinator for Unified Area Command, Joint Information Center.
Hoeft and his group work for the Deepwater Horizon Response Team, the group that's coordinating BP's efforts to stop and clean up the tens of millions of gallons of crude oil spreading across the Gulf.
While he thinks the public appreciates the availability of the information on Facebook, Hoeft made it clear that there's still a lot of frustration on the part of both the Response Team and the social networkers who are commenting on the response.
"There's a great deal of concern of what the situation is in the Gulf of Mexico," Hoeft said, "and we cannot forget that 11 people died . . . Everyone is working very, very hard and diligently to try and respond to this crisis and I just hope that everyone realizes that. It's our coastline too, it's our Gulf, too, and we want this spill stopped, too."
Part of that concern is evident in the size and speed with which comments appear. As part of a special live stream in cooperation with the PBS NewsHour, YouTube asked users to submit recommendations on how to fix and clean up the spill. The Web poll received more than 7,000 suggestions and more than 100,000 votes.
For comparison, YouTube received 11,000 questions that were used in an interview with President Barack Obama that was streamed live on Feb. 1.
Another symptom of the nation's preoccupation with the spill is how the Deepwater Horizon Facebook page has become a battleground for political debate.
One user, Doug Anderson, wrote, "We are an industrial nation we need oil or we go back to dirt huts and hunting for food." Another, Jon Raynor, said, "If they didn't drill there in the first place . . . we wouldn't be in this situation. End of story."
Hundreds of other comments reflect worries about the environment, the economy and even the impact of the spill on their lives.
"There have been many good suggestions brought to this site and terrific info shared," wrote Merita Blanchet of Pensacola, Fla. "None of it is being utilized . . . Fingers are being pointed because we are beyond angry!! My shores have oil on them and NO ONE is doing anything around here."
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