NASA launched its own social network, Spacebook, earlier this year in an attempt to increase interaction among employees and foster more group collaboration. The network, which I describe in detail below, offers several lessons for how news organizations can embrace social media technology to develop a more open and collaborative work environment.

Spacebook, one of the projects presented at the Gov2.0 summit this month, is a secure internal social network that's available only to NASA employees. As the name suggests, Spacebook is patterned after Facebook. The network allows NASA's estimated 18,000 employees, regardless of where they're stationed in the world, to interact and collaborate.

The site gives employees the ability to change their status on their profile pages, share files, friend other NASA employees, follow their friends' activities a la the Facebook news feed, join groups that interest them and more.

Spacebook asks users to list their areas of expertise, which NASA is hoping will make it easier for employees to find colleagues when they need to collaborate or ask questions. Linda Cureton, chief information officer at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center, told the blog Space Marauder that Spacebook is an asset to NASA in this down economy:

" 'With the constraints we've had in hiring and our workforce issues, you want to know who knows what, such as experts on batteries or encryption,' Cureton said. 'There may be certain skills, abilities and talents that exist throughout the center, and you want to be able to tap into that knowledge to know areas of expertise of people.' "

Using an internal network in addition to public social networks

Spacebook isn't just about helping NASA employees collaborate on NASA projects; the service also encourages employees to share their personal interests.

Cureton said on her official NASA blog that chief information officers are required to improve their company's competitive advantage through collaborative technologies such as Facebook and MySpace:

"One of the most amazing things about these Web 2.0 technologies and the greatest value to NASA is the ability to help us create a culture of engagement and collaboration that makes each individual employee much more effective. Engaging the public, harnessing the power of crowds, and open and transparent government ... as my friend Efrain and fav acquisition professional would say ... it's ALL good Poopsie."

NASA has an external presence on Twitter, Facebook and MySpace, and uses these sites to connect with the public and reach a younger audience. In particular, NASA had a lot of success with its MarsPhoenix account on Twitter, which employees used to tweet from the Rover's point of view.

Facebook and Twitter, however, have been used for both the spread of malware (such as trojans and viruses) and phishing scams. By creating a custom, secure social network, NASA was able to more easily get around such security concerns. NASA will continue to use those external social networks to interact with the public, Cureton explained on her blog, while building out Spacebook as an employee tool.

Fostering communication, collaboration among colleagues

While social networks such as Facebook and Twitter have proven to increase interaction among journalists and the public, they may not be the best options to increase interactions among employees. Creating an internal, employee-only social network could help news organizations take better advantage of in-house expertise and create more openness about what people in the newsroom are working on. 

Since news organizations don't have to worry much about letting state secrets slip, a service like Ning might be sufficient for a media outlet to launch a custom social network. Also, most news organizations don't have the technical capacity to create a social network in-house anyway. Ning allows people and corporations to create custom social networks, with little technical expertise needed.

News organizations could benefit from the ability to collaborate easily across different staffs. An in-house social network might make it easier for members of, say, the investigative team, the news team and a Web research and development team to work together on a project. News organizations could also use internal social networks to foster collaboration and communication among bureaus.

An in-house social network could also serve as an in-depth directory, listing information about each employee that might include bureau, beat and such skills as writing, editing, blogging, HTML, CSS, Django, video editing, Flash, etc. This could prove especially helpful for special projects that have multiple people from multiple teams working on them.

For instance, I could be working on a special feature about troops coming home from Iraq, and I may need help with CSS programming and audio editing. I could update my status, and other employees at my news organizations who have those skills could contact me to let me know they can help out.

Many news organizations already have Intranets set up to handle payroll and to disseminate HR and other administrative documents. Some news orgs have also deployed wikis to foster increased collaboration, help keep track of stories and more.

A full-fledged social network similar to Spacebook, however, could help news organizations, particularly larger ones, collaborate even more.