Congress slow to grab hold of Google+

Despite the successful and headline-grabbing launch of Google+, only 13 members of the U.S. Senate and 15 members of the U.S. House of Representatives have established profiles on the new social networking site, far fewer than the number from each chamber who are active on Facebook and Twitter.

Google+ launched in July to much fanfare and within three weeks had attracted 20 million users in the U.S. Some technology pundits have labeled it a “Facebook killer.”

Congress’s slow adoption of Google+ comes as a surprise because the new social networking platform contains at least one unique function the others do not: It allows users to segregate relationships into “Circles,” meaning members of Congress can isolate constituents from other followers. Heavy social networking “spam” from non-constituents is a significant frustration for members and their social media staffs.

“Just the other day, someone posted on our Facebook wall that she wished my boss was her senator,” a Hill press secretary told me.

A recent study by the Congressional Management Foundation reports that members of Congress and key staff have embraced social media as a tool to communicate with constituents. But privately, many also complain they receive too much pre-packaged “Astroturf” in the form of canned Tweets and Facebook wall postings. In many cases, these communications come from people far away from the members’ districts or from undetermined locations. Google+ Circles allow members of Congress to target their communications directly to people in the states or districts they represent, while ignoring communications directed at them from people outside their states or districts.

The Circles feature offers additional benefits as well. For example, members can compartmentalize constituents based on the content of their communications. A member could have a Veterans Issues Circle or an Energy and Environment Circle, for example. Circles can also streamline and facilitate press communications. And Circles are by no means the only promising functionality on Google+. So-called “Hangouts” — a native, pushbutton small group video chat feature — could become an alternative to district town hall meetings, which have become made-to-order YouTube set-up moments over the last couple of years.

Nevertheless, one staff member for a Republican U.S. senator told me he was reluctant to dive into Google+ because, “We already have enough difficulty keeping Facebook and Twitter up to date.”

It appears that Google has not yet made a concerted effort to encourage members of Congress to use its new platform. “While Facebook and Twitter appear to actively work with the caucus, Google has made no such effort,” another Republican staffer told me.

Of the senators who have established profiles on Google+, only four appear to use it to reach out to constituents actively: Sens. Bob Casey, Orrin Hatch, Bernie Sanders and Mark Warner.

Only thee House members on Google+ (Reps. Jan Schakowsky, Jared Polis and Kathy Hochul) use it frequently to post and interact with followers. The others have profiles and occasionally update their spaces.